How goal setting helps me stay motivated to ride my horse -

Built-In Motivation

Up until a few years ago, motivation was never an issue for me. I grew up in Pony Club, doing eventing and dressage. We showed every weekend, there were Pony Club rallies and testings to work toward, and we always had a few horses on the go in the yard.

As an adult and a “professional equestrian”, motivation was still not something I struggled with. Life seemed very much like an extension of my childhood – constant shows, clinics and lessons.

After I left the “professional” world (or, as my parents would say, “got a real job”) and became an amateur rider again, I was lucky enough to be able to school a few horses at my trainer’s barn, and with a private lesson a week to boot, I had “built in” motivation. The horses I rode were challenging, and show & clinic opportunities presented themselves often enough that I never worried about what “kept me going”. As it had been since childhood, I was motivated by “the next show” or “the next level”.

how goal setting helps me find motivation to ride my horse -


When Everything Changed…

Then life changed. I bought a six year old Connemara mare, Stella, who almost immediately developed a gastric ulcer. It took months of treatment to get rid of the ulcer, and during the time she had it, Stella became a bit of a nightmare, both under saddle and on the ground. Through slow and steady work, we got her back to the point where I could safely get on and ride, but I knew the only way to keep the ulcers from coming back was a change in lifestyle.

Fast forward two years. Never ones to do things by half measures, my husband and I bought a little farm, and moved Stella home along with our older mare, Sunny. Both horses now live an idyllic life. Stella works about three or four days a week and we are steadily making our way toward her being a “nice little dressage horse”, but I had made a promise to her that her life would be stress free, so the idea of spending our weekends away at shows and clinics isn’t really in the stars for us.

And that’s when the motivation (or lack thereof) became an issue. For the first time in my horsey-life, I don’t have a show to get ready for. That built-in sense of urgency is gone, to the point that some days I don’t even end up riding at all. Some days Stella and I work on things like self-parking at the mounting block, or turn on the haunches in hand. Some days I brush out her tail, or pull her mane. Some days I sit on an upturned bucket in the middle of the paddock and watch my horses graze.

I live quite a distance from my coach now, so while I had been spoiled in the past with constant private lessons from her (or even just having her call out a few tips while we were riding together), I’m pretty much on my own now. 

Realizing I’d Lost my Motivation

I remember the moment it hit me that I was suffering from a lack of motivation. It was a warm summer evening, perfect for riding, and I suddenly realized that I was going through a mental checklist of excuses as to why I didn’t want to just tack up and get on. That’s when I decided I had to make a change, because while my goals were still the same (bringing Stella along as a dressage horse, and improving my skill, timing and feel as a rider), not having my usual set of motivations to fall back on was making those goals harder and harder to reach.

I did a lot of soul searching, and a lot of goal-writing. I came to the conclusion that motivation is fleeting. It doesn’t last. If you have external motivations, like a horse show next weekend, well, that’s one thing. But maintaining “internal motivation” is an entirely different bucket of oats. So instead, I decided that goal-setting made more sense to me than finding another set of external motivations.

And by goal-setting, I don’t mean “dreaming” or “wishing”. I mean actually sitting down, putting pen to paper, and writing out some meaningful goals that I can reach with some hard work, but that will also be a bit of a stretch. Realistic goals, with definite timelines and desired outcomes. I’ve created a chart to keep track of my rides, and I journal after each ride as to how things are going.

Goal setting, charting my ride days, and journalling have now become habits for me. And those habits are what keep me going when I’m not feeling as motivated as I’d like. When I feel my motivation begin to wane, I look back through my journal, and look over my charts, and remind myself of how far I’ve come. It’s like my new-found habits have become the external motivation I lost when I stopped showing.

Goal-Setting 101

Setting good goals isn’t easy. If you don’t get extremely clear with yourself about what it is exactly that you want to accomplish, and how you’re going to do that, then you’re not setting goals, you’re just dreaming. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dreaming. But there’s a time and a place for that. Now is not that time).

I follow the “S.M.A.R.T.” method of goal setting. For me, this means that a goal has to be Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound. Take a look at the two following “goals”:

  1. I will get Stella fit.
  2. Stella will be fit enough for a 45 minute schooling ride by November 15. I will accomplish this by riding for between 20 and 45 minutes on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. I will start at 10 minutes per ride, and add five minutes every week.

Which one sounds like it’s actually going to yield results? You guessed it – goal number two. The first goal is a lovely sentiment, but does not include a plan for actually getting it done. The second goal fills me with confidence that I can achieve it, because it’s a S.M.A.R.T. goal:

Specific Goal: To have Stella fit enough to do a 45-minute schooling ride

Measurements: I will ride at least three days a week for the next eight weeks.

Actions: I will start at 10 minute rides, and add five minutes every week.

Realistic? Yes. I am at off work on Saturdays and Sundays so finding time to ride isn’t a problem; I can come to work early and leave early on Wednesdays to fit in my third ride.

Time-bound? Yes. My deadline is November 15.

Goal Setting Worksheets

I like to use a goal setting worksheet, like this one, to help walk me through my goal:


S.M.A.R.T. Goal Worksheet

Thanks in part to having filled out this simple little form so many weeks ago, I’m happy to say that Stella is now fit enough to go for a schooling ride, or a hack around the field, or whatever it is that we want to do. Having said that, today is November 15, and winter has come to Canada. Yesterday was our first snow fall, and the fields are now soft and squishy and ready to rest for the winter. It’s time to put the tack up for the season and focus on some non-riding goals. But after my success with making goal-setting and journaling a habit, I feel confident that I can achieve whatever I set out to.

How about you? Have you ever lost your riding mojo? How did you get past it? Where does your motivation come from? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!