Beyond the comfort zone - Learning to read your horse

education Aug 15, 2017
 

Beyond the comfort zone

By David Mellor

One of the biggest ideas for horse training is understanding the horses own thresholds.

What does the horse cope with? Physically this could mean the horse can handle dogs, bikes & small children. But doesn’t cope with loud noises and flapping bags. Knowing this can help you keep yourself safe because you can avoid these specific situations.

But what about the psychological & emotions? How does a horse handle pressure?

What sorts of thoughts and emotions is the horse having and do they change with different situations.

One idea I was taught was the idea of zones. A lot of us maybe familiar with the idea of a ‘comfort zone.’ To me this means in a specific area the horse is calm, relaxed and doesn’t feel threatened. They can think, listen to you and responds in a positive way. I call this the comfort zone. Mentally your horse is in a place that they feel safe, relaxed and are under minimal pressure both physically and mentally.

Now outside this is an area I would describe as the discomfort or uncomfortable zone. This is the learning zone. The horse has to think, take on new ideas. They have to put effort into this. It’s not as easy as just standing there and eating grass. So the learning is somewhere mentally they can visit, but can’t stay there too long.

Finally, outside the learning zone is the danger zone. I also call this the ‘I can’t cope’ zone, because this is where people and horses get hurt. This is when the horse can’t cope, can’t think and goes into survival mode. The bucking, bolting, kicking and rearing are usually all physical actions that a horse will do to save its life. This doesn’t mean that the horse was actually going to be hurt or die, but the horse feels like it was. You can’t reason or train a horse when mentally it is in this zone all you can do is survive.

So from a training view point I look at it this way. I need to establish a comfort zone with my horse. If I am working with a young, green or ‘wild’ horse then this can be very difficult and may take a lot of time. Overcoming the horse’s innate fear of us as predators is fundamental to developing a good working relationship with any animal. With our regular working horses most people own, this is not such a big issue. But it’s important to understand where your horse is at emotionally. In the paddock with his friends, eating food, the horse is in his comfort zone. He feels safe, secure and acts accordingly.

Now you take that same horse away from the paddock, walk him out the back where he can’t see his friends. It’s just you and him. Now we notice a change. As you start to lead him away he may become more tense, start calling out, the agitation levels are increasing.

The further you walk away the worse he becomes.

Mentally we have moved the horse from an area where he perceived that he was safe and taken him into an area where he isn’t so happy. If we were able to keep him from escalating then hopefully the horse might learn to cope being separated from his herd. If on the other hand we kept walking, taking the horse further away and his behavior continued to escalate we might be presented with a horse that is fighting and kicking out all in a desperate attempt to get back to the herd. His comfort zone.

If the horse becomes like this then it’s impossible to teach them anything. Our life may not be in danger but the horse isn’t going to learn in this emotional state.

The smart plan is to read the horse. Realize that the horse has moved from comfort to discomfort. He is worried but still coping. He is still in a place mentally that he can listen to you and respond. If you kept leading him away eventually he won’t be able to cope, and may go into survival mode. Now all we can do is try to keep control of the horse and ensure neither ourselves or the horse is injured.

So how do we use this idea in a regular training? First ensure your horse has a comfort zone. Just observe your horse. Look where he is calm, who is he with. Usually it will be in his paddock in close proximity to the other horse/animals. Now when you catch and lead him away start to pay close attention to his behavior. That calmness he had before, at what point does it change? Start to get really observant. Look at the breathing, the tightness in the eye. The pace & rhythm of the horse as you lead it. Being able to recognize these changes tells you a lot about the horse’s emotional state and what it is thinking.

We want the horse to be having good thoughts.

Thoughts of ‘I can,’ ‘I will.’  Not thoughts of ‘No’ or ’I can’t.’

Now once you have moved the horse into the area you planning on working them in, again make a decision on the emotional state. If you are in the arena is the horse as calm and relaxed as it was in the paddock? Maybe yes, maybe no. If the answer is no, then my first goal would be to try to help the horse relax back to that state. Because if the horse isn’t in that calm or safe zone then we know where they are, it’s the discomfort zone.

So before you even start to try to teach them something the horse is already uncomfortable. You have no way of giving comfort by taking the pressure off except by moving back to paddock or the horses comfort zone.

If we fail to recognize this then we proceed to start to ‘train’ or educate our horse. Unfortunately the horse becomes more worried and more agitated as we go along. He gets stronger, we get stronger to match him and keep control. Before you know it the horse is crazy, we are crying and it’s all a failure. Why?

Because we failed to recognize where our horse was emotionally. We took the horse from his comfort zone, into the learning zone. We failed to recognize that he was in the learning zone and pushed him mentally into the survival mode. The horse acted up, we disciplined him for acting up and we call it a bad day.

The final point of this story is in the beginning the comfort zone will be a physical location or area. When your horse is in his paddock by the gate with the red horse, then you would say your horse is in his comfort zone by looking at his body language.

Now as you start to work with the horse your goal would be to somehow transfer the calm emotional state your horse has to a specific location to being with you. We need to become our horses comfort zone. We need the horse to feel safe and secure with us. The horse already gets that from the herd, and the herd leader. Your horse will actively relax and become calmer around the herd and worse when taken away regardless of whether we are there or not. If we could change that. If we could have the horse hook onto us in that same way then you would be able to teach your horse at twice the speed and nothing would be too difficult. Unfortunately this is very rare.

 

For me this is the foundation aspect of Horsemanship. Using the Natural Horsemanship techniques to develop this connection is mandatory if we ever want to build something on top of this. Having a strong emotional bond. Developing the leadership which leads into trust and respect will allow you to be able to teach your horse new ideas without the horse going into survival mode. We need a big buffer between coping and not coping. For some horses this edge is very narrow. Others there is a lot more room between the two. Knowing this with your horse will go a long way to keeping you safe.

 

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