Walter the Show Poneh is going to work on his goals...

Walter the Show Poneh is going to work on his goals…

HJU reader and sport psychology student Shannon Brown sent us this blog post discussing the importance of setting smart goals. As all our blog posts, it will be automatically entered in our draw to win a $200 Shopping Spree at SmartPak!

The Importance of Goal-Setting for Equestrian Athletes

I’m currently working towards my Master’s in Sports Psychology.  This semester, I am taking an advanced Applied Sports Psychology course, and the major project is (yet another) paper.  However, for this paper we get to choose whatever topic we want, as long as it pertains to our career goals and of course, sport psychology.  This is both simultaneously a relief and daunting, as there are so many issues to choose from.

I want to specialize in working with equestrian athletes, so of course anytime I get to choose a topic, it pertains to the equine world.  (Side note: the “horse crazy” girl in class doesn’t stop in high school kids!)  So as I pondered my topic, I began to think about issues that we as equestrians face.

The topic smacked me in the face during a ride, as they usually do.  I was riding in the arena, working on transitions, but with no clear goal, just working away, getting frustrated because my dressage is just awful.  As an eventer, I really ought to be ashamed.  But every time I try to “work on dressage” I get frustrated and usually just end up going for a hack.  Thinking about this and also fretting over this huge paper, I realized that the answer to my problem was in my psychology, not my ability.  I had no goals!

Wait, what? Of course I have goals.  I want to one day ride advanced level, I want to be able to ride upper level dressage tests with poise and grace, I want to ride with the top clinicians in the country and learn everything!

The problem, however, is these are not SMART goals.  SMART – Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.  This is an acronym we are taught in sports psychology class, and you may have heard it in your workplace even (managers love SMART goals), but have you ever considered applying it to your riding?  If not, you may be missing out.

Most of us riders require a great deal of ability to work independently and self-motivate.  Some of us see our trainers as little as once or twice a month, if at all!  The majority of riders I know may take weekly lessons, and some may be fortunate enough to take multiple lessons in a week.  Regardless, as athletes, we vary greatly from those who play sports such as volleyball, football, baseball, etc., who usually practice five days a week and suffer consequences if they do not show up to practice.  On the other hand, many of us could probably not show up at the barn for a week and the most we would hear is “missed you last week!”  It’s very easy to lose focus and motivation in these situations, if you do not have a specific goal to work towards.

So to help you get started, here’s an example of how to choose a good goal:

1)      S – Specific.  I want my horse to be able to do three 4 minute canter sets by the time we go to our novice competition June 1.

2)      M – Measurable.  On June 1, either your horse can or can’t do the canter sets.  It can be objectively defined.

3)      A – Attainable.  Obviously, if your horse is vastly out of shape, or recovering from an injury, or has never cantered, this goal might be a little much.  A great way to form an attainable goal is to talk with your trainer or other knowledgeable source.

4)      R – Realistic.  Obviously, if you are training for a novice competition, you would not expect your horse to be able to do Prix. St. George movements.  Or be advanced competition fit.  (A word of caution: realistic does not mean easy!)

5)      T – Timely.  Again, look at the time you have set for yourself to achieve the goal.  Is it feasible?  Is it too easy?

Once you’ve decided on a goal, make a plan on how to get there.   The best way to do this is to work backwards from your goal due date to set milestones.  For the example above, say there are six weeks to June 1.  By week 4 your partial goal may be to be able to do 3 minute canter sets.  2 week goal may be to be able to do 2 minute canter sets.  You get the idea.

The best goals are ones that have some degree of difficulty.  Goals that are either too easy or too difficult can cause you to lose focus or give up.  You can set goals for all aspects of your riding!  Maybe you’ve only been riding your horse twice a week and you want to start riding five days a week?  Set a due date and work yourself into it.  Much like starting a new exercise program, if you throw yourself into a program full force without building up to it, you risk burn out or even injury (to you or your horse!) So plan accordingly!

Lastly, don’t forget to reward yourself and your equine teammate when you reach a milestone in your goal timeline!  Even if it’s just a nice trail ride, or a new grooming supply, or a spa day at the barn for your horse, find some way to acknowledge that you are making forward progress!

So next time you are riding around in the ring trying to decide what to do, ask yourself: is this SMART?