Pushing the Envelope

We’ll never grow if we don’t get out of our comfort zones.

“In our comfort, there’s no room for growth,” Harry Whitney says in reference to working with horses.

Harry’s horsemanship clinics have no more than six riders and typically run a week. The result is that these intimate groups have ample opportunity to probe deeply into their horsemanship abilities and inabilities. The above comment came during a roundtable discussion at one of theses clinics. The group rehashed the previous day’s events, which turned to one fellow’s somewhat timid feelings about firming up his communication skills with his horse.

“In our comfort, there’s no room for growth,” I replayed in my head. My focus slipped to several personal flashbacks: Stepping into a round pen for the first time, the first time I got a horse to canter, getting into the saddle the first time.

Each of these moments signified a huge leap from the safety of a sedentary existence in my routine life. While there was nothing to ensure I wouldn’t be injured or killed, I needed to push out of the stagnating areas of my life and into a realm of new possibilities. Otherwise, I’d begin to suffer consequences from the lack of action, like never getting to the point of riding a horse in the first place.

AQHA’s FREE report Rainy Day Rewards teaches you groundwork exercises that will help your horse relax, be more supple and trust you more.

I won’t lie and say there weren’t wrecks, because there were some real doozies. But, in retrospect, these deviations from the comfortable – with all their worry, angst and bruises – instigated positive changes not only in my horsemanship, but also in my development as a person.

I wondered if this would be the case for my fellow student. New confidence only comes from diving over the line out of the comfort zone and into some other place where new knowledge awaits us. Once on the other side, however, we see it’s not really an abyss. That new experience and knowledge then becomes part of our working repertoire. Nowhere is this more true than with horses. If we want to see a change in them, we must change something in our approach. That’s the tough part.

The great thing about a trustworthy teacher is that he can guide us and help us prepare for what comes next. Still, it is we who must enter the round pen and face the fire-breathing dragon (or very sweet mare, as the case may be). Finding faith within ourselves to step in new directions, especially when it is quite challenging, ultimately helps us build confidence.

Horses are a confidence barometer. In general, they relax when a strong, sure being is present. Uncertainty in a human working with a horse breeds dubious results at best.

My thoughts drifted back to the discussion around the table, which soon wrapped up. Before long, we headed outside to the round pen, and this kindhearted soul longed to nurture a bond with the horse by approaching her nice and easy. Great care was taken to do nothing spooky or harsh. The mare searched for what was being asked of her, clearly willing to do something, but simply not finding it in his requests. She didn’t feel confident about what she was supposed to do, so she half-heartedly did a little bit of whatever she could think of.

He grappled with the situation. I sat there wincing beneath the brim of my straw hat – partly from being in-the-know about his wimpy body position and don’t-rock-the-boat gentleness, and partly because I had been through the very same thing some years earlier.

This time in the round pen, however, he understood the problems he faced with the horse. That morning’s feedback from his classmates and Harry provided new insights for him. The battle was within himself. He sought to find assertiveness, even though he was quite worried that firming up with a horse was a recipe for driving her away, rather than getting her close and willing with him.

At this point, the mare was constantly leaving the scene mentally and floundering about unguided. Clearly not what a rider wants with a mount. The situation required that he firm up with her so she would react in a more trusting way to his requests. Part of this simply has to do with clarity. Wishy-washy, pretty-please requests often appear very convoluted to the horse – and to human onlookers as well.

To firm up, we often are faced with a more precise need to know exactly what we are asking the horse to do. If we ask the horse to back, but have not a clue ourselves how many steps or where we would like the horse to end up, how is the horse ever going to know for sure what we want? The horse can’t possibly know that if we don’t know it ourselves.

The other part has to do with the horse’s belief that we are serious. If the horse doesn’t find us dependable, trustworthy, assertive or consistent, then the confidence he needs to follow and trust is not going to be there.

I could sense this inner turmoil boiling inside my classmate. It was a personal threshold for this young man. Getting bigger with that horse ran counter to his very pacifistic demeanor.

Barn-aisle exercises with AQHA Professional Horseman Brent Graef that you can do on a rainy day: Get AQHA’s FREE report Rainy Day Rewards.

But then he did it.

It may not have looked big to a spectator. It really was just a larger body posture and some assertive energy on the lead rope. But for that guy, it was a huge step. And, for that horse, it was huge. She was a bit shocked at first, but quickly fell into the moves he was clearly asking for.

It really isn’t important to explain exactly what he was asking for at that moment, because this isn’t about trying to create some series of steps for everyone to follow. This is about one problem many of us have, and how I saw someone find the courage to get better with a horse with the help of a skilled teacher. This is about finding that courage and pushing the envelope of our comfort zone so we can grow.

“He lacked confidence because he lacked faith in the outcome,” Harry said. “Then, when he had faith that the outcome would be better, his confidence grew. He just had to go through that uncomfortable phase.”

Visit to see Tom’s books about Harry’s teachings.