It’s a rare day that I get on my horse without some kind of goal in mind. Even if it looks like I’m just cantering around in big, lazy circles, there’s something I’m focusing on there: am I sitting evenly in the saddle? Can I get Murray to relax his back even more? Am I riding a round circle and planning the next quarter appropriately? How well can I give Murray space to stretch and come back to me, and how does he respond to it? To say I’m obsessed with setting goals is partially true: I both like the tangible achievement that setting a goal gives me for daily, weekly, or monthly work, and I know that they are the stepping stones to getting where I want to be.
In the beginning, goal setting was so easy. For example, when Murray was four, between each week’s jump lesson he completely forgot what he was supposed to do with those colored sticks. So every time I got on him I would trot and then canter over a few small cross rails. The daily, short-term goal was simple: trot up to and over the fence without running out, balking, or stopping. The long term goal was to improve Murray’s confidence over fences. I achieved my short term goal every day, and in a matter of months it was clear that we could check the longer term goal off the list too.
A slightly more complex example: relaxing over his back was (and is!!) a clear challenge for Murray, but the pathway there was pretty clear. First he needed to understand how to lower his neck and stretch out his spine, second he needed to keep pushing from behind while doing that, and then he needed to figure out how to keep doing that for more than a step or two. Once we had established a way to get Murray to stretch down a little, then it was a challenge of getting him to stretch both more and for longer. One ride at a time I first aimed for him to stretch down for a quarter circle, a half circle, a full circle. When he was comfortable, I asked for a little more stretch for a quarter circle, a half circle, a full circle.
These little goals are easy. There is such a clear pathway from “I can only go around inverted with a tense back” to “stretch down and relax” when you are just starting out in dressage. Things get a LOT more nebulous when your horse is fairly steady in both reins and mostly moving through his back and what exactly is it, again, that I need to do to be competitive at First Level?
I’m a scientist, so the first thing I do to help me set goals is write things down. I keep a notebook with a calendar where I plan rides, recap rides, and note progress and regress. This helps me keep track of goals I am solid on, or ones that need a little more help.
I start by looking at my next tangible goal, whether it is showing First Level dressage or a smoothing out my performance at Beginner Novice level events. What, exactly, are the requirements for those shows? What movements do I need to accomplish in First Level? What were my weakest parts at my last BN outing? What kinds of questions will challenge us at these shows? I break down the movements or the courses to their component pieces – even into components that seem really, really small. For First Level, I need to know the letters around the long dressage court just as well as I need to be able to ride a lengthening.
I talk to my trainer: What do I need to be competitive at First level? What could I have improved about my last BN run? We list things. I write them down. I check in to see if my perceptions of my last show match what my trainer observed or my scores reflect. I listen to what my trainer and clinicians say to me while I’m riding, and the comments that keep coming up in my lessons – is that rogue right leg still too far back? Do I still need to shorten my damn reins (how short can they really get)?!?!
And then it’s time to get working. Plan, ride, evaluate. Lather, rinse, repeat.
A major goal of mine is to get Murray more relaxed and focused showing at BN. This is a good specific example because it’s hard to evaluate – there are no movements I can check off to say that I accomplished this, but it is a necessary step regardless. The long, long term goal (3+ years) is to ride at Training level. But the intermediate goal (this year) is to get Murray really rideable at this level. This is based on my experience at my last few BN shows: In dressage Murray tends to be looky and unfocused, on cross country he is distractible and can want to take over, and in stadium he gets backed off and overwhelmed. Are you seeing the tense and distracted theme?
So my short term goals (daily) focus on getting Murray even more relaxed than I need him to be, because I know that whatever tension he has will at least double when we get to a show. I also ask him to listen to me even when he is tense. I take advantage of spooky parts of the arena to school him, and I’ll bring something new and scary to a corner of the arena and ask Murray to ignore it as we work past it. My trainer will change the fill of jumps in between rounds so that Murray has to confront many different obstacles on a given day. These are all the things Murray has told us make him uncomfortable – but being uncomfortable isn’t really an option any more. I need him to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, so that we can both keep our brains in our head when we are showing.
I don’t necessarily address Murray’s spookiness with every ride. There are lots of short term goals that will help us address the long term goals – making my position more accurate, learning to sit the trot, sharpening transitions, straightening the leg yields. But they all fit into the bigger goal. Even on the days when Murray and I do just goof off, I try to make a little deposit into the relationship fund that will make us a good competitive pair.
At some point, goals always need evaluation. And sometimes that evaluation is not what you expected: a low dressage score, comments on areas you didn’t realize were weak, or even an utter failing at relaxation when you thought your warmup was pretty on point. It’s okay though – remember, nobody is perfect, and it’s just fodder for more goals.