Rider Responsibility and Effective Goal-Setting

Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding at summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on finishing up her Doctorate and requirements to be a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Abby Powell.

The summer after my freshman year of college was the first time that I was able to cross the finish flags of a recognized event, and to say I was hooked was an understatement. I had always been interested in the sport of Eventing, but competing didn’t become a reality until I was able to work through some serious training gaps in the OTTB my parents had bought me when I was 14 years old.

After a solid year of Dressage boot camp, “Fred” and I were able to have an awesome summer, bringing home ribbons at both the Beginner Novice and Novice level. Unfortunately, when I returned to school I received advice that would ultimately ruin my competition success in eventing. I was told that if I wanted to be anyone in this sport, that I would need to buy a nicer horse and I would need to set my sights on making it to Young Riders.

Mind you, I had maybe completed four Novice courses at this point. But my parents knew how much riding meant to me, so they agreed and bought me a horse that had a nice record at Prelim. I had two years to go from Novice to 2* and I laid out my goals accordingly. I knew it would be a stretch, but I’m a hard worker, so I thought that I could do it.

The problem was, I got so focused on the outcomes of the shows, that I stopped actually figuring out HOW to ride my horse.

We did OK at first, but as I moved up to Training, it was clear that there were gaps in my riding that were difficult to overcome when all I wanted to do was check the boxes of completing shows. I ended up falling off my new horse, Andy, at my first attempt at a Training Three-Day and I was absolutely devastated. Andy and I were fine and healthy (we actually ended up even running the one-day Training event over the same weekend) but my mindset and attitude went down in the dumps because my move-up plans were ruined.

For most riders, the pressure to move up the levels is not a foreign concept. The natural progression of riding and improving is the desire to challenge yourself at the next big thing. However, so often when we focus just on the move-up, qualifications and outcomes of events themselves we cause ourselves stress, disappointment and even performance breakdowns.

The environment and culture around the move-up can be toxic at best and dangerous at worst. When we don’t prepare ourselves properly for the skills required of the levels we are doing, accidents can and will happen.

So, how does this tie into Sport Psychology? In my practice, I do a lot of work to help riders set effective goals. Goals help us shape our focus, and focus helps us perform at our peak. The goal to move-up is of course a goal, however, it lacks the specificity and direction of HOW and WHAT needs to be completed to get there. HOW do you level up mentally, physically and technically from a Novice level rider to a Training level rider? WHAT are your strengths and weaknesses? WHAT skills do you need to learn about and master? HOW do you know if you are truly ready to move up a level?

Have big goals? What does your goal planning process look like? Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Chances are, your goals look something like this: 

  • July 30th- Novice at Jersey 
  • August 13th- Novice at Fair Hill 
  • September 3rd- Novice at Seneca (LAST ONE!!!) 
  • October 5th- MOVE UP TO TRAINING @ Morven!!!! 

Sure, you’ve got things you’re ‘working on’ in your lessons, and you’re probably practicing things that you need to practice, but do you get more specific about what gaps you need to fill to actually move up a level successfully? I’m not saying that you can’t set a goal that is outcome-based — in fact, this is part of the process. Winning a ribbon, getting a qualifying score, and going double clear are all great examples of outcome goals. Even as we keep these things in mind, we can’t stop there.

It is MORE important to focus on what are known as Process Goals. Process Goals focus on the action required of a given task; for example, making sure that you and your horse have the proper level of fitness, making sure that you’ve mastered the collective marks in your dressage test and understanding the technical approach to certain cross country questions that might appear at your level.

I find that a lot of equestrians shy away from specific goal-setting because they believe that they need to remain open to the ever changing needs of their horse. While I don’t deny that horsemanship requires adaptability, it doesn’t mean your goal setting should be thrown to the wayside. Do you set goals for yourself? Be honest: are you more focused on the outcomes of your work or the process?

Whether your goal is to go to the 5* level or make it to Training level, the process of making a goal into reality is the same. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Even if you never want to leave the start box at an official event, I can’t stress the importance of setting effective goals. The process helps us to look forwards in a productive way but also allows us to be more self-aware and self-reflective.

The best news? This doesn’t even take that much time- so grab a pen and some paper and you’re one step closer to being a goal-oriented and responsible rider!

Here’s a quick example of what more effective goals might look like for moving up to Training level (want to try this out? Click here to download this worksheet as a PDF):

Goal Setting Worksheet

Main Goal: Move up to Training level this fall

Motivation for Goal:

  • Demonstrate the progress I have made in my training
  • Increase trust and relationship I have with my horse
  • To HAVE FUN!

Process Goals (what specific skills are you working on to make your main goal possible):

  • Improve my personal fitness and stamina by working out a minimum of 3 times a week for 30 minutes
  • Improve rhythm and relaxation in dressage through working with a new dressage trainer 2x a week
  • Increase adjustability of canter and improve understanding of appropriate balance to have for different jumping questions- take videos and review what feels and looks the best
  • Increase my horse’s fitness routine- work with my trainer to come up with an appropriate balance of fitness/jumping/dressage and hack/recovery days
  • Work on confidence/mindset- begin a confidence journal based on the technical skills I am working to master and track progress.

You can even take this one step further and identify different obstacles and behaviors that might facilitate or inhibit your performance, with a readiness plan like this one:

Readiness Plan:

Preparation: Technical, strategic, physical & psychological readiness for training and competition
Goal: Build confidence through competence and practice. Make sure that I am getting ample time to practice Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country and am feeling good about all of the skills required of the level.
Obstacle: Finding the time to balance practice of the three phases with my horses fitness work and other life distractions
Behavior: Plan my weeks ahead of time, being realistic about time commitments that I can make. Start a confidence journal where I track the progress of my training

Resilience and coping with adversity: Positive coping with performance challenges, setbacks, and errors
Goal: Find a process to help calm my mind/emotions during show jumping when I’m struggling to see a distance
Obstacle: My tendency to get frustrated and emotional as things go wrong
Behavior: Practice thought stopping and keep a self-talk log

Focus: Concentration on the most important parts of the task at hand and being able to shift attention when needed and letting go of distractions
Goal: Quiet my mind to distractions in the show ring
Obstacle: Tendency to be an overthinker
Behavior: Add in a mindfulness routine out of the saddle to strengthen the mental muscle of focus

With a robust plan like this one, you can make the move up without the harsh discovery of those gaps in your preparation.