When training your horse to become comfortable with new objects and in new places and situations, the goal, says Vanessa Bee, author of the bestselling books 3-MINUTE HORSEMANSHIP and THE HORSE AGILITY HANDBOOK, is to get him just outside his comfort zone when introducing slightly scary scenarios (note the emphasis on slightly!), but not so far out that he’d rather leave than stay with you.
“Once the horse is frightened to the point where he is leaping about, you’ve done too much,” Vanessa says. “Never push the horse to the point where he has to flee.”
Once the horse’s flight instinct is involved, all he can think about is survival, and he is no longer in a state where he can learn.
Vanessa explains that the psychology of this is easy to understand if you pretend you are a tourist on a trip to a foreign land. Here’s how she describes it using a human analogy in THE HORSE AGILITY HANDBOOK:
THE STORY OF A TOURIST IN A FOREIGN LAND
On Day One, the plane lands at the airport and you manage to get a taxi to your hotel (something you’ve done before on other trips); there a porter takes you to your room. Once in your room, you immediately create a “home away from home” by unpacking and putting your bits and pieces around. You feel safe in that space and it becomes part of your comfort zone; however, you will not learn anything about this place you have never been before from the safety of that room. You now need to leave it to learn.
So, after unpacking you head down to the bar and dining room for a bit of refreshment. You leave your new comfort zone and weave through the unknown corridors of the hotel—you are now in your learning zone but feel fairly confident because at any time you can return to your room.
After a good meal and maybe a glass of wine you soon feel relaxed in the dining room, too: You return to your room quite confident that venturing out to find breakfast in the morning will be easy. Your comfort zone has “stretched.”
After breakfast you decide to go for a swim. Again you leave the comfort zone to find the pool and figure out how it all works. (Do you need to put a towel on one of the lounge chairs at daybreak to reserve it?) By the end of Day Two you are totally at home within the hotel environs—your comfort zone has “stretched” to include the whole area.
But let’s say on Day Three you decide to catch a bus outside the hotel and go to the beach. After a while you become aware that you are not on the right bus and that it is heading for the “wrong” side of town. Perhaps there are some fairly tough-looking individuals on the bus. You are now not only out of your comfort zone, you’re also headed out of the learning zone and entering the fear zone. You do not learn anything when you are in the fear zone—you are in flight mode, and your sole aim is survival.
Where do you want to get back to? The comfort zone, of course, and once there you will quickly calm down and feel safe again. The further you perceive yourself to be from your comfort zone (in other words, the greater the pressure), the greater the wish to return to it. You may well reach a point of being ready to do just about anything to get back there.
Keep this story in mind when working with your horse and introducing him to new or challenging situations:
- Make new introductions gradually—think taxi, to hotel room, to hotel restaurant, to hotel pool before catching public transportation and trying to find the beach.
- And, if you do sense you and your horse are on the wrong bus and he is on his way to the fear zone, calmly and quickly get him back to where he’s comfortable. And take some downtime poolside before trying to get to the beach again!