The Comfort Zone Model was developed by human psychologists and has a powerful application when working with horses. The model is for both building internal confidence and for skill development. The premise is about recognizing three primary zones from which we tend to operate:
- The Comfort Zone – Activities, locations or learned skills where we feel safe, “comfortable” and proficient.
- The Not-Too-Sure Zone – Activities, locations or new learning where we are challenged, “stretched” and not yet competent. We feel safe, but also feel challenged.
- Fear & Chaos Zone – Activities, locations or trying new skills that cause defensive, “fear reactions” and a loss of rational thinking abilities.
So how does The Comfort Zone Model apply to the horse/rider relationship?
Every rider (and horse) will begin with a unique amount of confidence and proficiency that defines the “size” of the Comfort Zone. This zone represents where both rider and horse feel entirely confident, comfortable and safe. In the Comfort Zone we may even feel a bit bored or our horses seem bored. We have to feel entirely safe in order to feel bored, so boredom is not always a bad thing.
For a person new to horses the Comfort Zone may be very small; catching a horse, leading and grooming may be the only activities that feel 100% safe and easy. For a more experienced rider the Comfort Zone may include walk, trot, canter under saddle and or even galloping cross-country. Internally, only you know your own Comfort Zone in any given situation because you feel calm and confident on the inside. You know when the horse is in its Comfort Zone because the horse feels calm, willing and voluntarily attentive to the rider, from the inside out.
As calmness, confidence or proficiency start to become challenged in any situation, either the horse or rider are entering the Not-Too-Sure Zone.
The Not-Too-Sure Zone is where learning or “stretching” occurs. Things are manageable, but a challenge has come up that requires more effort, more self control and more awareness. A horse or rider will feel challenged, but not fearful. A novice rider slips quickly into this next zone because the Comfort Zone is small. An experienced rider still has a Not-Too-Sure Zone but it will take a bigger challenge to get into the Not-Too-Sure Zone because the Comfort Zone is larger. Less experienced or less confident horses will tend to slip into the Not-Too-Sure Zone quickly and in more situations than an experienced or confident horse.
Outside of the Not-Too-Sure Zone is Fear & Chaos.
Every horse and rider will eventually face a situation that inspires fear. Some just arrive there sooner than others, meaning some will be able to handle more stress than others. When a rider pushes too far through the Not-Too-Sure Zone, fear can take over and chaos will reign. Once the level of fear is reached, the rider (or horse) will no longer be able to think rationally and will resort to instinct, using flight, fight or freeze behaviors in an attempt to restore a sense of safety.
Getting into the Fear & Chaos Zone is bad for both rider and horse and breaks down trust. Riders will revert to predator instincts and horses revert to prey instincts. Both will intuitively clash and the situation can become incredibly unsafe.
Instead of having to cope with the dangers of Fear & Chaos, the rider always has the choice to retreat back to the Comfort Zone when the Not-Too-Sure Zone is burgeoning on the edge of Fear & Chaos.
This doesn’t mean that the rider or horse never leaves the Comfort Zone. Both must leave it and visit the Not-Too-Sure Zone often in order to learn and eventually expand the current Comfort Zone. However, no one ever NEEDS to go all the way into Fear & Chaos to become proficient or learn new skills. Pushing a horse into Fear & Chaos actually shrinks the horse’s Comfort Zone, meaning the horse can do less and less with calm confidence. Trusting our own judgment and utilizing powers of observation to avoid the Fear & Chaos Zone for the horse is the best safety device available. Being willing to negotiate with a horse, taking the horse back to its Comfort Zone as needed, and then taking a fresh start into the Not-Too-Sure Zone, while avoiding Fear & Chaos, proves to the horse that we have its best interest in mind.
The process of expanding a personal Comfort Zone never ends. Continuously accepting your current Comfort Zone as a simple fact and then venturing purposefully into the Not-Too-Sure Zone and back into the Comfort Zone as needed, allows a systematic expansion of the Comfort Zone.
Venturing into Fear & Chaos too often will actually shrink the Comfort Zone.
No matter how large or small the original Comfort Zone is in the beginning, by taking on small, manageable challenges and avoiding the black hole of Fear & Chaos, you can build comfort and proficiency with a huge variety of skills. Your ability to experience emotions is your guide to finding the boundaries of your Comfort Zone in any situation. Be honest about what you feel comfortable with and what you are not-too-sure about and respect it. From there you can move forward safely and successfully. Becoming aware of where your horse’s boundaries are for each zone and avoiding Fear & Chaos creates win/win outcomes. The horse will begin to trust your judgment as a competent and compassionate leader and the horse will be able to do more and more while feeling calm and competent as the Comfort Zone expands.