We, and our horses, tend to love our little routines, habits, and daily rhythms that give us a sense of peace, safety, and, yes, sameness to our days. That very sameness, however, may be holding us, and even our horses, back from a more fulfilling, healthy, inspiring version of ourselves. It can also hinder the development of a deeper, more connected relationship with our horses.
There is a lot to be said for consistency when it comes to horses, but that consistency applies mostly to their care (What they eat, how much they get out every week, scheduled vaccinations and dental care), your behavior (Are you the “same human” every time?), and your cueing and reward system (Does a kissing sound always mean “Go”? Is your personal space bubble always the same size?). When it comes to your behavior and cueing/rewarding, it matters not so much how you do it, but that you are consistent about it. A happy horse is one who understands his owner’s behavior and cues, and therefore knows how to avoid pressure by offering up what is expected of him.
That said, an overly same and repetitive rhythm to a horse’s days can lead to boredom, unwillingness, and, worse, sickness. In you, such routines can cause you to lose mindfulness; you may not be paying close attention to how you enforce rules or apply riding cues, and you may have not been keeping a check on your emotional displays. Bad habits may creep up and lead to a breakdown in communication with your horse, which can then make your interactions downright dangerous, if not simply unpleasant and uninspiring for you both.
This is where the concept of getting out of your comfort zone comes in. No matter what your daily routine with your horse is, there are ways to spice it up, push the limits of both your capabilities, and broaden your emotional and mental horizons. The occasional taking on of challenging activities and experiences, those outside your comfort zone, can reap a myriad of benefits to you and your horse, and do wonders for your relationship. The steps you take need not be huge leaps to be useful; the point is to simply push the boundaries of your comfort zone little by little with small tweaks in your routine that don’t put you in harm’s way, but do make you a bit uncomfortable because they are new.
If you normally ride in a ring, you could lead your horse on a walk through nearby trails, or even surrounding neighborhoods to greet cars, dogs, strollers, and little kids that pass by. Expose your horse to foreign moving and immobile objects that she never gets to see when she goes from stall to arena and back.
Let her walk up and smell them, touch them with her nose. Desensitize her with your lead rope if she scares at new objects until she learns to trust her own ability to calm herself down when scared.
If you normally practice dressage with your horse, and getting off the property is too risky a step, you could do some liberty work on the ground. Let him loose without any tack or halters in an enclosed arena, round pen, or smallish paddock. Ask your horse to focus on you, move in the direction you ask, come in when called.
At first the task may seem impossible, but, after a few times, you will begin to believe in miracles, and your horse will believe in you. Your dressage rides? They will improve, guaranteed.
If you are working a young horse or even an older one, add obstacles and challenges to your groundwork and ridden work. Build a pedestal from pallets or old tractor tires. Teach them to stand on all fours on it, or stand on it with their front feet and disengage the hindquarters until they have turned a complete circle without having gotten off the pedestal.
Make a teeter-totter and have fun teaching them to balance on it and swing up, then down. The feeling of accomplishment and the gaining of trust from these exercises is tremendous, and will enrich your communication and relationship with your horse.
If you are always galloping off on the trail, bring him into the ring and work on straightening and collection exercises. Teach him to move his ribcage over while doing serpentines or pole work.
Ask him for lateral flexion as you move out, trot or canter circles with a counter-bend or with hips out, do any kind of new movement that will get his brain synapses and muscle fibers firing in a different way than he is used to. His flexibility, both mental and physical, will increase, and your riding will improve, too!
Get your athletic eventing horse to a team penning class and try your skills at rounding up a calf. You might find she (and you) have a taste for it!
You might also find that she is not as responsive as you thought and might need some extra work with rollbacks or canter departures from a halt. Either way, you will bond with your horse from your shared excitement and curiosity at this new challenge!
