I have a six-year-old son, and it is not unusual to be deep in bill-paying mode (not the happiest of places, anyway) when a Lego structure in some disrepair arrives, along with a request to help fix it. Now, I was not born with the Lego gene—it takes me bright light, a pair of glasses, and some contemplative time before I can rectify any play-induced casualties. If my son puts on the pressure to fix it more quickly, panic sets in, and I get defensive and a little grumpy (remember, I was negotiating the fine line between “in the black” and “in the red” when this new challenge arrived, anyway), and if pushed further, I may even flee the scene completely, calling in backup in the form of “Dad.”
According to horse trainer and founder of The International Horse Agility Club Vanessa Bee, we don’t actually learn anything in our “comfort zone” (the place where I am not faced with bills to pay in addition to Lego-related conundrums); we have to step out of that cozy place into what’s called the “learning zone” (side by side with my son on the floor surrounded by hundreds of tiny, colorful, plastic bricks).
“But this discomfort doesn’t need to be painful,” reassures Bee in her new book OVER, UNDER, THROUGH: OBSTACLE TRAINING FOR HORSES, “just a little feeling of wanting to solve the problem that’s causing the discomfort so we can get back into the place we’re comfortable again.
“That’s all any of us are trying to do: solve problems to make life more comfortable, including horses,” she goes on. “Unfortunately we often aren’t too good at reading the body language of a horse that is trying to solve a problem and we go on piling on the pressure while he’s trying to think.
“Bothering a horse when he is in this ‘thinking state’ is like someone asking you questions while you’re on the phone trying to sort out an unpaid electric bill. You’re under pressure already because you have the anxiety of losing your electricity and someone else is demanding even more from you. Eventually you will snap. This is where you have moved into the ‘flight’ zone: you do and say things often out of character. All you want to do is sort the problem at hand and make life comfortable again. Once you’re in the flight zone you aren’t thinking, you just want to run away to a place where there is no pressure.
“If we put this in a horse context, let’s say someone is riding along the road, her horse is relaxed and easy until suddenly he spots a plastic bag caught in the bushes. He stops and tries to work out what it is. What happens if, without a moment’s hesitation, the rider starts kicking and pushing, piling more pressure on the horse to get past that bag? He’ll go into the flight mode because he feels under threat and just wants to get somewhere safe, and that’s probably home. When he’s able to move his feet that’s where he’ll go, but if he’s held by the rider, he may buck, rear, or spin to try and get back to where he feels safe.”
So…our horses need time to turn on the light, put on their glasses, and think when they are in a position that is outside their comfort zone. We need to learn what our horses look like when they are thinking, how they appear when they are trying to work out internally whether they should run or stay.
“That is the moment,” emphasizes Bee, “to just leave him alone and give him space to learn.”
OVER, UNDER, THROUGH: OBSTACLE TRAINING FOR HORSES is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE to order in time for the holidays and give horses everywhere the gift of “Thinking Space.”
–Rebecca M. Didier, Senior Editor
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs for 30 years, is a small business located on a farm in rural Vermont. Legos are entertaining, educational, and make fabulous gifts—check them out at Lego.com.