At Horse Listening, we are emphatic life-long learners of all things horsey. You will be reminded time and again about how there is so much to be learned from horses and other horse people, if only we listened.

This guest post is by Cathy Drumm, an equestrian instructor and trainer for over 30 years. She has been teaching Western Dressage since she offered her first clinic at Heritage Farm in Easthampton MA on a cold spring day in 2010. Cathy has always used classical dressage concepts to train all of her horses and their riders. Visit her website for more articles and information about upcoming clinics. 

Cathy Drumm


As I travel throughout the country teaching Western Dressage, I have a noticed a common dilemma that is shared by many adult riders who are either starting their riding careers or coming back to them after a long break. The dilemma exists because of the conflict between their dreams about riding and the reality of riding.

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There is a difference between dreams and realistic goals. Dreams are great: they keep us inspired, help us stay on track and well, give us something to dream about.

For instance, someone might have gotten back into riding because she has always dreamed of riding a beautiful horse in perfect harmony down the center line at the World Championships. Or maybe she has dreamed of participating in a 100-mile ride through Vermont’s glowing orange, gold and red hued fall.  Or another person may picture herself winning the year end prize at her region’s team penning championships. 

Unfortunately,  these wonderful dreams are often squashed or never realized, not because they aren’t attainable, because dreams are not the same as goals. Goals are like rungs on a ladder – a rider needs to understand that in order to get to the top of the ladder, she has to stand on each rung first.

The understanding that horses need to be properly developed and conditioned in order to perform ANY significant physical activity with a rider on board doesn’t seem to be standard knowledge. A surprising number of riders think that as long as their horse is fed, watered and sheltered, all they have to do is show up when it fits their schedule to do whatever they had planned --go on a long trail ride, win at a horse show, spend a day hunting, attend the local gymkhana or team penning.

The horse looks healthy and he probably is. The rider feels fit, indeed she probably is. The horse has no doubt had all the right supplements, worming, vet checks, hoof care and feed. The rider has visited the gym on a regular schedule.

So why do I see the following scenario or similar or renditions of it so often? 

The horse gets off the trailer with his head and tail straight up, sweat dripping. He won’t stand still to be tacked up. He whinnies; he treads on toes mercilessly. When his determined rider does get on, she is amazed by how strong and disobedient he is.

He is healthy, but because his back muscles haven’t been conditioned to carry a rider correctly, he uses his neck and shoulders to carry her which makes him unbalanced. Because she has been going to the gym she can literally hold him up but she thumps around in the saddle using her hold on his unbalanced front end to stay on board.  It is a testament to her strength, vitality and determination that she is able to do this. It is a testament to his health, vitality and willingness to try that he is able to carry her over his shoulders while holding her on with his mouth. 

BUT, is this a day that either of them truthfully wants to repeat? 

No!! The horse will be very clear about this. The next time she comes to ride he will be less than enthusiastic, if not downright nasty. And who can blame him? His back, shoulder and neck muscles hurt for a week. His mouth was tender and bruised, his nerves were shot. He is only just beginning to feel normal when she shows up to do it again!!

Does she wish to repeat the performance? Not really! She hurt for the same week. Her hands were raw and her neck, back and shoulders were so sore that she thought she might not be able to go to work.

She is in a bind though, because she can’t admit to anyone, especially herself, that she hated it. 

She was scared, uncomfortable, exhausted and embarrassed, but how can she admit this when she is spending so much time, money and energy on this beautiful animal who is the love of her life. She must enjoy EVERY minute!! Why isn’t she winning? What is WRONG with her? It must be her fault, she isn’t good enough. She sub-consciously thinks that if she admits the truth she will lose her horse.

She utters a self-deprecating, frustrated wail of the question “Why can’t I just ride?”

The simple answer is that she has inappropriate goals!! She has mistaken dreams for goals.

The fact is the woman is amazing!! Brave beyond reason, strong beyond belief, determined beyond sensible. No average person would put up with or survive through a fraction of what she does every weekend. She is admirable, but she is also wrong and misguided. The problem is that not only is she hurting, scaring and endangering herself but she is doing the same to her horse. He neither deserves it nor understands it, and it could ruin him!!

Her dreams need to make way for realistic goals. She and her horse TOGETHER must get really good at walking before they can run and jump. If there aren’t enough hours in her day or week to allow her to attain her dreams as quickly as she expected, she needs to forgive herself. If it is way harder and takes much longer than she anticipated, she needs to learn to enjoy what she can do!!

Walk actively, while learning to develop her horse’s back muscles; discover what it’s like to control him with a light touch and a soft feel. Learn to move in harmony with him so that she doesn’t thump against his back. Gradually introduce him to new environments so that he is calm and manageable instead of adrenaline filled and manic.

Most of all, she must remind herself of the reasons why she wanted to have a horse in her life. She should allow herself to be grateful to spend time with him, get to know him, trust him, have him trust her, get fit and accomplished together, on their own schedule. It isn’t a race unless she makes it into one. It’s the quality of the journey that matters, not the speed at which she gets there.

If she works on goals, rather than dreams, in time she and her horse will be able to trot or jog as well as they walk, and eventually  canter or lope as well as they walk and trot. While these steps may seem small, they are, in fact, plenty lofty and, more importantly, appropriate for her and her horse’s development. With a solid base beneath them, she and her horse have a better shot at whatever her dreams may be. 

What goal-setting process do you use for your riding development? Let us know in the comments below.


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Read more guest posts here:

Get In Rhythm, Stay in Rhythm: By Patricia Pitt, The Dressag Tipster: Clarifying what rhythm means in terms of the horse's movement.

Which Pasture Plants Are Dangerous for Horses? by Hayley and Rebecca from Anything Equine, this informative article covers many different types of plants. Pictures included.

Ten Truths of Equestrianism – Reblog from @SnarkyRider, by Quill: Are you really fit for horse ownership?

Little Known Qualities of Great Farriers, by K. Arbuckle, professional farrier: The farrier, though required to scientifically balance and shoe a horse, is an artist working with a living canvas.

Scoring the Hunter Round, by L. Kelland-May, senior judge: Have you always wondered how the hunter class is judged? Read it here straight from the judge’s perspective!


  1. Wonderfully stated! Each January, I have my students fill out a “Goals Questionnaire” which includes not only questions on long term & short term goals (what they would like to accomplish this year), but also how they believe they can accomplish them……..

  2. Anyone who has successfully started a young horse understands that it’s “one small step at a time” and attention to detail. The joy of developing a horse is the journey and you often have to take a few steps back. The completion of every goal is just the icing on the cake. if you don’t reach the goal, for one reason or another, you still have the cake!