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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

Expanding Your Horse's Comfort Zone - Part Two

If you haven't read Part One of Expanding Your Horse's Comfort Zone, it's here.

Welcome to part two, where we talk about:

  • ‘Just right’ discomfort: What is 'discomfort'? And how to choose an appropriate level when stretching comfort zones

  • Too much discomfort: What happens to your horse in Manure Hits the Fan Zone, and why it should be avoided during horse training

Discomfort and uncomfortable, for the purposes of this post, don't have to be dirty words. They both just essentially mean 'not comfortable'. After all, we are talking about taking an animal beyond a comfort zone in order to expand that zone.

When I talk about the horse being 'not comfortable', I need to make clear what that looks like. This might make you a bit uncomfortable yourself, because the amount of discomfort needed for a horse to expand a comfort zone might be less than you think. Ready to be like a Navy Seal, and get comfortable with uncomfortable?

Learning performance during horse training

How well an animal can learn in a given situation depends in part on how low or high their arousal level is. Put simply, too low of an arousal level - or too high - is not helpful for learning and performing. To get a better understanding of the effect arousal plays on performance, picture these three scenarios:

It's after supper, Christmas Day. You are listening to your Aunt Edna talk at length about her recent trip to The Pencil Museum in the UK. You struggle to retain any details, let alone stay awake.

After she leaves you sit down to play your favorite Christmas gift, a video game. You quickly find yourself 'in the zone' as you negotiate the ins-and-outs of learning the new game.

Later that night you are woken from a deep sleep by the sound of a fire alarm. Without thinking you leap out of bed, and attempt to escape the smoke-filled bedroom.

In each scenario your arousal level has a direct impact on your ability to retain details and learn. Both too low of an arousal level (Listening to Aunt Edna), and too high (the burning bedroom), will leave you unable to perform well at that video game.

In the smoke filled bedroom your body's sympathetic nervous system also kicks in. The sympathetic nervous system prepares your body to escape what is perceived to be a dangerous situation. You may know it better as the ‘flight or fight’ response. In that smoke-filled bedroom, with your sympathetic nervous system triggered, it would be physically impossible for you to learn the intricacies of the new video game. When a horse is in this state, they will also attempt to escape the perceived threat: by running, pulling away, barging over owners, kicking, striking etc. They may also perform more subtle fear-based behaviors, like fidgeting or freezing. In this state it is physically impossible for them to learn, or do anything other than escape the perceived danger.

The Pitfalls of entering Manure Hit the Fan Zone If during training we cause the horse to experience fear, their sympathetic nervous system will be triggered. This is Manure Hit the Fan zone. It will now be impossible for the horse to learn to negotiate or deal with whatever it is we are presenting. Unfortunately, evidence of horses entering Manure Hit the Fan Zone can be readily seen in horse training videos. In some instances, trainers even promote pushing horses to this zone to deal with a wide range of Comfort Zone issues such as entering trailers, crossing water, or leaving other horses on a trail ride. Viewers may be instructed to push the horse to the point of reaction (showing 'flight or fight' behaviors), and then vigorously move the horse's feet, use 'Leadership', gain 'Respect', or 'make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy' until the horse does what is desired. Taking such approaches may even be successful, which is very rewarding for the person training in this way. The horse may do what it is the person wanted them to do - enter the trailer, cross the creek, or leave the other horses. But why is this? In short, because what the person was doing in that moment was more threatening to the horse than the thing the horse was unsure about initially. In these instances, the horse isn't learning to do anything other than escape the pressure the person is applying - much like the smoke-filled bedroom caused you to desperately search for a way out. Such training approaches don't really expand comfort zones, or develop a horse's resiliency. They simply frighten the horse into the desired behavior- entering the trailer, crossing the creek, leaving the other horses. Such approaches carry a risk for making the horse more anxious about those situations, or even creating new behavior problems. They also are totally unnecessary. So what should 'discomfort' look like, when we take a take a horse from Comfort Zone to Appropriate Learning Zone? 'Attention, not tension.' A horse in Comfort Zone is very relaxed. Very. They could even be drowsy, not engaged with us or the thing that we may wish to help them get comfortable with. Clearly not much learning or Comfort Zone stretching is happening here.

My colleague Dr. Robin Foster has a great phrase which may help you picture Appropriate Learning Zone, 'Attention without tension'. Horses in this zone will be focused on what is presented, without being too relaxed, nor anxious or fearful. If a Comfort Zone threshold involves an object, like a trailer, the horse will be looking at the object, clearly aware it is present, but it will be easy to shift their attention away. Their overall body language will be that of a calm, but pleasantly alert horse - soft muscles, head height at or just above the withers, ears soft and out to the sides or pointing forwards, mouth and eyes free of excess wrinkles, chin soft. Such a horse is in a great place to expand a Comfort Zone. My gelding True, pictured here with a trailer, is a great example of a horse in Appropriate Learning Zone.

Are you surprised by this depiction of 'discomfort', and Appropriate Learning Zone? Does it make you a little uncomfortable? It's pretty different from the picture you might have been told is necessary to expand a Comfort Zone. Any discomfort you feel currently might just be your own Comfort Zone stretching a little. That's OK. As horse trainers it's good to work on expanding our own Comfort Zones too.

While this approach may not be as thrilling to watch, nor is it TV show material, it works. It doesn't trigger the horse's sympathetic nervous system. It makes it possible for the horse to learn in the moment. It creates positive associations for the horse about the trainer and the object or experience stretching the comfort zone. It's much less risky for the person doing the training. It better builds trust between horse and human. And it get's the job done. What more can you ask for when training a horse? Up next, part three, where we talk about:

  • Caution Zone - what does it look like?

  • When bad things happen to good trainers: What to do if you accidentally set up a training session that puts your horse into Manure Hits The Fan Zone.

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