Everyone talks about how important is it to have goals. But I'd like for you to wrap your mind around the idea that NOT having goals might make you a better rider. It might sound strange. Zen hits a lot of folks that way. But hear me out, and see what you can see.
Let's take a typical scenario. You are past beginner stage. You've purchased a new horse, one that is more talented and capable of going to the big shows. Your new trainer is pushing to 'go for it'. You make a goal of making First Level by fall, or jumping 3'6", or getting a ribbon in an "A" rated show. You and your trainer carefully construct a plan over the next 4 months to reach your objective. Why might your goal hold you and your horse back from being the best that you can be? Goals are a valuable tool for achieving growth, but like the proverbial two edged sword, one must be careful how you handle them, or they can lead you to ruin. Here's a few pitfalls that can be avoided by taking the Zen perspective.
We fall too easily into dualistic thinking. If we're not good enough, then we're bad. Now or never. Correct or incorrect. If 3' 6" is the goal, then only 3' is failure. If you focus on what you want your horse to be in the future, you are not looking at the horse you have today. You may start focusing on negatives- not collected enough, not forward enough, not round enough. He's not good enough. I'm not good enough. We're not ready yet. We're not going to make it. Then you forget to praise the small achievements , because they are not good enough. You start drilling, pushing harder. You're not having fun anymore. Neither is your horse. He gets worse instead of better, starts getting gate sour, or tossing his head, or getting hard to catch. Will this help you reach your goal?
You have to ride the horse that is under you right now. Today, he may be stiff, or distracted by the wind, or just bored with the same old stuff and needing to go for a trail ride. If you have a timetable of achievements to keep to, you may not address the things that come up from day to day. If you push when he needs more time to warm up, you may injure him. You have to deal with today's issues, you can't put it off because you have to stay on a fixed schedule to meet your goal. And if you are foolish enough to waste time on a set training schedule, you will find it will not work. This horse may need to stay at 3' for many months to attain confidence, while another may be ready to move up in a few weeks. Some horses may find collection easy, while another needs months of proper conditioning to strengthen the necessary muscles. One horse may need more variety to keep from getting ring sour. The infinite differences in athletic potential between horses will blow your schedule all full of holes. You have only given yourselves more opportunities to fail at keeping on schedule.
Then there is the trap of trying too hard. Struggle creates tension, in both our minds and our bodies. When we are tense, are bodies stiffen. Our aids become muffled, and our horses cannot accomplish anything when they are stiff. We must stop struggling, and relax. Also, when we try too hard, our minds focus too narrowly on one issue, we loose sight of the big picture. If we are working on say, getting our horse more collected for the show next month, you may be tempted to try the quick fix, and settle for just getting him to look round. We focus on where is nose is, and our hands might become stiff, and too busy, and even if we are able to get our horses nose in the correct place, he may be tense and locked, loosing his engagement behind. And then you end up with headset instead of collection. And even if headset will get you by for the show next month, will it improve your horses training in the long term? Or, can you make that 3' 6" jump, but your horse is rushing and hollow, and his back is getting sore? Will this help you meet your goal?
What happens if you take off the pressure of achieving a set goal on a certain date? You do what you need to do when you need to do it. Instead of thinking "we have to be able to jump 3' 6" by next month" you can focus on here and now, THIS jump. Paying attention to every detail as it happens. As we approach, we keep the rhythm steady all the way to the jump. We focus on our position. Are we gripping too tight with our knees? Going with the horse over the jump. Giving with our hands to allow him room to jump. Keeping the rhythm the same after the jump. Did he use his back properly? Did he scrape the top pole with his feet? What was good about the jump? Was this jump better than the one a minute ago? Did we praise our horse for his better effort? If not, what happened, and how can I make the next jump better? There is an infinite amount of details that we should be paying attention too on every single jump. How can be any room left in our mind for what we need to do next month?
In dressage especially, the fitness of the horse is an essential part of being able to do the movements correctly. For collected trot, the horse must use his back and hindquarter muscles in a way that has not been required of him yet. We must focus on every step so that a tiny amount of improvement in the next three strides can be acknowledged, praised, and rewarded. If your horse can only do 3 steps of more collected trot in the corner, you should praise and reward him as though he just won the Olympics. But if you are focusing on the Olympics at the time, you may despair because those 3 strides are so far from your goal of being able to do an even more collected trot all through your test. By being -here, now- you can be winners right now. Those 3 strides of noticeably improved trot are your victory. You and your horse have achieved success. You can relax, and stop struggling because you know that this task is within your capabilities. When you concentrate on 'doing it right' instead of all the things you are doing wrong, your body and your mind stop struggling. Everything becomes easier. Success will help both you and your horse relax and enjoy the work. The next time you try, you may get 5 steps. Next day, you may get 8 steps. This is the way to success. One stride at a time.
But if tomorrow, you can't get any good steps, then you have to be right there, too. Going backwards in progress is inevitable at one time or another. Instead of attaching emotions or ego to the situation, you need to ride those steps, and experience them fully, and discover why this new thing is happening. By staying calm and rational, we can see more clearly. Is your horse sore from yesterday's work? A day of stretching those muscles that we contracted yesterday, although it may seem like going backwards, will help your horse collect more tomorrow. Or if he needs to go for a gallop for some mental relaxation, then that is what you should do. Perhaps your horse is telling you that one aspect of his new task is unclear. By going back to the beginning, breaking everything down into small steps, you will discover the small aspect that is keeping you from progress. By addressing it early, it can save you much time in the long run by fixing something before it becomes ingrained. Training correctly is ever so much faster than training incorrectly, and retraining after it becomes habitual. Focusing on the horse that is under you, instead of the horse you want next summer will help you see these small mistakes before they become habit.
Goals should be seen as a general direction. To get there, you do not always follow a linear path. You sometimes circle around an obstacle before you find the best way past it. By studying the obstacle, you will be better prepared to deal with another that is similar. So, by paying strict attention to your problems, now, here, today, instead of being upset by them, or ignoring them, you will speed your progress to your goal.
There will be days when your goal seems unobtainable. Just too far away to see clearly. On these days, perhaps you should remember the first reasons why you wanted to ride horses. That goal was probably not part of those reasons. You probably sought companionship, or the freedom and power that you experienced when you rode. Or the peace of ambling down a country road, enjoying the scenery. Whatever the reason, remember what is was back then, and go enjoy doing just that. To just enjoy our horses often puts our goal in a different prospective. Perhaps you can see that the goal may not be as important as what you experience along the path to get there. If you make a goal to make today's ride as good as it can be today, on the horse that is under you, every ride will be a success. And you and your horse will blossom with pride and accomplishment, and your goal will be closer for it.
by Katie Watts
Be not afraid of growing slowly: be afraid only of standing still.
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Classical Dressage Notebook