by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, January/February 2008

The USEA Annual Conference in Colorado Springs was terrific and I was happy to have been invited there to present. A beautiful setting, thought provoking sessions, and an overwhelming enthusiasm for the sport made for a fantastic event.

The USEA Annual Conference in Colorado Springs was terrific and I was happy to have been invited there to present. A beautiful setting, thought provoking sessions, and an overwhelming enthusiasm for the sport made for a fantastic event. I learned a great deal and was motivated by the expertise and experience that was so generously shared throughout the weekend. Many of the themes presented at the convention dovetail into my topic for this issue: goal setting. Where do you want to go and how can you be successful, and safe, in the process?

I am a big believer that planning for success is crucial, as is remembering to reward yourself for a job well done. The beginning of a New Year and new season creates the ideal time to map the road ahead. Accomplishing goals you set out for you and your horse builds confidence: in you, in your training methods, and in your skill as a horseperson. There is always a list of things to improve but first we must take time to list the things that have improved. In addition, your continued growth and development as a rider requires conscious thought – hence the importance of setting well-crafted and strategy-supported goals.

Record Last Year’s Goal Accomplishments

An important part of any goal setting process is giving yourself time to enjoy and revel in your accomplishments. How much time and effort do most people put into this process? Not enough, by a long shot. The process of honoring your hard work and goal attainment is not difficult to do, it just seems to slip through the cracks as more pressing and tangible daily tasks take precedence. Therefore, please take advantage of this opportunity and follow along with your own pen and paper!

  1. Outcome goals: Outcome goals refer to the results of competitions. Remember that winning and outcome goals are never totally within our control, so it can be dangerous to rely solely on them for feedback. However, it is unrealistic to think that outcomes do not hold an important place in our thinking. Therefore we always include them in a review process, looking to remember not only the result itself, but the reasons we have special attachment to them and the positive strategies we used to achieve them.So, take a moment to reflect and sort through the competition experiences you had last year. Where did you compete? What were some of your best results? Why do you count them as ‘best’ – what made them special for you? (Remember, an 8th in your first training event can be every bit as special as a win you had in novice.)
  2. Performance Goals: Physical skills: This past year you learned some new skills related to your physical capabilities as a rider – things associated with your position, strength, conditioning, pre-ride preparation, etc. They may have been the result of your trainer or clinician’s teachings or things you figured out on your own through trial and error. Therefore, what are a few things you feel you learned last year that increased your effectiveness in the saddle? You may have created a new habit about keeping your chest open in your stadium rounds, or noticed your strength improve dramatically going to the gym two days a week (which in turn gave you greater confidence during your cross-country runs).Also, think about goals that your horse achieved (as a result of your hard work and perseverance) last year. List a few of the goals your horse accomplished – new flatwork competencies, confidence in jumping certain types of cross-country obstacles, etc.
  3. Performance Goals: Mental skills: This may be a bit more challenging to break out if you have not done any specific mental skills training. It can be completed however, if you are patient and think through these questions: What are one or two things you did to prepare yourself mentally before you went to an important clinic or event? Once at the event, how did you prime your focus? What kinds of things did you say to yourself to stay on track and boost your confidence?Be sure to respect anything that you remember helping you in your preparation, no matter how small it may seem. With careful examination even things that on the surface appear minimal can prove to be potent in terms of creating an attitude for success.
  4. Coping and lessons learned: Throughout every competition season there are ups and downs. Mistakes are made, as well as unforeseen/unfortunate happenings that are out of our control. We do ourselves a great service by recognizing the coping skills we utilized in tough situations. Additionally, thinking through the horse management or riding errors we made helps us uncover the reasons they happened, and thus helps us avoid repeating them.In my upcoming column “Embracing Your Mistakes” we will explore thinking back and processing mistakes or unfortunate events from the past in order to more effectively learn from them, and let them go. Think back to one or two of the most impactful mistakes you made last year. Write down: 1) why you feel they happened, and 2) what you learned from them that you will take with you into this season.

Set Goals for This Year

Many people have an established process for setting goals for their horse’s training. Competition schedules, travel plans, clinics, etc. are all things that help us direct our horse’s progress and development. If you don’t have a method for recording these types of goals now is a great time to start. Or, if you do, now is a great time to freshen up the way you record things and what you set your sights on as you embark on a new year.

Focus on your development as a rider and horseperson is equally important. You may want to set some new outcome (competition) goals for the year, but they need to be supported by well-designed performance goals in order to be productive. Performance goals focus on your personal progress over time. This proactive approach toward your own growth and evolution helps to both prioritize your aspirations and broaden your horizons.

As we saw above, performance goals can be mental and/or physical for you as a rider – and are usually a combination of both.

Goal categories can include:

  • Education goals: What do want to learn about the sport? Or about being successful at a new level?
  • Fitness goals: Are you the athlete you need to be to accomplish your goals?
  • Technical riding goals: These can be related to your position and technique when riding, as well as training methods for you and your horse.
  • Mental skills goals: Strategies to help you prepare effectively for competition, both before and at an event.

Seek Certified, Expert Input

What would it take for you to move up and ride prelim this year? Should you try to buy a young horse with a lot of potential or an older, more seasoned campaigner? These types of questions require careful consideration. In addition to your own evaluation of yourself, and whether or not you are qualified for certain levels of competition, be sure to ask someone who has the training and background to give you a well-rounded response. The ideal person (a trainer, clinician or mentor) will have knowledge of your horse’s skill, but will also be able to focus on your ability, training resources, strength, and commitment. Make sure that you are open to their (hopefully) honest and knowledgeable answer, and take notes on their suggestions. The more information you gather in the initial goal-setting process the better.

Goal setting guidelines:

  1. Use positive language. (“Look up and use focal points in dressage test.”)
  2. Create strategies to support your goals. (Strategy #1: I.D. focal points outside the ring for the arena at home and at the event. Strategy #2: Use cue word ‘eyes’ each time we go down the long side of the arena.)
  3. Record goals and strategies and track your progress daily, weekly or monthly. Develop a creative method for giving yourself ‘credit’ for goals you accomplish.
  4. Ask for help devising strategies from trainers, clinicians, mentors, etc.
  5. Be sure outcome goals (e.g. “Making top ten in training at AEC.”) are supported by specific performance goals and strategies (e.g. “Every gallop in the next month include riding 5 ‘checkpoints’ that simulate jump preparation.”).

The Optimal Idea

“Competition is about the pursuit of excellence. If you are excellent at what you do, you will win.” David O’Connor’s quote from the conference encapsulates the attitude I use everyday with my clients. When your focus is on your performance goals, and they are supported by strategies you utilize every day in training, successful outcomes are right around the corner.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a sport psychology consultant who has specialized in working with equestrian athletes for the past 15 years. She teaches in the Sport Psychology master’s program at JFK University. Her website can be found at: Tonya welcomes your input, questions and comments at