As the minutes spent in the saddle tick by, we all get trapped in repeating habits.

What equestrians may not know about these repeating habits is that 1) they often don’t recognize them and 2) they shape what you can and can’t do. We become comfortable with these behaviors and, if we fail to acknowledge them, they end up running the show.

Most people are familiar with the traditional idea of “comfort zone”: the space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It’s a comfortable place where we aren’t threatened, everything always stays relatively the same, and that offers mental security.

It’s also a place that limits your progress—most riders maintain a “comfort zone” that is often below where they are capable of riding.

The comfort zone explained

There’s a lot of science that highlights why it’s so challenging to break out of your comfort zone, and why it’s good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your comfort zone in the ring…and this will lead to rewarding improvement in your riding.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson showed that a state of comfort created a steady level of performance. They also highlighted that if you want to increase your performance, a state of relative anxiety is needed—a place where stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This is called Optimal Anxiety and it’s beyond your comfort zone. Further, they also showed that too much anxiety can produce too much stress, leading to performance drop-offs. So, finding the right balance for you in your riding is key.

You are not alone in the quest to expand your comfort zone. The leading professional riders and other athletes I work with daily are constantly working to grow their comfort zone and find the place leading to higher performance. If you’d like to become a better rider and see improvement, finding your own approach to grow your comfort zone is an important exercise for you too.

The riding treadmill

Let me give you an example of my first introduction to the idea of comfort zone.

When I was young, I worked at a golf club. I did the scoring each year at the club’s final event, the club championship. I stood at the scoreboard and marked scores of the membership. Players were categorized in four divisions (A, B, C and D) based on the scores they shot through the year. I saw the same faces each year, and year after year the same players turned in basically the same scores.

I always wondered how it was possible that a golfer could play (and practice) the game for 10, 20 or 30 years and stay in the same division every year without any real shift in improvement. I saw little shift between divisions from year-to-year.

The answer is these players, over time, became comfortable with where they were and never addressed how they might grow their comfort zone and move to another level of play.

It is my experience that the longer you stay in the same comfort zone, the more it shrinks and the harder it is to expand it. And the more you continue to do the same things, make the same mistakes and engrain the same habits, the more you become THAT rider.

What causes you to be in the comfort zone?

You’ve seen it many times. You are riding extremely well in a class or “out of your mind” and then whammo—fences start falling at the end of the trip. This often happens when a rider has success early in a trip and then subconsciously slips back to “where he or she should be.”

In your riding, your comfort zone is determined by the classes you are riding in and where you finish in those classes. Whenever you ride, you’d like to perhaps finish a little higher (or win) the class, but you are expecting a result in your “usual” range. Inevitably, you’ll have trips where you flirt with results outside of your zone; maybe you start a trip in a nice rhythm and things feel great, recognizing that continuing on this track will give you a great result in the class.

Then what happens?

You start thinking about what could be. You start riding more carefully, trying to “protect” your great round. Next thing you know, you’ve adjusted everything back to that comfortable area and the promising trip fades away.

I’m sure you’ve also seen the reverse happen. You start off a trip with many challenges and then a sudden surge of great riding at the end of the round mysteriously puts you back in that comfortable place.

©Alex Carlton

What are your roadblocks to growth as a rider?

We all have roadblocks to growth. In spite of your efforts to grow and get better, certain walls can interfere with your progress. Here are a few that may be familiar to you:

Fear of growth (not feeling safe to grow): A major barrier is what is called the “I’m stuck” syndrome. “I’ve always ridden that way, so how could I possibly change?” You feel stuck at times, and when you do, you don’t feel great about yourself…or your riding.

A negative view of yourself as a rider: You see and know yourself as a middle of the pack rider or someone who struggles to have a strong finish in classes, so that’s where you stay as a rider.

Skepticism: You believe any steps you take to improve won’t work or will be a waste of time: “I tried that, and it didn’t work.”

Uncertainty regarding how to begin or what direction to take: You don’t know how to get better, how to evaluate your riding or what steps to take to do it.

Challenging yourself emotionally: You don’t force yourself to work on your limitations. It’s not an easy thing to do, and not as fun as the feeling of working on your strengths and seeing a good result.

“It’s too late for me to change,” “I’m too old” or “I don’t have enough time”: You use excuses and procrastination that it’s not the right time to improve your riding.

The most important factor for you to expand your comfort zone is asking yourself why you are doing it. It can’t be for contrived or superficial reasons. You must be genuinely interested in improving your riding and what you’d like to take away from the improvement efforts.

Build Slowly

Expanding the perimeter of your comfort zone by slowly and intelligently pushing your barriers will build confidence. The process should be methodical and progressive. Don’t run out and try to change everything about your riding overnight. Evaluate what needs to be done—physically, mentally and emotionally to move up a level—and create the steps to get there. It will be a gradual process and almost guaranteed won’t be a straight line.

Some ideas to start expanding your comfort zone

1. Face Your Fears

Stretching your comfort zone will probably cause some fear, and the dreaded “what ifs” are the downfall of many riders.

  • What if I fail?
  • What if I really can’t do this?
  • What if I’m not good enough?

Work to stay in the moment and do things slowly and purposefully. A committed plan with reasonable milestones will give you the confidence to get to a new place.

2. Change your routine

You can begin growing your comfort zone through small changes in your approach to your riding, adding a few minutes each week to train an area that limits you, taking one more lesson per week working on building limitations, or even changing parts of your performance like the warm-up. Break out of your normal routine to help break through mental barriers. Create a goal to perform a new movement, task, or training regime each week.

3. Get out of your own way

See yourself in a new light. You may be putting self-induced limits on yourself. The truth is that sometimes you’ve just got to get out of your own way. If you begin seeing yourself as a better rider, chances are you will be. Change the narrative, raise your opinion of your riding and yourself and you will set the table for better performance.

4. Time to change

Comfort feels all cozy and warm when you’re in it, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Stay comfortable for too long and you begin to get bored, lazy and too satisfied. If you want to improve, avoid being a riding zombie: just another “middle of the pack” rider that does what he/she has always done. Challenge your status quo, push your limits and you’ll see your riding in a new light.

It won’t be easy but working to grow your comfort zone over time is a step to help you reach your potential as a rider.