My non-riding friends sometimes ask me why I still take lessons after riding for so many years. After all, what could be so hard about wearing an odd-looking outfit and sitting there on your horse while he jumps over sticks? But as us riders know, a life with horses often comes with more downs than ups, and riding is *a lot* harder than just sitting there looking pretty and collecting ribbons. Well, maybe for some riders things are that easy, but I think most of us weren’t born with the 'natural rider' gene (nor the pocketbook to help that talent along), but instead just got the good old 'horse-crazy' gene.
Even though many of us may not be heading to the Olympics any time soon, we each have our own goals we hope to achieve. Maybe it's something as simple as feeling confident at the canter. For me, it's moving up to and then beyond the 1.10 meter jumper level with my new horse Frodo. But having one big goal, without breaking down all the steps you need to achieve that goal, is setting yourself up for failure. On the flip side, having an endless list of small goals without having a sense of how they relate to the big picture also doesn't seem to work - at least in my experience.
I find I usually have about fifty things I feel like I need to work on to become a better rider bouncing around in my head, but the years continue to pass and I don’t feel like I actually make much progress. Case in point, my hands have a mind of their own and flail about and remain that way even after 25 years of riding, despite always thinking in the back of my mind about trying to quiet them. Think about it, if you're in a lesson and trying to remember your course while listening to your instructor give you advice during your round, are you really going to also be able to pay attention to correcting your flapping elbows, piano hands, stiff hips, swinging lower leg, and your 'oh yikes' vice grip on your horse's face because you're desperately looking for a distance and not seeing one?
So, what's the answer? After a whole lot of research into what sports psychologists suggest, I've decided to take a new approach this year.
Make smart weekly, monthly, yearly goals
It's all about priorities and not overwhelming yourself. Start with your yearly goal. Since I have a new young horse I haven't shown yet it's hard for me to know exactly what's realistic, but I would like to reach the 1.10 level and have mostly clear rounds that will prepare me for the next level.
One thing I know that needs to change in order to be successful with my yearly goal is to improve my position. Instead of trying to fix everything at once, and since it takes 3 weeks to create a habit, I decided I'll focus on only one aspect of my position for at least a month. I’m making leg position my top priority and focus in January since without a stable lower leg it’s difficult to improve anything else - and that happens to be one of my biggest weaknesses.
Now we get to the small steps. My weekly goals include things such as working for 10 minutes per day without stirrups, going to barre class 2x/week, and keeping a notecard in my trunk reminding me to be 'aware' of my lower leg while I ride.
It's all about accountability
I’m amazed at how many people (myself included!) don't discuss their goals with their trainer on a regular basis. Why not get feedback from your trainer, and talk about what goals should be a priority so you're on the same page? For example, if I talk to my trainer about spending January focused my leg position, she can push me to achieve that goal.
Also, don't underestimate the power of accountability. By talking to your trainer and perhaps having a buddy at the barn you check in and discuss your goals with monthly, you're much more likely to suceed.
Harness the power of visualization
Many top athletes swear by visualization, so why not try it? In the past, I’ve used visualization after walking my jumper courses at shows, but there’s more you can do with it. Watch a video of yourself riding, first at full speed, and then in slow motion, paying specific attention to what you’re working on (for example I'll be paying attention to my lower leg position). Next, watch a video of a rider who exemplifies what it is that you are focusing on, then close your eyes and visualize yourself having the leg position, or whatever you’re working on - of the person you just watched.
Write your goals down - free goal sheet download
This is another method that research shows has a huge impact on whether you achieve your goals or not. Write your goals on a sheet of paper (and maybe add a few inspirational photos) and place it in a spot where you can see it every day. If you're not sure where to start I've come up with the attached goal pyramid worksheet to get you started. Download it for free here >
And lastly, perhaps we should all try to be a little kinder to ourselves if we don't achieve our goals for the year. After all, horses aren't predictable machines, and things don't always go according to plan. Looking back at 2017 I had hoped to move up to the 1.15/1.20 level with Toes, but instead I ended up selling him and spending most of the year horseless, finally finding a new partner, Frodo, in late September. While 2017 wasn’t what I expected, it opened the door for new opportunities.
I would love to hear from you in the comments. What's your top tip for achieving your goals and what is your #1 goal for this year? If you’d like to be held accountable, post your goals on my Facebook page, and look back to this space for future posts as I’ll be checking in and updating my progress throughout the year!
Here's to becoming a better rider in 2018!