Comfort zones are a survival mechanism for horses.
If they aren’t familiar with something they become wary, putting them just outside their comfort zone into a ‘not too sure’ zone.
When they become truly afraid for their survival, they go into their ‘Oh no I’m in danger’ zone where they act instinctively without thinking.
This sort of reaction is what gets people and horses scared, hurt and unable to learn.
It is also described as the horse being ‘right brained’ and the following behaviours are some examples of a horse in it’s ‘oh no I’m in danger’ zone: bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking, striking, charging, pulling back, shying and other reactionary behaviours.
So what is a comfort zone?
Essentially a comfort zone is something familiar enough for the horse to feel safe, whether that is a physical, mental or emotional space.
An example of a physical comfort zone would be a space such as it’s yard,field or paddock.
If the horse has been taught to accept them, a halter, saddle or blanket can be a physical comfort zone too.
A mental comfort zone would be a task the horse is familiar with such as lifting its legs for hoof cleaning/trimming, backing, leading or any learned task it is comfortable doing in a relaxed manner.
An emotional comfort zone is something the horse feels good about like a foal nursing from its dam, a horse finding safety in the herd, mutual grooming and eating.
As a horse develops, so do its comfort zones.
Foals very quickly learn that their dam is the most important comfort zone, providing safety and food.
Then they learn that their immediate environment is a comfort zone as they become familiar with the area they’re in, whether that be a small paddock or a huge range to run wild in.
When they are introduced to people, they need to learn many more things that eventually become comfort zones, including the people themselves. That is why a foal or young horses will be comfortable around people it knows (its main handler) but be scared or worried when it meets new people.
Our role is to gradually expand a horse’s comfort zones so it can handle most things that it will encounter in its life with us, and be happy.
This starts with gaining the horse’s trust, then moves onto coping with restraint, and progresses to tasks like leading, grooming, hoof trimming, being wormed, going on a trailer and eventually being ridden.
It also encompasses simple (to us) things like leaving its mother or herd, leaving its paddock, going into a stable, walking on different surfaces and through water.
While educating our horses we are constantly working on expanding their comfort zones.
This should be done using approach and retreat, and by listening to the horse to find out where the edge of their comfort zone is.
They will generally tell you by showing fear or resistance, although if you look for more subtle signs that come beforehand you will see the head raise, muscles and mouth tighten, ears go back or flick forwards and backwards rapidly. Some horses will just freeze or hesitate to respond.
For example, a horse unfamiliar with going into a horse trailer will want to smell it and test it out by pawing first, then if that produces a loud noise, the horse may be fearful and back off the ramp very quickly.
But once it has done this a number of times (approach and retreat), it starts to accept the noise and the feel of the ramp, and can make progress towards going in the trailer – expanding its comfort zone.
We can help that process by not forcing the horse to stay in something it’s fearful of, whether that is a trailer, a stall or a even a part of the arena you ride in.
By allowing the horse to approach and retreat as many times as necessary for their trust to develop, you can stretch the comfort zone to include that originally fearful space. It can additionally help to reinforce that space as a comfort zone by feeding the horse there or doing something else pleasurable and relaxing like grooming, massaging or just resting.
After many repetitions the horse then accepts the space as a part of its comfort zone.
When you are doing anything at all with your horse, ask yourself which comfort zones are you expanding?
If it is more than one, then you may find it harder to make progress.
For instance, taking the horse away from its mates (when its not used to that) and trying to teach it a new task such as being hosed in the wash bay, is actually working on the emotional (leaving its mates), the physical (going into the wash bay) and the mental (coping with a new sensation of water being hosed on it).
It would be easier for the horse to learn about each one of those things individually first before putting all three together.
So, it would be best to introduce the hosing in a less confined space and if possible in the area the horse lives, while it has a friend for company.
Then you could take it to the wash bay and walk it in and out several times before feeding it there while the friend is nearby, followed by introducing the hose while in the wash bay.
Then you would work on having the horse cope with leaving the herd to eat its food in areas approaching the wash bay and finally being in the wash bay alone, before trying the hosing again.
It may take hours or weeks depending on the horse and its past experiences – and its up to us to let the horse tell us when it reaches the edge of any one of its comfort zones so we can retreat and gain trust, before approaching the fearful situation again.
One of the quickest ways of destroying a horse’s confidence, and getting into a physical battle, is to take your horse out of its comfort zone and try to keep it there.
This is like throwing a child in the deep end of the swimming pool and expecting it to swim – it’s called a ‘sink or swim situation’.
Most often the horse ‘sinks’ and then you have just programmed in a fearful response to whatever you were doing – something that will take many more attempts at gaining trust to overcome.
Horses never forget – they will store that experience in their memory forever to surface again when a similar situation occurs, like when a horse has a bad experience with being wormed or with a particular farrier.
It will always show fear and resistance when that situation occurs again.
Its far better to teach positive responses in the horse, which means being very aware of comfort zones, listening to the horse telling you when its approaching the edge, and backing off rather than entering a fight.
This means we need to let go of our ego as it’s a natural instinct for humans to make progress by entering a fight and coming out the victor at all costs.
“Don’t let the horse beat you” is a common saying that would ideally be replaced by “use your brains, not your muscle” for a much happier outcome.
To read more about applying the use of comfort zones to your horsemanship, read the excellent E-Book, ‘Bobby’s Diaries’ by Jenny Pearce, available from the Natural Horse World Store.