By allowing your horse to investigate new activities and a different world than she is used to, you will be given two golden opportunities of discovery: 1) you will be able to discover the hidden talents/likes/dislikes/abilities she and you may have; and 2) you will find which niggling problems/anxieties you have been hiding from each other. (Well, there’s a caveat with the last part of this statement: your horse definitely knows what problems/anxieties you carry with you, but you, yourself, may be unaware of them until they rear their ugly head during one of your new challenges!)
Any hiccups you encounter (your horse balks, you freeze up, your horse wants to bolt or works himself up into a panic) are not to be taken as a failure or a message of “What a mistake this was, I should have stayed in my comfort zone!” Quite the opposite! These moments are like windows that allow you an open view into you and your horse’s deepest fears and emotions, your chance to see who you really are and who he really is and what fears/anxieties each one of you might be holding on to. It’s also your chance to step up and be your horse’s leader by helping him get through his fear and release his anxiety; horses are quite good at letting go if we help them (humans are a bit more stubborn in this area!).
Any negative reactions that arise from the new challenge are not to be taken as misbehavior or cause for regretting this step out of your comfort zone: these reactions are important information that you may have never gleaned had you not pushed yourself and your horse outside the limits of your comfort.
When you find a spot of bother in your horse, this is your opportunity to help clean it up with mindful groundwork in that moment and on later workouts, with a return to foundational ground and ridden exercises á la Warwick Schiller (sort of like taking a trip back to Ray Hunt’s “Square One”, getting that squared away once again before picking up at, say, “Square Nine” where you may have left off).
And now that you found and have worked through that one, persistent, niggling piece of anxiety that was stored up in your horse, you need not worry that it will bubble up in him the next time you canter up to a jump, or encounter a bicycle on the trail. Funny how, once you help your horse empty his “worry cup”, it doesn’t fill up as quickly afterwards.
As for you, well, you may have never realized how terrified you were of losing control when you were riding on the trail, and therefore had been holding on to your horse with a death grip (which only became apparent when you tried something new, like jumping, and almost got yanked off when she jumped forward and your hands didn’t give). You might not have known how intimidating you are to your horse until you tried to work him at liberty in a round pen or arena and he runs and runs away from you ad infinitum. All these little bumps in the road will make you slow down, re-assess yourself and your horse, and, hopefully, take the necessary steps to smooth them out. With practice, any new bump in the road will take less and less work to smooth out. Even a life lived within its comfort zone is not bump-less; better to know how to get through the bumps with grace than to slam into them unprepared.
The beauty of getting out of your comfort zone and successfully moving through a new, previously fear-inducing experience is that stronger mental and emotional muscles will develop in both of you. You and your horse will find yourselves more confident, more open to trying new things, more sure of what you already know. These variations in activities and surroundings will serve to connect the two of you in a deeper way (“We cantered on a loose rein through the forest!” “We survived the fearful teeter-totter!” “We hit the polo ball on the near side!”) and will energize you, helping carry you and him through the more boring and mundane parts of your lives. You will literally begin to think in terms of “we” in your accomplishments, and not so much “I.” Long after your adventures are over, you will both thrum with the thrill of those little victories, he munching now more contentedly on his hay in the stall and you answering your umpteenth email with a smile on your face.
Yes, going on uncomfortable, wacky adventures and coming through them intact will fill you and your horse’s hearts with more and more courage and lead to a rekindling of both your desires to learn new things and improve.
Enthusiasm will creep into your daily interactions, and your horse will be more excited and curious to see you, wondering what interesting challenge you will present her with today. After all, her species has survived because of its ability to face and overcome challenges. Our species’ brains have evolved to be able to push the boundaries of our minds and bodies. These two elements of our genetic evolution predispose us to benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones by trying new things in our human-horse relationship. Every experimental step outside your comfort zone will begin to enlarge it and open up new worlds of personal discovery for both you and your horse.
And in this world you will have sweetly fulfilling “A-ha!” moments when you discovered something new and wonderful about each other or worked through your fears together. After that, your moments of sameness and routine will be all the more pleasing, satisfying, and “Aahh”.