Most animals have a ‘comfort zone’ – a psychological state in which they they feel safe, calm, and in control during certain life events. Depending on the animal, this could be in a pasture, surrounded by the rest of the herd, on a sunny day. Or it could be alone in the dark, Netflix binging on ‘The Walking Dead’. The size of an animal’s comfort zone depends on a number of factors, such as previous life experiences, genetics, and resiliency.
The tricky thing about comfort zones is that the more time an animal spends there, the smaller it may get. For the person whose comfort zone includes only their daily career (research, alone at a desk) and evenings watching Netflix, being asked to give a spontaneous presentation at 8 am on a Monday to 40 colleagues will likely result in serious psychological discomfort. If the person feigns a sudden flu to avoid speaking and feeling uncomfortable, their comfort zone may shrink.
A horse’s comfort zone can expand. It can also shrink if they never experience anything that causes them to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many horses are put in such situations. This can occur due to owner ignorance about comfort zones, or during training if a trainer believes any discomfort to be bad. Either way, the horse’s ability to cope in life may decrease.
The great thing about comfort zones is that they aren’t set in stone. You can expand your horse’s comfort zone – or your own for that matter – in ways that build trust between you and your horse. And you must.
I feel strongly that if you are responsible for a horse, you are also responsible for developing their resiliency, expanding their comfort zone, and enriching their life. Even if you believe yourself to be that horse’s forever home, situations change, and a horse with a small comfort zone and low resiliency has a hard time coping when thrust into new environments and situations. While providing your horse with full-time access to the 3 F’s of friends, forage and freedom is a great start, it isn’t enough. You have a responsibility to your horse to expand their comfort zone, and provide mental and physical stimulation that is otherwise limited by confinement.
It’s good to think about expanding comfort zones by imagining a bulls-eye.
At its center is the comfort zone. It may be small, as shown here, or it may be large. No matter its size, outside of the comfort zone are a few more zones you need to be aware of: Appropriate Learning Zone (green); Caution Zone (yellow); Manure Has Hit The Fan Zone (red).
If we want to expand a comfort zone we need to step into the Appropriate Learning Zone. This zone is where the learner may feel a little unconfident or unsure, but never – ever – overwhelmed. I’ll talk more about that in Part Two. The US Navy Seals have a great phrase that applies to expanding comfort zones:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For the Navy Seal, this may occur when enduring 20 hours of strenuous exercise after just 4 hours sleep. For our researcher, it could be giving an impromptu speech at 8 am. Either way, by feeling a little uncomfortable during a challenge, each individual is expanding their own Comfort Zone, at their own level.
And here’s where things get tricky when working with horses: the individual learner determines exactly when Comfort Zone has been left. The Navy Seal may feel comfortable giving an impromptu speech (and therefore not stretch their Comfort Zone at all), while the office worker may enter Manure Hit The Fan Zone if made to exercise like the Navy Seal. In both instances, we can get verbal feedback from the humans to determine if the challenge is appropriate or not. While we don’t have the luxury of such verbal feedback from our horses, we can observe and assess their body language to help us determine if the level of challenge is appropriate.
‘Just right’ discomfort: How to choose an appropriate level of discomfort when stretching comfort zones. Too much discomfort: What happens to your horse in Caution Zone, and why entering it should to be avoided during training. When bad training happens to good trainers: What to do if you accidentally set up a training session that puts your horse into Manure Hits The Fan Zone.
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
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True narcolepsy is rare in horses, but sleep deprivation is not.
This video shows an older mare who is sleep deprived, falling into REM sleep while standing. Horses must lay down to achieve REM sleep, and when deprived from doing so it may manifest as the behaviors you see here. Sleep deprivation is harmful to the health of all animals, so it is very important that your horse has the ability to lay down each day, and feels safe to do so.
Horses won't lay down to sleep for a number of reasons such as pain, lack of suitable resting sites, or when they don't feel safe to lay down. It's reported that two factors resulted in this mare not laying down to sleep - the arrival of a new horse, and undiagnosed arthritis pain ... See MoreSee Less
Sleep Disorder Case : Horses require 30mins/day REM sleep. Siri is a 22 year old Arab X mare. Last summer after a new, dominant horse was introduced to the herd, she lost weight and was seen to have frequent episodes of partial collapse, once falling onto her side. The episodes resolved, but a couple of weeks ago the same behaviour was observed again and New Forest Equine Vets were called in to investigate. Collapse in horses is fortunately uncommon, but when it does occur can obviously be hazardous to both horse and handlers. Three types of 'collapsing' are seen in horses; seizures, syncope (fainting) and sleep disorders. Siri underwent a very thorough clinical examination including neurological and musculoskeletal assessments, and had a range of blood tests performed. The most significant findings were; The original association of the behaviour with the arrival of a new field-mate. A low grade right hind lameness, with severe persistent right hind pain with flexion tests. The gradual lowering of the head, before the front legs buckle. We also found a cardiac arrhythmia; Siri has a second degree AV block, but this is a normal finding in horses and would not cause fainting. Siri's condition is a Sleep Disorder. True narcolepsy can occur in horses, and is usually associated with events like grooming or saddling. Siri is most likely suffering from sleep deprivation. Horses require 30 minutes of REM sleep per day and although they can doze standing up, they need to lie down for REM sleep. We expect that when the new dominant herd-mate arrived, Siri was not comfortable to lie down in the field with him. Now she has lameness and finds it painful to flex her right hindlimb, which is likely to be preventing her from wanting to lie down to sleep. She is currently on a bute (pain relief) trial, and her owner has made her a lovely deep stable bed that she is coming into daily to encourage her to lie down – so far, no further collapsing episodes have been seen. A very interesting case and a good reminder of how important it is for horses to feel comfortable, physically and psychologically in their herd/environment, so that they don't miss out on their REM sleep.
3 days ago ·