The Power of First Impressions


As a result of having a number of family and friends with either brain injuries or developmental delays and disorders, I have become exposed to how our brain works or is damaged. The more exposure I have had, the more curious I have become about any similarities between the horse and the human brain. While there are vast differences (the size of the cerebellum and the horse having virtually no frontal cortex), there are enough similarities to draw some insights from how the human brain functions to that of the horse.

You never get a second chance

to make a first impression.

One of these similarities is the power of first impressions. We have all heard the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” We have all experienced this and realize how accurate it is. We meet someone and instantly have formed an opinion about them. Sometimes we find out we are correct, and other times we discover that our impression was incorrect. Yet, those feelings linger, and only after a long time do they begin to change. Why is that? In a 2016 article in Art of Manliness entitled “Why Your First Impression Matters”, Brett McKay writes that our brain forms a first impression in 1/10 of a second. Not only that, but the article goes on to explain that because of the “primacy effect” (the tendency to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than information that comes later), we trust these impressions, and these impressions will only change after six months of regular contact!

So what does this have to do with the horse? Because our brains are similar, it needs to be emphasized how critical the “start” is. I have noticed how a horse often looks and feels like he is in alert mode when I first handle him. The reason is, his brain is rapidly forming opinions of who I am and what I am doing. If the “primacy effect” carries over to the horse, he will carry this forever. The horse doesn’t reason like us (he doesn’t have a frontal lobe function), but he will remember! If the human, who can reason and make reasonable judgments about another person, struggles to change his first impression, how much harder it is for a horse. If it takes us six months of regular contact to change a first impression, one can only guess how long a horse will take to change his.

This understanding also should provide some insight into why older horses and horses without that professional start struggle so much later on. The fact is, it is almost impossible with a horse to re-wire those first impressions. Because they aren’t able to reason like us, those first impressions are there forever. For example, we can say, “When I met Joe the other day and didn’t really like him, he may have been having a bad day.” The horse can’t do that. I remember an old horseman telling me over 20 years ago, “Paul, whatever you are going to do with them, do it in the first three rides.” The most significant thing in that statement is not to consider it literally, but to understand that the horse is most receptive and impressionable early on.

The more positive and confident they feel at first is generally how their journey with the horseman will go for the duration of their life. You’ll never get a second chance to give that horse a first impression.

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