What Is Your Horse’s Comfort Zone?
Most animals have a ‘comfort zone’ – a psychological state in which they they feel safe, calm, and in control during certain life events. Depending on the animal, this could be in a pasture, surrounded by the rest of the herd, on a sunny day. Or it could be alone in the dark, Netflix binging on ‘The Walking Dead’. The size of an animal’s comfort zone depends on a number of factors, such as previous life experiences, genetics, and resiliency.
The tricky thing about comfort zones is that the more time an animal spends there, the smaller it may get. For the person whose comfort zone includes only their daily career (research, alone at a desk) and evenings watching Netflix, being asked to give a spontaneous presentation at 8 am on a Monday to 40 colleagues will likely result in serious psychological discomfort. If the person feigns a sudden flu to avoid speaking and feeling uncomfortable, their comfort zone may shrink.
A horse’s comfort zone can expand. It can also shrink if they never experience anything that causes them to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many horses are put in such situations. This can occur due to owner ignorance about comfort zones, or during training if a trainer believes any discomfort to be bad. Either way, the horse’s ability to cope in life may decrease.
Why You Must Expand Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
The great thing about comfort zones is that they aren’t set in stone. You can expand your horse’s comfort zone – or your own for that matter – in ways that build trust between you and your horse. And you must.
I feel strongly that if you are responsible for a horse, you are also responsible for developing their resiliency, expanding their comfort zone, and enriching their life. Even if you believe yourself to be that horse’s forever home, situations change, and a horse with a small comfort zone and low resiliency has a hard time coping when thrust into new environments and situations. While providing your horse with full-time access to the 3 F’s of friends, forage and freedom is a great start, it isn’t enough. You have a responsibility to your horse to expand their comfort zone, and provide mental and physical stimulation that is otherwise limited by confinement.
How To Expand Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
It’s good to think about expanding comfort zones by imagining a bulls-eye.
At its center is the comfort zone. It may be small, as shown here, or it may be large. No matter its size, outside of the comfort zone are a few more zones you need to be aware of: Appropriate Learning Zone (green); Caution Zone (yellow); Manure Has Hit The Fan Zone (red).
If we want to expand a comfort zone we need to step into the Appropriate Learning Zone. This zone is where the learner may feel a little unconfident or unsure, but never – ever – overwhelmed. I’ll talk more about that in Part Two. The US Navy Seals have a great phrase that applies to expanding comfort zones:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For the Navy Seal, this may occur when enduring 20 hours of strenuous exercise after just 4 hours sleep. For our researcher, it could be giving an impromptu speech at 8 am. Either way, by feeling a little uncomfortable during a challenge, each individual is expanding their own Comfort Zone, at their own level.
Determining Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
And here’s where things get tricky when working with horses: the individual learner determines exactly when Comfort Zone has been left. The Navy Seal may feel comfortable giving an impromptu speech (and therefore not stretch their Comfort Zone at all), while the office worker may enter Manure Hit The Fan Zone if made to exercise like the Navy Seal. In both instances, we can get verbal feedback from the humans to determine if the challenge is appropriate or not. While we don’t have the luxury of such verbal feedback from our horses, we can observe and assess their body language to help us determine if the level of challenge is appropriate.
Up next in Part Two:
‘Just right’ discomfort: How to choose an appropriate level of discomfort when stretching comfort zones. Too much discomfort: What happens to your horse in Caution Zone, and why entering it should to be avoided during training. When bad training happens to good trainers: What to do if you accidentally set up a training session that puts your horse into Manure Hits The Fan Zone.