Ride Beyond the Familiar: 10 Tips to Expand Your Comfort Zone

By, Liz Piacentini

Stuck in your comfort zone?For some equestrians, it can be tempting to ride within the cozy limits of our comfort zone. It’s a place of low risk where we feel secure, in control, and know what to expect. However, doing the same-old routine limits experiences and achievements for both horse and rider.  In order to progress and reach the goals we dream of, we need to expand our comfort zones by embracing new learning opportunities.

Doesn’t stretching our comfort zone mean we may experience moments of feeling awkward, uncoordinated or nervous?  Yup!  But by gradually challenging ourselves we can grow.

I recently had the pleasure of being a demo rider in an area dressage clinic. I viewed this as a great opportunity to learn from a well-respected trainer and ride in a show-like environment.  My horse, Lyrical, and I hadn’t shown in over a year.  I thought this would provide a great step towards returning to the local shows we participate in.  It also meant I’d have to ride in front of a crowd.

Clinic day arrived. The trainer started by asking if there was anything in particular I’d like to work on.  As we walked along, I responded, “I need to work on getting my horse to be more forward.”

As if on cue, Lyrical caught something out of the corner of his eye and leaped into several big, bold strides of canter.  He then returned to the walk as if nothing happened. The auditors and myself burst into laughter.  My nervous tension had been broken. Laughter has a way of doing that.

I faced my fear of not riding at my best and accepted the fact that, well…things happen.  Horses have a way of keeping us humble.  I took a deep calming breath, made the decision to consider the crowd my sympathetic supporters, and focused on the instructor.  Getting started had been the hardest part.  I reminded myself we can do this, took more deep breaths, and enjoyed a positive learning experience.

If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to audit the clinic?  Sure!  Would I have gotten as much out of it?  Nope!  By stretching my comfort zone, I practiced technical skills AND gained more confidence about our upcoming shows.

Let’s face it, stretching our comfort zone IS uncomfortable.  In fact, if we don’t feel uncomfortable, we’re probably stuck in our comfort zone. It requires embracing change, and change is never easy.  Sometimes it’s actually downright frightening.

So, what can YOU do to make stretching your comfort zone a little easier?

Here are 10 tips for expanding your comfort zone and moving closer toward your riding goals:

1.  Set Realistic Short-term Goals – Think of what you want to develop this season. Big dreams are great, but can be overwhelming.  To simplify getting out of your comfort zone, determine more immediate skills and activities that will help you progress toward your long-term goal.

2.  Take the First Step – It doesn’t have to be huge to be a start. But start! Prioritizing those short-term goals can help you decide where to begin.  Even scheduling that first lesson with a new trainer or submitting the registration for an exciting clinic triggers a motivational beginning. 

Small Jump, easy first step

Set yourself up for success with an inviting first step.

3.  Give Yourself the Gift of Time – If you’ve been out of the saddle awhile, have patience.  It often takes longer than anticipated to get to where you want to be – especially If you’ve experienced an injury.  Work with an understanding trainer and consider complimenting your riding with exercise that builds core strength for greater stability in the saddle.  Greater stability builds confidence.

4.  Surround Yourself with Supportive Riders – The enthusiasm of others can fuel your momentum or give you a boost when you need it most. Positive energy and support sparks a “can do” attitude.  You may discover yourself venturing beyond your comfort zone simply by having fun doing something new with capable equestrians who understand your abilities and goals.

5.  Maintain Positive Self-talk – We can easily talk ourselves out of every opportunity to stretch our comfort zone with negative self-talk. Whether we think it to ourselves, or say it out loud, our self-sabotage can sound like:  Why bother riding the course again? I never get my horse over the last fence without knocking a rail.  Turn your negatives into positives and open the possibilities with:  We CAN jump clean over the last fence.

6.  Let Yourself Off the Hook – Are you your own worst critic? If so, give yourself a break! We all make our share of mistakes when we’re learning new skills.  Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back.  Learn, laugh and move on.

7.  Remember to Breathe – Feeling nervous outside your comfort zone?  Breathe!  Inhale deeply into your belly – feel your front and back expanding against your belt. Slowly exhale – feel your seat bones melting into the saddle.  Steady, rhythmic breathing helps slow your heart rate and calm both you and your horse.

8.  Compliment Your Learning with Un-mounted Behaviors – To get more comfortable with the uncomfortable, determine actions you can do out of the saddle to compliment your learning. Consider:

  • Watching videos that illustrate a movement you’re practicing
  • Reading articles that detail new concepts
  • Visiting a new show location before the competition

Image patting horse

9.  Practice Visualization – Visualization is a powerful tool for building familiarization and confidence. Visualization allows you to mentally rehearse your upcoming ride again and again before actually riding it.  Practicing skills within the safety of your mind’s eye even helps develop muscle memory.  You’ll be more likely to remember that new dressage test, too!

10.  Take Pride in Progress – Sometimes we forget just how far we’ve come when we are in the midst of the journey. Give your motivation a boost by celebrating important milestones.  Treat yourself to that new halter or choose whatever incentive rewards you with a sense of accomplishment.

There is nothing like the feeling of a great ride, a big smile and patting the horse you love for a job well done.  Have fun experimenting with these tips to stretch the familiar and expand your potential.

Enjoy the journey!