Inside Your Ride with Tonya Johnston: Inspired Goal-Setting

This month, equestrian mental-skills coach Tonya Johnston chats with dressage star Laura Graves and offers ways for riders to reach for their riding goals.
Laura Graves and Verdades at the 2015 Global Dressage Festival | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

In addition to the pride, sense of accomplishment and happy glow you get from the achievement of a goal, there are also powerful benefits inherent to the goal-setting process itself. When you manage your goals strategically they will motivate, excite and inspire you in truly meaningful ways. In fact, the goal-setting process has the power to create a tenacity and drive that will not only propel you toward your goals, but shape how you approach challenges and increase your mental strength overall. 

Mind you, these additional benefits won’t simply appear without the solid foundation of some basic, positive goal-setting principles. Let’s fire up your enthusiasm, increase your awareness about a few of these best goal practices and help you get the most you can from your efforts! 

Laura Graves: Goal-Setting in Action 

Laura Graves has had an amazing ascent to the top of dressage in the United States with her partner Verdades. For the past eight years her work with “Diddy” and his training has not been without challenges, but having specific short-term goals and recognizing progress in training, no matter what the performance venue, has helped Laura maintain her purpose and a deep belief in their abilities. 

You can hear her commitment and enthusiasm when she describes their journey and the multifaceted, beneficial way she utilizes goals in the excerpts from our recent conversation below. You will see how Laura’s approach to goal-setting illustrates three notable principles in creating and maintaining her motivation: balancing outcome and performance goals, measuring progress and sharing your goals with others.

Balance Outcome and Performance Goals

Laura Graves: “We spent two months in Idaho working with Debbie [McDonald] on a daily basis before Toronto [for the 2015 Pan Am Games, where they took home the team gold and individual silver medals]. One thing we worked on was how to get him more honest in his training for the halt on that final centerline. I learned how to ride with my legs and not my spur [for that movement] … I remember coming out of the Grand Prix and even though it wasn’t a personal best, I was so thrilled that our training worked.” 

The importance of linking outcome and performance goals cannot be overstated. Going into a competition you may have outcome goals, such as winning a medal or a ribbon. It is equally important to also have some clearly defined performance goals, such as Laura’s goal of an improved halt at the end of her test. Neither is better than the other, and their balance is vital to making your goal-setting process as valuable as it can be.

An outcome goal is the result of a competition or evaluation (over which you do not have complete control). A performance goal is measured by personal progress (over which you have complete control). Outcome goals, when used alone, can turn into pressure that feels inhibiting, and performance goals alone can sometimes benefit from a little added fire or excitement. The best way to create balance is to take the fuel, drive and excitement from the outcome goal and channel it into specific work and practice contained in a performance goal.

For example, an outcome goal of bumping up to a new division, being champion or qualifying for regionals is exciting and energizing—revel in it—but be sure to take the next step. Channel the excitement that is generated when you imagine that outcome goal coming true and ask yourself, “How can I get there? What methods do I need? What progress needs to happen to give us every chance of achieving our objectives?” Then you have appropriate fuel for setting the performance goal(s) that will balance the outcome goal and make use of that motivation. Here is an example:

Outcome goal: Win an equitation class

Performance goals: 

1. Look up at a focal point in the air over every jump. 

2. Visualize effectively riding each step of the course before I get on my horse.

Measure Progress with Short-Term Goals

Laura Graves: “It is a winding, wiggly path in equestrian sport to your destination. When I was in fifth grade I knew I wanted to ride for the U.S. Equestrian Team. When we bought Diddy we hoped he would do these things, but nowhere along the way did I say, ‘This is my WEG mount.’ I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if he let the farrier hot-shoe him? Wouldn’t it be nice if he just loaded into the trailer on the first try? Or let me clip his ears?’

I think you have to set very tangible short-term goals so you can feel success in some way and you are able to measure your progress. I take it day by day. How can I make this next show better than the one before?” 

Looking at progress on short-term goals is essential for maintaining your motivation and resilience as you work toward long-range objectives. Riders sometimes get discouraged or even shy away from goal-setting when the big, important goals feel far away and imposing. This is when the process can accidentally morph into a giant pass/fail exam that can undermine your optimism and confidence. To guard against this, be certain to both identify short-term goals as well as track your progress toward them. 

For example, are you working toward a goal of participating in the traditional “No-Stirrup November,” eschewing stirrups for 30 days to strengthen your legs and improve your riding? Create a short-term goal of one lap of posting trot without stirrups each direction, every time you ride. The additional (and crucial) part that will boost your enthusiasm and your confidence is figuring out an easy, streamlined way for you to track your progress. This means using a template for jotting down highlights after your rides, accessing a notes app on your phone to write and track your improvement or even taking a voice memo as you drive home from the barn. For example, “Felt great without irons today. Did two laps in each direction.” Be sure to honor and respect even small improvements, as these will build the bridge that helps you achieve those big, long-term goals.

Motivate and Inspire By Sharing Your Goals

Laura Graves: “Vocalizing a goal is very intimidating because once you put it out there then everyone knows whether you are succeeding or failing. It is a scary thing to do but I have vocalized the fact—publicly—that I want to score an 80 percent in the Grand Prix. I continue to fail at that in every competition, but it doesn’t mean that I am deterred from that goal. I feel in my gut that it is possible.” 

The first benefit of sharing your goals is getting help in assessing whether your goals are realistic for you and your horse. Not only is this step essential for you and your horse’s mental/physical health and safety, but the process of talking to your trainer will continue to shape the goals themselves. When this person is someone you work with on a regular basis, it can also go a long way toward motivating both of you and energizing your lessons, schools and competition work.

If verbalizing your personal goals feels tough, take heart—you gain power, commitment and strength each time you do something to support your own growth. Remind yourself that the fear is not enough to stop you. Let your commitment to communicating your objectives in spite of the challenge serve as proof to you that they are indeed significant, personally meaningful and fantastic goals to go after. This will also allow your family, spouse, trainer and/or friends to jump in with help when you need it. As you put in the intense effort it takes to make progress, you will surely have some setbacks and bad days. It’s the people who know your goals who will be equipped to support you and buoy your spirits when things are challenging. Let them in. 

Remember that goal-setting is about much more than the goals themselves. They organize your effort, build your confidence as you acknowledge your progress and motivate you to work hard every day. Be brave and bold as you chart your course forward. The extra fuel the goal-setting process provides will serve you well on your journey to becoming the talented horseperson you envision. 

Take Note

It is important to have assistance in assessing whether your goals are realistic. This often means asking your trainer or seeking the help of a qualified professional to help you evaluate your goals. This process will help protect the health, happiness and safety of you and your equine partner. In addition, it will add trust and validation to the process; both are invaluable.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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