Turn Riding Dreams into Plans with a Goals Calendar

By, Liz Piacentini

Spring is my favorite time to fine-tune the riding goal I set back in January. I’ve already determined where I’d like my horse and I to be by October. The steps I need to get there, however, could really use some work. Creating a goals calendar works best for me. It helps me turn what I should work on into a specific plan of action for improvement.

Opening photo of calendar

Whether on-line or on paper, a goals calendar helps me break down my objective for the year into bite size chunks. I use one calendar to summarize the clinics and shows for my discipline. The instant timeline makes it easy to build a plan and prioritize my monthly and weekly learning opportunities.

I start by gathering the latest newsletters and publications from my favorite riding clubs and organizations. Then, I follow these simple steps:

How to Create a Goals Calendar to Plan and Prioritize your Progress:

Outline Your Options

  • Write upcoming events for your discipline on a calendar – Select events you are realistically comfortable traveling to. If two are offered on the same day, list both! Include seminars and clinics, not just competitions.
  • Add basic details – Include the farm name or location. What’s the clinic theme? Are shows schooling or recognized? Details help you select the best options.
  • Enter closing dates – Don’t miss out! Mark the dates shows and popular events need your entry.
  • Include work, school or family obligations – Block off your summer family vacation, annual business conference, or important school trip. But, keep your options open. List horse events available during these dates in case plans change.
  • Include other equine activities – Add volunteer work or courses.
  • Save room for FUN stuff – Write down that beach ride or trail day you’re planning with friends.
  • Add new events throughout the season – Continue to look for new opportunities as barns and organizations add to their event schedules.

Identify Your Stepping Stones

Your goals calendar now contains your personal collection of opportunities for learning, riding and testing your skills. Review the options available for each month. Which ones provide the best ways to develop your skills in a progressive manner? Which ones offer ideal experiences for your horse?  How many can you realistically attend?

Quote, a goal should scare you a little, & excite you a lot.Highlight two or more events you can commit to each month. These become your short-term goals – stepping stones of learning for you and your horse. For example, let’s say your first goal is to ride in a stadium jumping clinic coming to a new farm. You’ll get to sharpen technical skills while exposing your horse to a new venue. Your second goal is to return to the same farm and compete in a jumper show later that month. Set yourself up for building success.

Your trainer can help you identify the experiences best suited for you and your horse. Remember, you don’t have to show to have goals! Between ground work clinics, organized trail rides, equestrian sport psychology seminars, and symposiums to audit, there are plenty of non-competitive ways to keep your learning on track.

Add Supportive Actions

Look at the opportunities you highlighted. Think about how you can maximize the time between these stepping stones with effective supportive actions. Ask yourself what you need to do to prepare for each short-term goal. What are the possible road blocks you may face? Then, think of how you can overcome these challenges. Discuss your thoughts with your trainer. Determine the best proactive approach and ideal days for lessons.

Get creative! You may have to think outside the arena to tackle your road blocks. Do you need to work on trailer loading? Are you a stiff rider who could benefit from stretching exercises or yoga? If weekly lessons are beyond your budget, try watching training videos to supplement your learning. How about health and wellness for your horse? Maybe it’s a good time for a visit from the equine dentist. Using a calendar helps manage your time and reduce scrambling at the last minute.

Be Prepared for Change

We’ve all been there. Just when you feel completely on track, your horse gets an abscess before show day. Or, maybe you’re the one with a setback that prevents you from joining friends on a special trail ride. Whatever the unfortunate circumstance, now and then we may have to make the best of a disappointing situation.

Facing setbacks is one reason why I list multiple events for the same day on my calendar. My Plan B’s are already visible. If I can’t ride in a show, maybe I can volunteer or audit a clinic. Setbacks don’t always mean our goals come to a dramatic sliding stop. They may just need postponing. Seeing other options helps redirect our actions into resilient comebacks.

