I have a new student who is very intelligent and successful. My student is a heart surgeon. She is highly capable and used to being able to acquire skills quickly. She is probably progressing with her riding more quickly than most people, but she is rather hard on herself. So when she was voicing her frustrations about not learning as quickly as she’d like, I offhandedly said that riding takes time to learn and suggested she not expect it to happen all at once. That was a ridiculous idea to her. She wanted it to happen yesterday!
All too often we do this to ourselves. We are looking for a quick fix or a fast track to success, and there isn’t one. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but riding takes years to get really good. When I was apprenticing with a highly accomplished trainer, I went through a period of frustration with my lack of progress. I couldn’t see my improvements because I wasn’t measuring overall progress. Rather, I looked at the baby steps I was taking on a daily basis. But baby steps are still steps, and in reality I was learning a ton! So how do you know if you’re making good progress? And how do you keep perspective? Here’s a few of my thoughts on the subject.
Set your big goal
Your big goal is the ultimate outcome that you want in your riding. Maybe you want to become an Olympic showjumper. Maybe barrel racing is in your future. Or maybe you just want to learn to stay on while you meander down the trail with a couple of friends. You may not even know enough about horses to be sure what your goal is. That’s okay too. You just need to have an idea of what you’d like to accomplish. Then you can find a riding instructor or trainer to help you in your pursuit.
Find a trainer
Based on your big goal, your next step is to look for a trainer whose area of expertise aligns with what you want to learn to do. Your instructor doesn’t have to be the best of the best in your chosen discipline, they just need to have a solid knowledge of the basics to get you started. And if your goal is just to learn enough about horses to ride safely, maybe you could find a trainer who has experience in a multiple riding styles. Keep in mind that your interests may change as you learn more about riding. Your trainer should help you try different things so you can get an idea what suits you. If not, they should be able to direct you to someone who has expertise in another area.
Set smaller goals
Your smaller goals are steps toward your big goal. Your trainer can help you figure out what the smaller goals should be. For example, if you want to compete in a big national competition, you might start by preparing for some local schooling shows. Then you would work your way toward a regional competition, and so on. Maybe your big goal is to overcome a fear of riding in the open. Then you might start by riding in the round pen or indoor arena, make a goal to be riding in the big outdoor arena within six months, and take your horse to the field and canter after a year. Again, your trainer will assess your current skill level and help you decide what to set for monthly or yearly goals. Your big goal might not even have a time frame yet.
Measure your progress.
I have a skills checklist that I sometimes use with my students. Level one skills are very basic and designed to be accomplished in 6-8 weeks or less. Each level takes a little longer to work through than the last. My students can track their progress with that, and if they are discouraged, they can look back and see how far they have come. Taking videos of your lessons and shows is a good idea too. You can watch your old videos and see the progress you’ve made. Try not to cringe at how bad you used to be!
Don’t compare yourself to others
Watch your videos and compare then and now, but don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Your journey is your own. Other people are on a different path. It’s tempting to look at your friend who was cantering over jumps after only a year of lessons, but don’t! Your friend doesn’t have the same fitness level as you. Your friend has a different situation that comes with different obstacles from you. Remember that what is important is how you learn and grow as you work toward your goal.
Your health is so important no matter what you are working toward. Riding horses is an athletic endeavor. Keep your body fit and healthy by exercising outside of your riding. Make sure you fuel your body with the right kind of food. What you eat can affect your energy levels. You want to be in top form when you’re on top of a horse. Sometimes you need to think fast when you’re riding and fueling your brain with the right kind of food is important too. Also your mental health is important. Like I said above, you need to keep perspective. Part of that is having a healthy outlook and good self esteem. Don’t base your self worth on how well you ride, or whether you achieved your goal in the timeline you set!
Remember, it’s really about the journey. Goals change. Priorities change. Life happens. So enjoy learning to ride better and strive for your goals, but be adaptable too. What matters most is the person you become and the lessons you learn as you strive for those goals!
Stay safe and happy riding!