Your Horse has a Comfort Zone too!!
Oh not comfort zones again I hear you say!!! Yes Lyla we all know that we have to get out of our comfort zone to learn something - seen the diagram a million times!!!
OK, so that’s great but what about your horse? He’s learning too, does he need to get out of his comfort zone?
This might not be a very popular theory but the truth of the matter is that for your horse to learn something new he needs to get out of his comfort zone as well. To train the horse well we need to minimise any stress as much as we possibly can and encourage the horses natural curiosity and enthusiasm where possible.
Minimising stress 😬
Depending on the training scenario the first and in my view most important thing we can do to minimise stress is to make sure that the horse is physically capable of what we are asking. Directly relating to this is that our equipment (saddle, bridle etc) fits properly.
So many training problems come about because horses are in pain or discomfort and they trying to tell us in the only way they know how. If we don’t listen then they have no choice but to shout! 🐎
Assuming that this is taken care of then the next way we minimise stress for the horse is to break things down into manageable steps, understand each step in the process and don’t expect too much too soon 1️⃣2️⃣3️⃣🤓
Let’s take a horses first saddling experience as an example. This is a potentially stressful event for a young horse as he won’t be used to having something strapped to his back and round his barrel.
So how do we break it down into easy stages? 🧐
If it hasn’t already been done then I usually start by having the young horse wear a rug for a week or so prior to saddling. This gets them used to having something attached to them that follows them wherever they go! 😱
From here I would get them used to me holding a soft rope around their middle. I wouldn’t tie it so I can easily slide it off if the horse get’s worried but play around with it, make it a little tighter or looser, move it around and hold it while they walk around me so they get used to the feeling of something all they way round their barrel.
Then I progress to a roller, then roller and saddle pad (a bareback pad also works for this stage if you have one) then to a full saddle, stirrups up, then stirrups down. I make sure that the horse is relaxed in walk, trot and canter with each step before moving on to the next. Making sure that the horse is happy in all gaits at each step means that you shouldn’t end up with a problem because of built up tension.
Encouraging the horses natural curiosity
If you take the time to help the horse get over their fear and skepticism they can become naturally curious. This is a brilliant stage to get to as it really is a sign that they are becoming confident as they will start to investigate 👀
In trailer loading this is often when they will start to nose around the trailer, paw at the ramp to make sure it’s safe, look for scraps of food on the floor or wobble the partitions! At first this stage is tentative and it’s easy to scare them again, you’ll often see them sniff at something and jump back away from it ‘in case it bites them’! As they become more confident progress will be faster as they get nosy about what’s in the trailer 👃
I always like to have a net of hay tied in the trailer during loading sessions as it functions as it’s own reward once they get in. At first, horses will often take a quick bite then run back out again! The comfort zone has expanded but still isn’t quite ‘comfortable’.
As long as you don’t try to rush it and lock them in at this stage, it doesn’t take long for them to decide that they can stay up there and keep eating.
If you take things at a steady pace, expanding your horses comfort zone step by step and encouraging him to become curious, you will continue to build your horses confidence both in you and the world around him.
Don’t worry if you take it too quickly at any point. The Dressage Master Walter Zettl had a wonderful saying ‘Go to the line and not over it’. It’s just that sometimes you have to go over it to work out where it is!! Just go back to the previous step and build your horses confidence again.
Horses are very forgiving of our mistakes - thank goodness if you apply these principles to what you are teaching your horse then you will continue to make progress towards your goal.
Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.
If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on email@example.com
Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.
Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.
All training techniques discussed are from experience only, it is impossible for to accurately advise on horse/rider combinations without seeing them live. Lyla Cansfield & Equine Mind & Body Training strongly advise anyone considering using any of the techniques discussed to get live help and can take no responsibility for the outcome of applying any of the techniques discussed without supervision. Riding is a high risk sport.