Quote, Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and a plan.Other times we may need to change our short-term goals. You and your young horse may not be ready for that big show at the end of the summer. What are the other available choices on your calendar? Changing doesn’t mean failing. You simply have the good sense to do what’s right for you and your horse and chose a different path for progress. In the long run, a local schooling show instead of a large recognized show may be what’s needed for a stronger foundation.

Get Started!

Have fun organizing your riding plans on a goals calendar. But remember, a plan only describes your intentions. So, get busy! Start doing the things that strengthen and motivate you to become a better rider. Venture outside your comfort zone and embrace opportunities with your supporters. After all, while it is rewarding to achieve a long-term goal, our real growth lies in the experiences, challenges, and change we experience along the way.

Enjoy the journey!

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How Riders Can Boost Their Positive Mindset with Gratitude

By, Liz Piacentini

Gratitude Blog Header

I recently read that one of the most effective and easy ways to cultivate positivity is by practicing GRATITUDE.   Simply write down what you are grateful for each day.  You can keep a riding journal or start a gratitude jar.  Either way, by practicing this simple skill, you’ll train your brain to first seek the positives as opposed to the negatives.

Sounded easy enough.  I decorated a jar and decided to give it a try.

Benefits of Gratitude for Riders

Having an attitude of gratitude shifts our perspective to a more positive outlook and helps us stay focused on the present.  For riders, this is exactly where we want our mindset to be!  When we ride with a positive present-state mindset, we are concentrating on the jump in front of us.  We’re not thinking of the rail we just dropped or the future ribbon we hope to win.   We’re focused on what we need to do in the moment instead of on the worrisome “what if’s”.

According to scientific expert, Dr. Robert Emmons, when we are grateful, we become better at deflecting negative thoughts.  We are even more successful at achieving our goals.  Basically, because gratitude is a motivating emotion, it leads us to eagerly take action.

Essentially, when we practice gratitude, we experience increased happiness.  When we are happier, our brains release hormones associated with self-belief and optimism.  The greater our self-belief and optimism, the better we are at building confidence and being resilient under pressure.

An Equestrian Gratitude Jar:  Same Concept, Different Twist

Gratitude jar with noteYou’ve probably heard of a gratitude jar.  Typical instructions suggest writing down 1-3 things you are grateful for, no matter how small, every day.  The key is to have daily appreciation for different feelings, people or experiences.  At the end of the year, read your notes and you’ll be amazed at the amount of positive experiences.

I decided waiting until New Year’s Eve to tip over my jar and read my moments of gratitude was too long to wait.  I honestly need a spark of motivation more than once a year! I quickly discovered how keeping a gratitude jar could be tweaked for equestrians.

How to Cultivate a More Positive Mindset with a Gratitude Jar:

  • Choose a small jar – small enough to store in your tack trunk where it’s easily accessible.  The jar itself is a visual reminder to look for things you’re grateful for.
  • Write down 1-3 thoughts of gratitude – after each ride, or visit with your horse.  Reflect on feelings and observations. Consider your supporters, accomplishments and lessons learned.
  • Date each note – to help monitor progress or mark achievements.
  • Re-read your notes MONTHLY – for frequent boosts of motivation.  Enjoy the opportunity to smile at the silly things and celebrate growth.  You may even notice useful feedback for your training program.
  • Display meaningful memories – At the end of each month, tape your favorite notes to the inside of your tack trunk or post them on a bulletin board.  Perhaps you felt totally re-charged after an amazing trail ride, or extremely thankful for your trainer’s insights as you completed a short-term goal.

Gratitude bulletin board image

Mentally reliving favorite moments provides more time for you to savor positive experiences.  According to psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, this is when the real change takes place in the brain.  The more we take time to absorb our good memories, the more our brain releases good neurochemicals.  The neurons that fire together, wire together!  Over time, our brain forms more pathways to positivity.

  • Build Team Support – Do you coach a team?  Start a team gratitude jar!  Place one larger jar, scrap paper and colored pens in a central location.  Inspire positive attitudes and stronger connections by having riders write down what they are grateful for after each practice and competition.  You may even discover riders sharing appreciation for each other.

