No better day than New Year’s Day to contemplate the topic of goal-setting.  All over the planet, resolutions are being made, treadmills are being dusted off, vegetables and high fiber foods are being purchased, gym memberships are being renewed and juicers are being unburied from beneath cake pans.

I’m convinced that one of the key differences between successful and not-so-successful endurance competitors often lies in their ability to establish and enact realistic Ultimate Goals and the Training/Conditioning Plans and Ride Strategies that are the building blocks to achieve them. The successful riders do not get distracted by setbacks, a single competition or some bright, shiny object that draws their eye away from their intention. But they also realize that an Ultimate Goal is a flexible one, particularly given that it is hinged on the cooperation, physical and mental, of a sentient being other than our selves — our horse.

In other words, the winners keep their eye on the prize and they have a good idea what that prize is but the flexibility and discipline to forego short-term or competition goals for their Ultimate Goals.

A few years back, I shared the concept of Ultimate Goal TM with AERC members in Endurance News.  “Ultimate Goal” was a concept that a friend of mine, Kathy Viele, an eventing and dressage competitor, shared with me.  The concept resonated with me as a touchstone for staying on track as we go through the inevitable ups and downs of preparing for and competing.

In a nutshell, she explained an Ultimate Goal (UG) was a macro view of what is important in your relationship with your horse.  For her, the UG was this:

My ultimate goal is to have a happy, athletic horse who is a pleasure to ride and do things with. A horse who enjoys our time together, as do I. I feel I owe my horses good care and an ongoing effort to improve my riding and horsemanship. I owe them consideration (of likes and dislikes and personality and quirks) and sympathy and good care. I do not owe them Olympic-caliber riding, so I don’t go down the road of feeling guilty that I’m not a Great Rider—I am on an ongoing quest to improve and I am getting better. I try not to get caught up in a single score or a single competition. When I compete, I like it when things go well and we can show off our training and where we are, but my UG is not winning a particular class or a particular competition or even a year-end award. If those things happen, they are nice, but they aren’t my UG. And if things go poorly I try to learn from them and keep in mind my UG.

While I think that many of us share an Ultimate Goal similar to Kathy’s, I also think many of us lose sight of it as we work on short or long-term goals.

You’ll also note that her UG does not identify specific competitions, or even specific levels of achievement.  Her goal is to work with her partner, her horse, to reach the pinnacle of their capabilities together.

Let’s look at an example:

An endurance rider has an UG much like Kathy’s, but also has a short-term goal of competing in the National Championship Ride.  Not only compete in the National Championship Ride, but to win their weight division at that ride. In fact, they daydream about winning the entire ride.

The entire season becomes about that ride.  Their training and conditioning plan gets drastically changed to meet this goal.  They condition to the point of overtraining.  While the rider notices that their horse has become reluctant to get caught, they are so set on their goal that they miss the dull look in their horse’s eye, and conclude that their horse is “lazy.”  When they find that their horse’s heart rate recoveries are getting slower rather than faster, they wrongly assume that more conditioning is the answer, and up the ante in their conditioning schedule.

The result?  Most of us have seen it.  At best, a soured horse (who may be brought back with a healthy dose of rest, TLC and a change in tactics), at worst, one who develops an overuse injury (suspensory strain, anyone?), ulcers, or a more serious metabolic disorder.

This rider lost sight of their Ultimate Goal as they focused on a single competition.  The Ultimate Goal, in many ways, is a philosophy or value set that keeps us on track as we make our way into the world of competition and preparing for those competitions.

Now, this is not to say that we shouldn’t look to individual rides as part of our plans, nor do I think that it’s a bad idea to focus on an appropriate ride to ‘step it up’ a bit — heck, I do it!  In fact, I think a Training and Conditioning Plan as well as Ride Strategies are key to upholding your Ultimate Goal.

Training and Conditioning Plans (TCP) are what we create to prepare the body (conditioning) and mind (training) of the horse and rider for competition.  At the start of each season, with my UG in mind, I begin to consider the TCP that will improve my horse and help me achieve my competition and other goals.

So as we look to the 2015 ride season, and I look at my competition goals (Decade Team, 100s) for my horse, I begin to contemplate the following:

  • While he’s on winter rest, where do I want his body condition, how can I improve the balance of his feet, what kind of improvements can I make in my own fitness and biomechanics to start the season off right?  Do I need to tweak any feed or supplements?
  • Do I have any behavioral or training or conditioning issues that I can focus on prior to starting to leg up in the spring?
  • As we get legged up, as Mother Nature allows, what sort of cross-training (for us, dressage schooling) can we get in? Where and how will we start to put on some miles?   What booting/shoes will we use?
  • What terrain/footing do I need to condition in?  How might I achieve that?  Will I need to haul out or do it from the farm?  Can I carve away a couple of days to haul out to get to a particular type of terrain/footing?
  • What might be our first competition?  What distance?  What are some of my go/no-go signs that we are ready for it?
  • What body work (chiropractic, massage, acupuncture) might my horse need? Are there specific issues to address or are we hoping for, as my friend Doris Halstead (a myofascial practitioner) likes to say, “a well baby check?”
  • What kind of dressage schooling will I be doing?  What rider and horse asymmetries and strengths/weaknesses will we be focusing on? How?  Do we have lessons scheduled?
  • If I’m hoping to do VT 100, what rides do I want to attend before that?  What will be my Ride Strategies for those specific rides?
  • What are some of the signs to watch for to know that we are on-track or off-course, and what will I do about each?

