Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Setting goals - a real life example

Part One (of many!)

I will preface this little article by humbly acknowledging I am not a top level rider (nor likely to become one any time soon! That's not a self-limiting belief, it is a realistic observation). Nevertheless,the story I am about to tell you will demonstrate how important goal setting is, no matter what level you ride at or what it is you aspire to achieve.

When I returned to competitive riding about 8 years ago, I didn't really have any immediate goals in mind, other than to enjoy my riding and to maybe get around an Introductory horse trials. However, a fateful trip to the Melbourne International Three Day Event in 2005 changed all of that. As I watched horse after horse negotiate the cross country course, I decided that I too, wanted to do THAT! Although I had no idea at the time how I was going to make it happen, the seed was sown and so began the headstrong commitment to my goal. Although I rode as a child and competed at Pony Club, I wasn't one of those kids who had fancy horses or got to compete in EA competitions all over the State and be on the Junior Squads. My dream to take up eventing a bit more seriously therefore really happened as an adult in my mid twenties, when I finally had the resources to have a go under my own steam. 

Although I was largely ignorant to what it was really going to take to one day get to Melbourne 3DE, I did have some things in my favour in the beginning:

-          A strong desire to achieve my goal and work hard to achieve it
-          A love of reading and desire to research and seek information
-          Confidence and “stickability” when riding
-          A job and life circumstances that provided the means and allowed enough time for me to pursue this goal
-          Access to good instruction and training courses
-          A good support team – family, friends and mentors to assist me

The fourth point I have raised is an important one. A lot of people express interest in achieving a goal, without considering how compatible it is with the rest of their life. You may have heard of setting “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound). Considering your personal situation comes under the “Realistic” heading. Is it realistic to aim to enter a three day event when you work 60 hours a week and have very little time to ride and train? Likewise, is it a realistic goal at this stage of your life if you are having trouble paying rent and affording feed and shoeing, let alone anything else? If this is the case, you either need to change your circumstances to make the goal possible, or to modify your goal to one that is compatible with the rest of your life, as it is now. I was lucky to work a 38 hour week with plenty of flexi-time and no weekend work, which meant I could afford to compete and had enough time to train.

Although I had many things sussed, for a while there was one thing that really held me back and took time emotionally to deal with. My rather unlikely ‘partner in crime’ at this point in time was a 14.3hh stockhorse. Although diabolical in the dressage, he was honest and clever when it came to jumping. Within two seasons we learned the ropes together and progressed from Introductory through to Pre-Novice and HRCAV Level 1. He took me from being a wimpy jumping rider to being confident and bold. We’d done so much together and I trusted him implicitly…after all we’d completed all our events without a single XC jumping penalty.

Although he didn't get me all the way, special little horses like this can teach us so much!
It took me a long time to accept that this particular horse, as fantastic as he’d been until this point of my riding career, was not going to take me any further. It had become my (unrealistic) dream to get him to 1*.  I persevered for years and tried so hard to improve his weak link, the dressage, but he physically could not do it. He also began to show some other signs that he'd had enough of competing. It was a sad day when I made the decision to retire him,  and in some ways it felt like giving up. But in hindsight, as that door closed, another one opened – as I now better understood what I needed in order for me to progress. I hadn't given up on my goal at all…just now had to re-define it! I see this happen quite often where the rider's ambitions and the horse's abilities are not compatible (for a variety of reasons!).  The answer is either to accept that you are going to have to modify your goal in line with the horse's capabilities...or face the fact that you have grown as a rider and that it is time to find a more suitable partner for your goal. In some cases you may have the right horse, but it could be the timeline to achieve the goal that needs tweaking. 

After working out a "plan" of action I then spent close to two years quietly chipping away at my goal – mostly away from the eventing circuit. To other people, it might have appeared that I had stopped eventing, but rest assured I was still riding! I borrowed, leased and rode horses for other people in dressage and showing to keep my riding skills up, whilst I saved towards buying my next eventer. As I already had a young, very green horse to work with, I decided in order to learn more myself, I needed a sound, well-mannered horse with some education and athletic ability, but not necessarily one that had already competed at a high level. I could have whinged and complained about not being able to afford to buy a going horse straight away, but instead, I put a plan in place of how I could go about buying one. Yes, it took a few years of disciplined saving, but the hard work was worth the wait! This was probably one of the best decisions I've made.

After purchasing my new eventer, I actually stumbled upon Denny Emerson’s book “How Good Riders Get Good”. The chapter of this book that really resonated with me was about selecting a suitable horse. As he pointed out, a rider competing on two horses can be placed 1st and way down the field in the same class – what is the key difference here? It would seem doubtful that the rider suddenly got worse on the horse that didn't place. This gives a clue as to how important it is to have the right horse for the job! (and suitable for the level of riding you are at *now*).

In Part Two - more about the horse - and breaking down the steps along the way to achieve the big goal!


  1. I saw this evidence of the "right horse" at TTT showing on the weekend! We are defs not that!! I am very much enjoying Denny's book too! Thank you Lauren!

  2. Glad you are enjoying it Jenna. :)

    Yes, it often happens that we end up with the wrong horse for the task. The trouble with horses is, riders then can get emotionally attached to the wrong one! (even when they are dangerous!)

    If I had found the "right horse" earlier on I would have achieved my goal faster, but I am still not sure in hindsight that I would have done things any other way. By taking my time and riding a variety of horses, I learned more and was more ready when the time came. I also have a far greater understanding and empathy when working with horses that might not be "perfect" for the job, but they are all that the owner has.