A team jar is a creative way to remind riders that even mistakes are something to be grateful for.  Yup.  Inside every mistake is a hidden opportunity to learn and grow.

Keeping a gratitude jar is a simple way to reflect on the good times spent with your horse.  It’s easy to recall a proud moment you worked hard for at a horse show or the compliment received from a clinician.

More importantly, keeping a gratitude jar heightens our awareness of the little moments we appreciate by inspiring us to look for them in the first place.  Perhaps it’s being thankful your horse didn’t roll in the mud when you were short on time, or having an indoor arena to ride in on a rainy day.

Did the gratitude jar work?

Yes!  I actually had a more positive outlook after a few weeks.  I found myself looking on the bright side of numerous situations – even being stuck in a traffic jam.

So, get creative! Have fun practicing gratitude to train your brain to first look for the positives.  After all, happiness, self-believe, optimism and resilience are worth cultivating to help you ride at your best.

Treasure the simple pleasures and enjoy the journey!

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Quit Sabotaging Results! Turn Negative Thoughts into Positives

By, Liz Piacentini
Opening image of horse & riderHave you ever really paid attention to the mental dialogue chattering between your ears?  We all have thousands of thoughts racing through our brains every hour.  But, when these thoughts become overwhelmingly negative, our emotions can impact our motions when we ride.

Constant negativity fuels worry, reduces confidence and ultimately lowers performance. As equestrians, it’s essential to develop an awareness of our verbal and non-verbal dialogue and make every effort to keep it positive.  If not, we risk sabotaging our results – and the results of others!

My awakening to the power of positive thinking began several years ago, when I was studying for the Certified Meeting Professional exam.  After I became a CMP, I dedicated nine years to teaching a review course for fellow professionals preparing for the exam.  I witnessed how critical it was for study group participants to maintain a positive mindset.  Repeated negative comments had a way of becoming contagious, infecting everyone in the group with worry and self-doubt.

Cultivate positive thoughts, Grow better results. I kicked off each semester with a course overview for the experienced professionals. They all had qualified to sit for the exam, yet most felt overwhelmed by the volume of information and pressure to do well on exam day.

Comments like, “I can’t learn all this material,” “if only I was better at studying,” or “I’ll never pass this exam,” typically surfaced.  I knew that if the negative discussion wasn’t nipped in the bud, they could find themselves spiraling towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Hum, this reminded me of language I’d periodically hear from riders preparing for a dressage test!  I recalled my recent experience listening to Olympic coach, Jane Savoie.  Jane explained how top riders pay close attention to their self-talk and speech to avoid sabotaging their results.  They practice re-phrasing their inner dialogue to eliminate the negative elements.  This allows their sub-conscious mind to direct their thoughts, attitude and actions towards their goal instead of away from it.  Here are some examples:

Effective riders turn negative thoughts into positive pro-active statements:

  • I can’t, becomes: I can! 
  • I should take more lessons, becomes: I must.
  • I hate riding last in my class, becomes: I love riding last.
  • I’ll try to ride more often, becomes more committed with: I will ride more often.
  • If I could learn shoulder-in, becomes a determined action with: When I learn shoulder-in.
  • Don’t knock down a rail, becomes a reminder of what to do with: Ride with forward rhythm over each fence.

The first year I taught the course, I shared the value of this line of thinking with the class.  Participants soon sharpened their awareness and became each other’s speech police.  They worked together to re-phase statements doomed for gloom into positive affirmations.  Students who learned how to turn negatives into positives became more motivated, dedicated and successful.  The emphasis on positive thinking actually helped increase the overall confidence level and success of the whole group!

Yes, there were still moments when someone would get discouraged and yell, “Why can’t I get these definitions right?  Because I must be stupid!”  Of course, they weren’t stupid.  “Why” questions have a tendency to lead to lousy answers.  It was time to apply another one of Jane’s tips:

Ask a better question.  Jane had shared how WHY questions cause our brains to search for an answer that confirms why the problem exists.  By using WHAT or HOW, instead of WHY, we gain a solution-driven answer.  For example:

Challenge:  “WHY am I so nervous riding at shows?  Because I’m such a wimp who always falls apart!” 