Ride Strategies, to me, are the plan I have to use at a competition to further both my TCP, along with any other competition goals I have, but they always are superseded by my Ultimate Goal with my horse.  Unless I have agreed in advance to “ride someone else’s ride” — Ride Strategies are about:

  • Me
  • My horse
  • The course

They typically include:

  • Where I think I will appropriately start the ride (front, middle, back of the pack, or tacking up as they head out of camp) based on my horse, our training, the company I am keeping, etc.
  • The overall pace I intend to keep over the ride; do I intend to focus on reverse splits (i.e. riding the last loop at the same or better pace as the first)?
  • Training goals I want to reinforce during the competition with regard to the horse’s response to my requests, not only on the trail, but at vet checks and during the holds
  • Whether I intend to ride alone, try to find company for my horse, or a mix of the two
  • What my goals are for the horse’s recovery at the holds; what red flags I will be looking for based on the horse’s history
  • How I plan to care myself and my horse based on how we are coming in to the ride and the weather conditions (electrolyting, cooling, feed/food, etc.)

I think there are some warning signs that your Ride Strategy is contrary to your Ultimate Goal.  Here are some scenarios:

You have no idea of your Ultimate Goal. 

You need to consider your compass.  If you are starting Limited Distance rides and you begin racing them without considering how that will impact your horse’s training if you opt to move up to 50s or 100s, you are likely to find that you’re spending considerable time re-calibrating your horse’s sense of pacing.

If your goal is to race Limited Distance rides with a horse forever, by then all means, go ahead and race, but it is an ill-advised Ride Strategy for someone who ultimately wants to create a 100-mile horse.

Likewise, racing 50s to prepare for a 100 mile ride will likely end up with a horse that is difficult to rate for his first 100 mile completion.

You have no Ride Strategy.

For me, when I talk to riders about their strategy for a ride, I find it puzzling when they indicate that they have none, or they’ll just “see how it goes” — or my personal fave, “I’m just going to wing it.”  Now, I am the first to admit that I am probably a bit of an over-analyzer, but that seems to drift a bit too far in the other direction.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Now, I am not suggesting that sticking with a plan regardless of the red flags going up all around you is a good idea, but I am convinced that those who don’t at least start with some sort of strategy is destined to end up with less than desirable results. [Insert your most embarrassing moment ride story here.]

Your Ride Strategies are not in alignment with your Ultimate Goal.

You are riding a young horse.  You ultimately hope to be a Decade Team together.  In your first season, when he’s four, you begin racing Limited Distance rides. When he’s five, you move up to 50s, and he shows so much promise, and has so much go, you Top Ten each ride that season, in the mountains, in the sand, in the heat.  You watch the Regional Awards standings with your heart racing.  You enter more rides than you’d originally intended to because you have Award Jacket Fever.

If your Ultimate Goal is “One Season Wonder” — you are right on track.

If your Ultimate Goal truly is to have a horse who achieves longevity in our sport, I suspect that you’ve lost your way, and it’s one of the reasons that I encourage riders to write down their Ultimate Goals.  Especially for competitive folks, the UG can easily get lost in the excitement of having a talented and promising young horse.

Your Ride Strategy does not align with your Training and Conditioning Plan.

Your plan is to ride a 50 at 10mph average speed when you’re conditioning at 8mph on your conditioning rides.  (Or you end up riding at 10mph because your horse felt like Secretariat at the start and “wanted to” hang with the front runners.  This rarely ends well.)

Or you plan to ride a 50 at 6mph when you’re conditioning at 8mph on your conditioning rides.  You’re likely to end the ride with a frustrated or demoralized and perhaps back-sore horse and with a lot of blisters on your hands.

Competing at the pace you condition is a skill that takes time, but your intention should be to ride at a pace that is, as Goldilocks would say, “just right.”

Your Ride Strategy does not align with your Training and Conditioning Plan for a specific ride.

You have never ridden your horse in a large group before, so he’s had no “big herd start” training, and enter a huge ride that starts in an open field, heading out with the pack with a huge pack of your horse’s (now) closest friends.  In these circumstances, the horse’s herd mentality almost always over-rides what little training they’ve had.

Or you condition in the sand and plan to compete a mountainous course at your usual pace.

Your Ride Strategy Relies on More Than You, Your Horse and The Course

Goals to Top Ten a ride or finish first are dubious at best. We have little control of who else and how many show up the day of the ride, and their goals and capabilities.  While it is nice to win, the riders who do it looking least discombobulated are simply riding their own ride based on an objective Ride Strategy and end up on top.

Such goals often end up in a rough day for the horse when, for example, the rider with a goal of making Top Ten misses a turn, and then gallops the snot out of the horse “to make up the time.”

Most of us who have been competing a while can outline, at some length, the errors we’ve made in focus and execution over the years.  No single ride is worth compromising your Ultimate Goal, and those who have had an end to their UG by getting too focused on a single competition often wish they could have a ‘do over.’

Remember, the Ultimate Goal is that little angel on our shoulder, reminding us of our plans for this horse and our long-term relationship.

Our Training and Conditioning Plans set us up to succeed with our competition goals (and that UG in mind, always).

Ride Strategies are the way we test and re-inforce our Training and Conditioning Plans to achiever our competition goals — they are about me, the horse, and the course.

So, as you start looking at the AERC calendar, and you begin contemplating your ride season, ask yourself — “what is my ultimate goal with this horse over the long-term?”

Most of us who have had a bad day and ridden in a way that was off-target from our Ultimate Goal had that little moment of the angel on our shoulder asking us “is this a good idea?!” while the little devil whispers — “oh GO FOR IT, he feels SO good and he WANTS TO RUN … ”

Keep an eye on the prize of your Ultimate Goal and all of the other pieces will fall into places.

Best wishes for a safe and successful ride season in 2015!

(Photo by Mary Watkins.  Moonlight in VT 50, 2012.)