Photo by Thomas Peham on Unsplash

Have you ever found yourself marveling at those people who achieve what they set out to do? They don’t just say they’re going to write that book, run the marathon, or move their horse up the levels.

They actually do it.

They decide what they want to make happen. They figure out what they need to do. And then, they get shit done.

Doesn’t sound all that difficult when I lay it out as if any goal can be accomplished in three easy steps. But if that was the case, we’d have a lot more great American novels overflowing our libraries to read.

The reality is many of us suffer from either a failure to launch or an aborted mission. Completing the distance from dream to reality becomes too big, arduous, overwhelming, paved with frustration… the list goes on.

So, why have goals if they can be so difficult to reach? And how do we set ourselves up for success to reach our riding goals?

The power of goal creation: why having a goal is a good thing

Intuitively, you may already have an idea why having goals are positive. Setting out to do something and then accomplishing it can just plain feel good. Researchers in England compared two groups of people, the first receiving three 1 hour goal setting and planning sessions and the second receiving no training.

The group that received the sessions “showed significant increases in well-being” compared to the control group. Their assessment: goal setting and planning skills have a causal link to well-being.

And… drumroll, please… these skills can be learned. Which means you can get better at setting and reaching your goals – and become happier in the process.

A little help from the research on goal setting success and how you can apply it to your riding

Let’s take a look at a few of the most helpful ways you can increase your odds of reaching your goals.

Be really specific about how you’ll take action


Too often we think of goals in the abstract without taking into consideration how we’ll go about reaching them. For instance, consider the perennial favorite New Year’s resolution of getting fit. The numbers at the gym soar in January and February and by March you’re no longer worried you might have to wrestle with someone to get on an elliptical.

Sure, people lose interest and motivation but a large part of the problem comes down to not having a plan in place that lays out exactly what, when, and where tasks need to take place for a goal to become a reality.

Researchers call these implementation intentions or the specific things a person has to do in a specific situation to push their goals forward.

In one study, participants completed difficult goals 3 times more often when they had implementation intentions.

But, what makes them really powerful is that they link your actions to a certain set of conditions that serve as cues or reminders. That means they can be helpful in developing habits that lead to getting things done.

How can you apply this to your riding?

Let’s say you’re determined to ride in a show three months from now. One of the things you need to do to make that happen successfully consistently takes lessons with your trainer. One of your specific actions may be to “Ride in my lessons on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10 am.”

Over time those days of the week along with lessons become cues for you to ride and getting your tasks done.

Break down your goals into smaller, manageable steps


I know. Seems like a no-brainer. You’ve got a project at work, a dinner party to plan, or even a hellish day of running errands, you’re going to make a plan of how you’re going to get everything done – even if it’s on a series of Post-It notes littering your desk.

But, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of getting granular when it comes to goal setting.

A 1981 study involved giving 3 sets of children 42 pages of math problems to be completed over a 7 session period.

The children told to set themselves the very manageable goal of only completing 6 questions per session performed faster and more accurately overall. Plus, confidence in their abilities and perseverance in working towards their goals increased.

How can you apply this to your riding?

Maybe you want to trail ride your young horse for the first time. You’ve given yourself the end of the summer to make it happen. Start from your goal and work backward. What sorts of things would you like or expect to be doing with your horse at the end of August, beginning of July, middle of June?

Sitting on your horse while he calmly walks down the driveway may be one of your steps that build towards making it all the way down the road and back. Figure out what other confidence, fitness, or skill types of activities you two need to accomplish to fill in the gaps.

Map them out, remembering to keep them small enough so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Even if you have to alter your plan or timeline (we are dealing with horses after all), you still have a path with specific, manageable tasks to keep you moving forward.

Track what you’re doing


Stay with me here. If I haven’t lost you yet, I sure don’t want to lose you on this one.

Because keeping track of what you’re doing with your horse and your own training is one of the most critical ways to understand if you’re making progress.

Goal theorists and researchers Locke and Latham said it best.

For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires.

The words may not sound terribly inspiring but 35 years of empirical research on goal-setting theory don’t lie.

Goals + feedback is more effective than goals alone.

How can you apply this to your riding?

At the beginning of each week, write down the activities or tasks you need to do that will help you make progress toward your larger goal. As you go through the week, tick off those items you accomplished. Compare the plan versus reality.

Extra credit for taking notes on what’s working, what’s not, and ways you can improve going forward.

Write down your goals


Just thinking about your goals is not enough. You improve your odds of making a significant change by taking the time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard.)

Canadian researchers conducted a study with a class of college freshman to see if students that wrote down reflections on important moments in their past, their goals, and plans for how they would overcome obstacles would positively affect motivation closing the gender and ethnicity performance gap.

The results were startling.

After Year 1, the gender gap closed by 98%, while the ethnicity gap closed by 38%, rising to 93% after Year 2. Academic achievement went up and dropout rates down.

As Jacob Peterson, one of the co-authors of the study, notes, “The act of writing is more powerful than people think.”

How can you apply this to your riding?

Put your hands on a notebook, journal, or planner. Then start by writing down what you want to achieve over the next month.

If part of being able to effectively sit the trot for more than a couple of steps means keeping up with your Pilates classes, add that in as part of your action items to complete each week.

Review what you and your horse did over the course of the week. Were you on track? Or did you need to change your plans and why?

The Weekly Habit & Tracking Log pages in The Focused Rider Planner make tracking what you’re doing with your horse a snap.


Your key takeaways


  1. Have a goal: Goals improve well-being. (So, give yourself one to work towards.)
  2. Be specific: Focus on the nitty-gritty of what, where, and when you need to get stuff done. (“I want to be a better rider someday,” isn’t going to cut it.)
  3. Break your goals down: Make each step manageable. (Overwhelm is the enemy.)
  4. Track what you’re doing: You’ll be way more effective when you know what’s working and what’s not. (I do this. It works.)
  5. Write down your goals: The act of writing about your goals helps to improve motivation. (And who couldn’t use a little more motivation?)

Your horse isn’t always going to cooperate just because you decided to get serious about your goals. But, if you’ve got a plan you’ve made an enormous step forward to getting closer to what you want from your riding.

And sometimes… that can feel like half the battle.

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