Opportunity:  “WHAT strategies can I practice to increase my confidence and focus?”  “HOW can I better prepare to ride at my best?”

I shared the technique with the class.  Sure enough, the study group started replacing WHY with HOW or WHAT to uncover solutions.  The initial question now became, “HOW can I remember the definition?”, or “WHAT memory trigger can I apply for this word?”  After a bit of brainstorming, someone would come up with a catchy rhyme or silly reminder to get us laughing and plant the word’s definition in everyone’s head.

Like strengthening a muscle, re-programming our thinking is a gradual process that begins with awareness.  Once you become more aware of what you’re thinking, you might be amazed at the amount of negative self-talk you hear!  The truth is, we are hard-wired to experience more negative thoughts than positive thoughts.  It’s an evolutionary mechanism dating back to our cave man days to help us escape potential threats.

Does this mean everyone in the class developed the ability to dismiss all their negative thoughts and worries about exam day?  Of course, not.  But when negative self-doubt became a distraction, they recognized the opportunity to reset their thoughts and choose a solution-driven alternative.  Oh, exam day jitters would still be there.  However, instead of staying focused on the anxiety, they could redirect their attention towards what they needed to do to succeed.

I may have been the teacher, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson.  Our thoughts either motivate us toward success or away from it.  As riders, we can choose thoughts that build us up, increase our confidence, and sharpen our focus.  Or, we can choose thoughts that break us down, generate self-doubt, and create distraction.

Take a dose of the letter C image

Need some help getting started?  Follow Coach Daniel Stewart’s advice – take a dose of the Letter C.  Why C?  Because the greatest number of positive feelings begin with C.  Select the emotions that identify you at your best.  Then, imagine yourself Confident and Calm and act that way!  Raise your chin and take a calming deep breath.

Whether you ride in a lesson program, on a competitive team, or with fellow boarders on the trail, practice turning negative thoughts into positives.   You’ll cultivate a more supportive atmosphere that boosts each other’s confidence and inspires better performance.  Apply these tips the next time you get a case of the negative notions and unlock an opportunity to ride at your best.

Enjoy the journey!

Opening photo: Copyright Lynne Ann Photography

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Start a Riding Journal to Improve Performance and Well-being

-By, Liz Piacentini

Have you ever experienced a great lesson only to find yourself struggling to remember your trainer’s valuable insights a week later?  If this sounds familiar, keeping a riding journal may provide the ideal solution.  Journaling not only helps you retain technical instruction, it allows you to re-live awesome moments in the saddle, monitor progress and even improve your personal well-being.

Journaling photo

For five dollars or less, you can purchase anything from a hard-covered journal with an inspirational cover to a simple spiral notebook.  The best option is to choose something portable to keep in your tack box, truck or wherever you’ll have easy access.  Yes, you can use your favorite electronic device, but the key is to determine what you’re most likely to use.

After a memorable ride, lesson, or clinic, find a quiet place to jot down your meaningful memories.  Writing an entry within 24-hours of putting your horse away will help you capture the most detail.  Let your thoughts flow without worry of grammar or spelling.

Need help starting a journal?  Practice these brain triggers to get your pen busy writing:

List your trainer’s key instructions or repeated phrases.  In today’s hectic world, our minds are already on overload juggling work or school, family, and barn chores.  Instead of feeling anxious about trying to remember the sequence of aids you just practiced, write them down!  Make a simple list of the phrases that stood out during the lesson. The act of writing helps us process the information and retain the technical skills we’re learning.

Describe one meaningful moment in the saddle – As riders, we work hard to experience those few strides when our trainer shouts, “Yes, that’s it! Awesome!”  Describe what you did and how you felt leading up to that moment when your horse (and you) earned a big pat.  Don’t skimp on the details either.  What was the weather? Were you riding indoors or outside?  The more vividly you can describe the ride, the better you’ll be at re-experiencing the lesson mentally when you re-read your journal.

