Recently I started following Hertha James, an Australian science teacher and horse trainer. She does an excellent job of breaking down behaviors and explaining processes for those of you new to training. She offers a helpful library and if you want to see what she’s about, there’s a wealth of information on her blog.
This is the link to her post about “Greet and Go”: https://herthamuddyhorse.com/2020/03/27/greet-and-go-how-horses-acknowledge-each-other/
Below is a copy of her article, “Greet and Go.” If you like it and want more, please visit her blog (and tell her I sent you.)
The Greet & Go process is based on how horses who know each other greet upon meeting. In this exercise, the horse can choose to greet us. If he decides not to greet us, nothing happens, so this exercise shows the horse that it is okay to say, ‘No, not right now’. It helps to build trust because the horse gains a sense of control in the situation.
It seems that control over one’s actions is a primary reinforcing element in life, whether one is human or any other critter. A sense of having control is probably strongly related to routine. A sense of well-being arises if we can move, eat/drink, sleep, seek shelter, choose our company (if a gregarious species) according to our daily and seasonal rhythms and our personal preferences.
Any departure from having control about what happens next induces unpleasant stress (‘distress’, as opposed to ‘eustress’, the useful stress involved with learning new things at a rate we can easily absorb). For horses, any sort of containment causes distress because they are adapted for freedom of movement over 24 hours, strong environmental awareness and the ability to flee rapidly if a worrying situation arises.
The more we can allow our horses control over their lives, the better the probability that they will be relatively comfortable in captivity and willing to form working relationships with people.
The human-horse interaction dynamic is always problematic for the horse. By introducing the Greet & Go to every meeting with a horse, we relate to him in a way that acknowledges his reality rather than imposing only our desires.
Greet & Go is an activity done every single time we meet a horse.
The Human Tendency
When I introduce this exercise to people, they invariably want to pat the horse’s face after the horse has politely put his nose on their hand. In terms of horse etiquette, I have the feeling that horses find this distinctly impolite. Most horses dislike it, especially from a stranger.
They often try to move their head away. Some horses have learned to stop people doing this by using their teeth if a warning with the ears is ignored.
As already mentioned, new horses greeting each other often put their foreheads together, check each other’s breath and push to help get the measure of the other horse. I think putting our hand onto the horse’s face might feel to them like a dominating gesture.
The Greet & Go exercise does not include any fondling of the horse’s head or ears.
The Greet & Go exercise is simple but profound. You can do it across a fence or while in with the horse. You approach the horse from the front in a quiet, relaxed, friendly manner and before you quite reach him, you hold out your arm with a lightly curled fist, and invite the horse to touch the back of your hand. Your hand stands in as another horse’s nose. Horses use their noses to explore like we use our hands.
As soon as the horse has touched your hand, which is the Greet, you quietly walk away. Walking away is the Go part of the process. You approach the horse, Greet, then immediately do the opposite, Go, by walking away. You are showing the horse that you respect his space and his place in the universe and in your life. You no longer approach his bubble only when you want to halter him and make him do things.
Horses appreciate the opportunity to greet us politely. The act of turning and walking away (Go) is a neutral act another horse might do, i.e. touch noses and share breath to say hello and then move away to mind his own business because he is secure in the relationship. It shows that neither party is looking for any sort of further interaction or confrontation.
The whole dynamic is like the friendly recognition we give to colleagues as we walk past them at work or when we briefly greet a neighbor out shopping.
Here is an important point that runs through all our interactions with a horse. If the horse comes into our space (our bubble) of his free will, he needs to do so politely. If he’s not polite, it’s fair for us to send him away. If we go into our horse’s space (bubble) we need to do so politely. If we intend to ask him to do something, we need to ask politely, giving the horse time to think about our signal and respond to it.
Do the Greet & Go routine as often as you can during your usual interactions with your horse. Approach the horse from the front offering your outstretched hand. A horse that wants to greet you will put his nose on your hand. As soon as he does, walk away and carry on doing what you were doing. If you clean your own paddocks every day, it is a nice way of recognizing the horse and letting him know it is not time to play clicker games.
If the horse does not want to put his nose on your hand, that’s okay. Go away and carry on what you were doing or go do something else. The horse will appreciate that you understood his feelings at that moment in time.
The greeting is also a good way to begin further contact, such as clicker training, grooming or getting ready for an activity.
If your horse does not want to greet you, you have instant feedback on his mood of the moment and can adjust your plans accordingly.
If the horse does not want to greet you (ignores you or walks off) you can choose to carry on the interaction by walking a loop away from the horse and approaching him again, creating another opportunity to offer your hand. Allowing the horse to say, “No,” without consequences builds his self-confidence.
It may take just a couple of approaches before he is willing to greet you, or it may take more than ten relaxed approaches spread over one or more sessions. Eventually he will. Meanwhile, you are learning how to relax yourself out of frustration.
Relaxing Ourselves out of Frustration
- Pause and turn away from the horse.
- Breathe deeply and slowly, in and out.
- Roll your shoulders slowly until they can stay in a relaxed, down position.
- Gently bend your neck up and down, right and left.
- Stretch both arms straight up and down again – slowly.
- If the situation allows, sit for a while in the horse’s area, watching the clouds, noting your breathing, meditating.
- Walk around the horse’s enclosure, noting specifics. If the horse comes over to you at any point, Greet & Go.
- Breathe while doing all the above.
- Sometimes it is good to quietly finish the session and go away.
The Horse Unwilling to Greet the Human
Horses with unknown histories can have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to greet a person. If you make five or ten approaches every day and they are all rejected, keep a written log. At some point, it will happen. Celebrate quietly and Go away. If you feed hay, offer to Greet & Go before you put down the hay.
Remember, horses have all day every day. If you have the time and good humor to persist, the horse will eventually greet you. A treat offered after the greeting (put on the ground if the horse does not accept food from your hand) can amplify the importance of your offer to greet.