I classify the Island of Comfortable in the same geographical zone as the Island of Calm; not bad to visit, obviously useful to hang out on from time to time but if you’re aiming to live there, chances are you’re (ironically) going to have a rough time of it. Many people I work with show up in my programs wanting to feel both calm and comfortable when riding (and in life generally), and it can be a jarring thing to hear that holding tight to those aspirations is, in part, what’s getting in the way.
Let’s elaborate a little more on that.
If I’m attached to the Island of Comfortable and Calm, chances are I have a very defined idea about how things need to be for me to “feel ok”. This feeling ok business is where things get messy, because if you are involved in life in a way where you are learning new things, overcoming challenges, or just showing up generally you are going to feel stuff. You are going to feel a lot of stuff.
And what’s more, you’re meant to. A healthy, vital body is one that is in conversation with your brain all day long. For as long as something is novel- so outside the norm of your usual experience enough to capture your brains attention- you are going to feel sensation.
Sensation is how the body responds when it’s processing incoming information. The structure of your body literally moves around under the instruction of your nervous system.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that most of us have forgotten what a vital body feels like. We are scared of sensation, of feeling. So when our body starts chatting to our brain in this way, we interpret it as something that’s dangerous, and send ourselves on a loop that activates our fight flight response, even if that’s not appropriate or necessary for the reality of the moment.
So with that in mind, when I’m asked how long I think it will take for someone to feel comfortable or calm, my first thought is, well it depends on your tolerance of sensation. The work I teach is about creating adaptability in your nervous system, and that means establishing a communicative body. A body full of sensation and feeling.
It can take a while to be with that and not get alarmed or scared. To be able to take action in the midst of an alive body and nervous system, when we are used to one that’s shut down or switched off. So when we think of time scales, we need to allow ourselves this re-initiation; we need to reintroduce our conscious brain to the lively and wanted conversation of our body and understand that we are on the same team. That to feel is good. That it’s not dangerous.
The second thing that pops up is how attached you are to things looking a certain way. Back to the Islands of Calm & Comfortable. If we have very fixed ideas about what “success” should look like, we often miss the much smaller and yet significant markers of change that show up. To me, holding a bigger sense of possibility that something can be better or different is not the same as a fixed goal. It allows for more space for the unknown, more ways that it’s possible to tread a path from A to B.
The sympathetic brain searches for sameness; the parasympathetic brain seeks out difference. How open you are to accepting where you are right now in combination with a dedication to searching for difference, to be a sleuth in search of tiny changes, will allow you to experience progress in the most likely way that is shows up; in the tiny markers of this was slightly different from yesterday.
And the third thing is how easily and skilfully you can meet the needs of your horse. We are, after all, a partnership. If your horse is presenting something outside your skillset, or you are unable to meet their needs, then it’s not the end of the road, but it is instructive.
That you need help. Need a plan. Need to upskill. Need to find a start point that’s safe for both of you.
And again, maintain a sense of self-responsibility and agency within this is key.
So when I’m asked “how long will it take for me to feel ok” these are the things that I think of. Everything is figureoutable. But the time frame exists with the unique constructs of each individual and the horsey partnership they are a part of.