"To stress or not to stress?" That is the controversial question.
Good stress and comfort zones
As humans, when we hear the word “stress” we hear “too much stress”. The reality is stress is motivating and necessary for us to function. Anything that is done repetitively and fatigues us is stressful, exercise is stressful. The physical aspects of stress are very obvious and are used by athletes to develop themselves for their future performance. We understand how to train our bodies to become fitter and accept more and more stress and we also understand what happens when we over-stress our bodies and they break down.
With horses we also have a good understanding of training them physically, but lack an understanding of how to develop mental fitness and this is often the missing link in people’s training programmes. What that often requires is a degree of mental stress, just like physical development, but not so much stress that they go into "fight or flight". What we want is to take them out of their comfort zone, but not so far out that they can’t learn. It is a very delicate balance and many of the the great horsemen and women are masters at knowing where those edges are. The great news is that science is now beginning to help explain what the old masters knew through experience. These are exciting times to be involved with horses.
Every horse has comfort zones and these can be different for different situations. As the name suggests, inside the comfort zone there is little or no stress. The danger is that we try to keep our horses in this place of no stress, and no stress means no learning and eventually the comfort zone begins to shrink. Gradually we can’t ride in the arena when it’s windy, we can’t ride in that spooky corner etc and over time that horse becomes more and more sensitive to changes in its environment. What we actually want to do is the opposite - expand the comfort zone.
The learning zone
As we come out of the comfort zone we enter what is loosely described as the “learning zone” and beyond that is the area called many things - “the panic zone’, “the wilderness”, “the flight or fight zone”. Within that area there is no good quality of learning taking place.
We want to be able to take our horses out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone where there is enough stress or stimulation to cause the brain to open up to its optimal learning state. We then want to return back to the comfort zone to allow the learning to be cemented - advance and retreat.
The good news is that they are already programmed to try to return to their comfort zone, to rest and digest, through a process called homeostasis; the need to return to a steady state.
When a horse approaches the state of “fight or flight” its neurological state and body chemistry go from being in “rest and digest” governed by its parasympathetic nervous system to “fight or flight” governed by its sympathetic nervous system. This leads to changes in its neurochemistry as adrenaline is released. After a horse finds a release of pressure his body chemistry begins to return to normal from this heightened state. As this happens you will see changes happening; they may drop their head, blink rapidly and then lick and chew.
Licking and chewing is often the behaviour that people recognise as being associated with a horse “processing” or “relaxing”. It is actually a good indicator that the horse is returning to a more relaxed state, but it is not necessarily there yet. Just on its way. As a horse prepares for fight or flight it no longer requires certain bodily functions, eating being one of them, so it stops producing saliva. As it returns to “rest and digest” the salivary glands switch back on and a horse licks and chews.
It is the return to the parasympathetic nervous system that also causes a release of the “save” chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is associated with reward-seeking behaviour, it is the “feel good” chemical that is released when a problem is solved and causes new neurological pathways to be formed. If you allow him time, you will see other indicators that a horse is resetting its nervous system; its eyes may be half closed with rapidly fluttering eyelids, small erratic head nods, yawning, pawing the ground, rubbing its nose on its leg or rolling.
Expanding the comfort zone
Through repeatedly taking your horse out of his comfort zone and back in again, and out and in, his comfort zone will gradually expand as new neural pathways for new behaviours are laid down and pretty soon what once was outside the comfort zone is now no longer stressful and what was in the panic zone is now in the learning zone.
Find out more at The Connected Horse Course.