How can you really and truly improve in your riding? Many people speak of "perfect practice makes perfect" but how does that relate to our day-to-day rides? I traditionally write about my New Year's goals around this time, but I thought I'd change it up this year and look at how to set goals instead.

Sometimes it seems like once we get into a riding groove, we fall into routines. Progress slows to a crawl. While it may be true that it can take up to two years to see real progress in any riding skill, we certainly can take intentional steps to improve. There are things we can do to plan, try, evaluate and recognize our progress over the long term.

Over two years ago, I went searching the Internet for a useful goal-setting guide specifically designed for riders. While there were many articles that gave good advice, there was really nothing that I could use to plan and track my own personal progress. So last year, I published a new book, Goal Setting For The Equestrian: A Personal Workbook.

I researched the best theory, but my criticism with goal-setting in general is that while we can easily decide what we'd like to do, what really happens doesn't always go as planned. I'm also aware of the fact that we have to include our horses into our decision making process.

Some days, nothing goes as planned. Other days, everything falls into place and your horse surprises you with movements you didn't know you could do. The more we learn to "listen", the better we will be at setting goals, throwing in challenges at a moment's notice, backing up when necessary, and working through problems compassionately.

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So I added other, more relevant, aspects in the book. I did the ol' "practice what you preach" and have worked through the process myself over the course of this year. Here are five suggestions I learned from the process, that might help you make intentional progress as you head into the new year.

1)  Set goals that take you only slightly out of your comfort zone. 

Your goals can be smaller than you think. We often start with too large of a change and end up being unsuccessful. Then we get discouraged and back track or stop working on that skill altogether. The key is to find a small enough change that challenges without overwhelming. Make things just a little difficult.

2) Practice. Give it a good shot.

Nothing happens if you don't actually go out and do something. Start somewhere. If things don't go well at first, analyze: ensure your aids are correct and clear, look at possible environmental factors, and try again. Then re-evaluate: what do you need to do next?

3) Go back and fill in the "holes."

Often, when you focus on one skill, you'll realize that there is a prerequisite skill that hasn't been mastered "enough" to let you move on. Alternately, when you try something more difficult, you'll notice that your old weaknesses become more evident. In either case, going back to basics is more important than working on the new skill. 

For example, take the shoulder-in. It's time to add some lateral work into your daily rides. You set up the movement with a small circle which leads into the line on the rail. While you are able to position the horse in three tracks, the horse loses impulsion. Your trot becomes less and less active. You start to lose angle as you lose energy. 

In this case, you might need to focus on reestablishing activity and energy in the trot before trying for the shoulder-in angle. You might even want to "change the topic," focus on impulsion, and come back to the shoulder-in only when you have the better trot.

4) Do a monthly reflection.

It's  important to stop and pause at regular intervals. At the end of each month, take some time to reflect. What went well? What needs revisiting? What new goals emerged from the month's work? How did this month help you progress toward your intended long-term goals?

5) Keep track of the special moments.

We often overlook the key moments through the year. While we're busy participating and enjoying the moment, the learning is forgotten. Keep track of the special activities. If you went to a clinic, show or special lesson, record what you were told. Write down what you did, reflect, and let the feedback inform your next steps.

There are actually two more requirements for progress.

First, there is no replacement for an educated "eye on the ground." A good instructor can give you immediate feedback, explain theory, give you relevant practice, correct mistakes or show you your next steps.

Second, the quality of your practice does matter. I'm not talking about perfection here, but more about the way you work through the difficult moments with your horse. Try to be patient but ever striving for better movement. Because in the end, it's all about keeping your horse moving in a way that keeps him healthy and happy over the long term.

Do you have a copy of Goal Setting For The Equestrian: A Personal Workbook? If so, I'd be very interested in your feedback. What did you like? What needs a rework? Is there anything that should be added? I will be doing a revision early this year. Please email me at

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Now is the time to re-evaluate your goals and path to riding success!

If you’d like a structured, but personal tool to set goals, take a look our Goal Setting for the Equestrian: A Personal Workbook. The pages are designed for you to set and keep track of your progress over the course of a year.

Included in the book:

  • design your overarching goals
  • long- and short-term planning,
  • debrief your special events such as clinics or shows
  • reflect on, plan and evaluate your goals
  • sample goals and pages

The Workbook is available for instant digital download so you can print the pages right off your computer. There is also the option of a paperback version if you’d rather have a professionally bound book to hold in your hands.

Click here for more information.

Goal Setting For The EquestrianRead more here:

Top 10 Common Goals For Riders (Part 1): These are goals that most of us need to aspire to during our riding careers.

Top 10 Common Goals For Riders (Part 2): More goals!

Listening Corner - Riding Goals DefinedAt some point, you're going to find yourself wondering: why am I riding? 

The Truth About Perfect Practice and the HL Rider Learning Cycle: How does "perfection" fit in with horse riding, and what are the learning stages a rider goes through?

How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet)You can think of it as a sort of health insurance policy for your horse. The better the movement (which is highly influenced by impulsion), the healthier your horse may be over the long term.

One Comment

  1. Once again, you have read my mind! Setting Goals is exactly what we discussed in my student meeting this morning……..wish I had read this first, but our next meeting will be in two weeks…….I’ll be ready for their feedback!