Make Your Dressage Progress From “Meh” to “Yeah” With Goals

Sally with her mare Rayme. Photo by Chelsey Burris

Read here to find out why, “I want to ride Third Level this year” might not be a good goal for you…

By Sally O’Dwyer

Riders who make the hallmark “slow but steady progress” in dressage all have a secret. Their secret is that they know how to create, and commit to, well thought out goals. Research—and ya gotta listen to science—definitively shows that people who set goals make more progress than those who don’t.  You don’t have to wait for the start of a new year to set goals.  Get started right now by reevaluating where you are, and where you want to be six months from now, or a year from now.

The hardest part is where to start.  The first step is to take inventory of your current situation. Brainstorm and write down everything that impacts your progress: current riding ability, skills, fitness, mindset, and understanding of dressage.  Include your horse in your assessment: training, athleticism, fitness, and health.  Think about practical aspects, such as opportunities, access to quality training and regulation arenas, schedule, and responsibilities outside of riding, finances, and circle of support.  

Working on my goals with trainer, Susan Martin

If you are not sure about what skills you should be sharpening, look at the training pyramid and research information for inspiration.  See what needs to change in your inventory to help you become a better rider. Get laser focused by looking at what you need to start doing – and just as importantly, what you need to stop doing – to improve. This is where goals are born!

Don’t be too critical or hard on yourself—that’s not helpful.  Everyone has weaknesses, no one is perfect.   Let’s start with the fact that you are wonderful, and you deserve to progress, however slowly, in the sport of dressage.   The way you feel about yourself is critical.  Are you motivated, determined, growing in confidence?  Or are you a bit anxious, uncertain, and dealing with some fear issues?   Your mindset can jettison you forward or halt progress, so decide if improving your mindset should be one of your goals.

Goals don’t need to be about you on the back of your horse. They could include mastering your fears or anxiety, finding a trainer, building your community of support, working on your fitness, trailering, rehabbing, cross training, groundwork, or finding your next dancing partner.

Goals are personal.  Consult others, but own your goals, take responsibility for them, and hold yourself accountable.  Recognize that as your horse’s rider, you are their main trainer. Select no more than 3 goals—maybe one to improve your riding, another about sport psychology, and perhaps one focused on your fitness.  Having too many goals is the same thing as having no focus.

Be Specific. Since big goals are achieved through many smaller accomplishments, consider the steps you need to take to where you want to be.  When you break down your goals into smaller pieces, it will be less overwhelming for you to achieve them.  You will literally, “see” the way.

Goals should be process oriented, not competition based. Earning your USDF Bronze Medal or riding a specific level are not effective goals because these declarations are much too vague, and you just don’t have enough control over their outcomes. To earn a 65 at a certain level takes many skills to achieve, including great preparation, a solid warm-up, a positive mental attitude and focus, excellent horse/rider communication, a venue that is well situated, luck, a healthy you, a calm, energetic, healthy horse, and good weather.  Riding at a specific level is the outcome of the acquisition and the effective use of many, many skills.

Goals must be reasonable and achievable. Don’t get carried away because goals are not dreams.  If you assign yourself an unreasonable goal, you will be met with frustration.  This is going to be your working document, and to be effective, keep it handy and refer to it frequently, and check yourself against them. Create a vision board for yourself.  Make sure your goals are on your fridge, perhaps on a big dry board in your office, or even posted at your barn. 

I like examples, so here is one of my goals:  During the next six months, I will improve my seat to enhance the effectiveness and clarity of my aids and become a better-balanced rider. 

To achieve this goal, many smaller objectives, or steps are needed. I created a Seat Checklist that is plastered to my tack locker and in the arena to review before every ride that says, “I will”…

I also created a Goal TO DO list to help me stay on track.

Ways to Measure progress:

Use video:  record yourself now, and then again at a set timeframe, say quarterly, AND review with your trainer.  (I personally hate watching myself ride, but it gets better as I see a few small improvements)

Count the number of times your trainer must correct you!

Discuss monthly (put it in your calendar) with your trainer. 

Journal and write down progress towards your goal, along with ideas for exercises to improve.  

Answer this question daily: “What did I do today to advance my goals?”

Use competition, scores, and judges’ comments as markers, outputs, guideposts, or indications of progress

Share what you learn with others—put your progress into words! Below is a worksheet you might like to use. Use one worksheet for each goal.

Printable version here

Timely:  Use a calendar to create deadlines for yourself. This prevents you from slacking or getting a “I’ll do it tomorrow attitude.”

Timely but Tweak. Revise your goals continually–modify goals as you achieve them or come up with new obstacles/challenges.  Goals are not made in stone, and you know how horses are!  Perhaps you need to set a less challenging goal.  Or, if you achieve a goal before the time you have allotted-set another one.

Party like a Rockstar. When you master a goal, celebrate, and appreciate how far you have come!  Perhaps you will go out to dinner, buy that blingy halter, drink an expensive bottle of wine, get that book you wanted, get your hair/nails done, sign up for an online training program…. the possibilities are endless.

Decide and take control of your journey. You spend tons of energy, passion, money, time, and effort on your riding.  Make sure you aren’t riding in circles, not going anywhere.  Break the spell and set goals so you stop going through the motions, on autopilot, without direction. Goals will help you get more out of riding. And remember, your efforts to improve one step at a time is the way to make progress. 

Good Luck and Happy Goal Setting.

Want to join a community of like minded adult amateurs? Check out Sally O’Dwyer’s page, Dressage Amateurs Rise, on Facebook.

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