Write down three things you’re grateful for –  Practice searching for the positives and you’ll be more likely to ride with a positive mind-set. Studies by Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor, have shown that when we have an attitude of gratitude we experience greater optimism and increased happiness.  In fact, when we are happier, we can increase overall performance by 31%!  Now that’s a performance edge worth working on.

Reflect on time spent with your horse – Not every entry has to recount the technical elements of a lesson.  Sometimes we do our best planning, goal setting and decision making while enjoying a hack, grooming our horse, or even mucking a stall!  Use your journal to record your plans or to recall the simple pleasures at the barn that made you smile.

Journals-replace frustration and neg thinking with positive memories

Keeping a journal doesn’t require a lot of time – just consistency.  Regularly recording your thoughts helps turn journaling into a habit.  Be creative and feel free to add a personal touch.   There isn’t a section for judge’s comments in the back of your book to worry about!  Try these ideas for personalizing your journal and make re-reading your notes more beneficial:

  • Add a Photo – You’ve been working hard on developing a good position over fences and a friend happens to capture one of your best jumps on camera. Add the photo to your journal!  It’s a great way to record progress and visualize your ideal form in the saddle each time you read the entry.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Insert an Article – Imagine a lesson where your trainer is explaining how to perform shoulder-in. You’ve got a basic understanding, but still feel uncoordinated when practicing the movement.  Then, you discover a magazine article that breaks down the aids with simplified illustrations.  Bingo!  Add the article to your journal to compliment your lesson notes.  Re-reading your entry and the article may spark an “a-ha” moment.  Three-ring binders work great for this style of journaling.
  • Include a Favorite Quote –Did your motivation get a boost from a quote you stumbled upon? Add it to your journal!  Inspiring words of wisdom help us build positive momentum during times when we feel stuck.

Motivational Journal cover image

Once you start a journal, read it!  Re-reading your notes allows you to recall great advice from trainers, identify behavior patterns, monitor improvements and re-live great experiences.

Have a highlighter handy for any light-bulb moments.  Remember that phrase your trainer repeated during your lesson a few weeks ago?  It may take on a whole new level of meaning after a clinician words the same concept differently.   We’ve all heard things like “heels down” a thousand times.   Maybe it’s the day we hear “toes up” that suddenly adds technical clarity.

Feeling frustrated with your progress?  Reading about a previous great moment in the saddle can do wonders for boosting self-esteem and reminding us we are capable of working through challenges.  Re-living memorable moments gives us the opportunity to strengthen our learning, improve our positivity, and enhance our well-being.

Start a riding journal, and over time, you’ll develop a personal reference manual for tips, techniques, best practices and motivation.

Enjoy the Journey!

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Ride Beyond the Familiar: 10 Tips to Expand Your Comfort Zone

By, Liz Piacentini

Stuck in your comfort zone?For some equestrians, it can be tempting to ride within the cozy limits of our comfort zone. It’s a place of low risk where we feel secure, in control, and know what to expect. However, doing the same-old routine limits experiences and achievements for both horse and rider.  In order to progress and reach the goals we dream of, we need to expand our comfort zones by embracing new learning opportunities.

Doesn’t stretching our comfort zone mean we may experience moments of feeling awkward, uncoordinated or nervous?  Yup!  But by gradually challenging ourselves we can grow.

I recently had the pleasure of being a demo rider in an area dressage clinic. I viewed this as a great opportunity to learn from a well-respected trainer and ride in a show-like environment.  My horse, Lyrical, and I hadn’t shown in over a year.  I thought this would provide a great step towards returning to the local shows we participate in.  It also meant I’d have to ride in front of a crowd.

Clinic day arrived. The trainer started by asking if there was anything in particular I’d like to work on.  As we walked along, I responded, “I need to work on getting my horse to be more forward.”

As if on cue, Lyrical caught something out of the corner of his eye and leaped into several big, bold strides of canter.  He then returned to the walk as if nothing happened. The auditors and myself burst into laughter.  My nervous tension had been broken. Laughter has a way of doing that.

I faced my fear of not riding at my best and accepted the fact that, well…things happen.  Horses have a way of keeping us humble.  I took a deep calming breath, made the decision to consider the crowd my sympathetic supporters, and focused on the instructor.  Getting started had been the hardest part.  I reminded myself we can do this, took more deep breaths, and enjoyed a positive learning experience.

If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to audit the clinic?  Sure!  Would I have gotten as much out of it?  Nope!  By stretching my comfort zone, I practiced technical skills AND gained more confidence about our upcoming shows.

Let’s face it, stretching our comfort zone IS uncomfortable.  In fact, if we don’t feel uncomfortable, we’re probably stuck in our comfort zone. It requires embracing change, and change is never easy.  Sometimes it’s actually downright frightening.

So, what can YOU do to make stretching your comfort zone a little easier?

Here are 10 tips for expanding your comfort zone and moving closer toward your riding goals:

1.  Set Realistic Short-term Goals – Think of what you want to develop this season. Big dreams are great, but can be overwhelming.  To simplify getting out of your comfort zone, determine more immediate skills and activities that will help you progress toward your long-term goal.

2.  Take the First Step – It doesn’t have to be huge to be a start. But start! Prioritizing those short-term goals can help you decide where to begin.  Even scheduling that first lesson with a new trainer or submitting the registration for an exciting clinic triggers a motivational beginning. 

Small Jump, easy first step

Set yourself up for success with an inviting first step.

3.  Give Yourself the Gift of Time – If you’ve been out of the saddle awhile, have patience.  It often takes longer than anticipated to get to where you want to be – especially If you’ve experienced an injury.  Work with an understanding trainer and consider complimenting your riding with exercise that builds core strength for greater stability in the saddle.  Greater stability builds confidence.

4.  Surround Yourself with Supportive Riders – The enthusiasm of others can fuel your momentum or give you a boost when you need it most. Positive energy and support sparks a “can do” attitude.  You may discover yourself venturing beyond your comfort zone simply by having fun doing something new with capable equestrians who understand your abilities and goals.

5.  Maintain Positive Self-talk – We can easily talk ourselves out of every opportunity to stretch our comfort zone with negative self-talk. Whether we think it to ourselves, or say it out loud, our self-sabotage can sound like:  Why bother riding the course again? I never get my horse over the last fence without knocking a rail.  Turn your negatives into positives and open the possibilities with:  We CAN jump clean over the last fence.

6.  Let Yourself Off the Hook – Are you your own worst critic? If so, give yourself a break! We all make our share of mistakes when we’re learning new skills.  Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back.  Learn, laugh and move on.

7.  Remember to Breathe – Feeling nervous outside your comfort zone?  Breathe!  Inhale deeply into your belly – feel your front and back expanding against your belt. Slowly exhale – feel your seat bones melting into the saddle.  Steady, rhythmic breathing helps slow your heart rate and calm both you and your horse.

8.  Compliment Your Learning with Un-mounted Behaviors – To get more comfortable with the uncomfortable, determine actions you can do out of the saddle to compliment your learning. Consider:

  • Watching videos that illustrate a movement you’re practicing
  • Reading articles that detail new concepts
  • Visiting a new show location before the competition

Image patting horse

9.  Practice Visualization – Visualization is a powerful tool for building familiarization and confidence. Visualization allows you to mentally rehearse your upcoming ride again and again before actually riding it.  Practicing skills within the safety of your mind’s eye even helps develop muscle memory.  You’ll be more likely to remember that new dressage test, too!

10.  Take Pride in Progress – Sometimes we forget just how far we’ve come when we are in the midst of the journey. Give your motivation a boost by celebrating important milestones.  Treat yourself to that new halter or choose whatever incentive rewards you with a sense of accomplishment.

There is nothing like the feeling of a great ride, a big smile and patting the horse you love for a job well done.  Have fun experimenting with these tips to stretch the familiar and expand your potential.

Enjoy the journey!


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