The Big Picture Goal

By Terry Golson

I’m the sort of person who is happiest when my life is structured with goals. I like to achieve. This can be frustrating. I rarely live up to my desires or expectations. That being said, goals are good. They can expand your world and push you to help others. But they can also make you do things that, in the long run, are detrimental. For example, in an effort to achieve perfection, we equestrians get into a rut and drill the same exercise, over and over. Doing this, your body and mind becomes tighter, and your riding less fluid and more unforgiving. The repetitiveness can cause both you and your horse to go unsound in mind and body.

Fortunately, my education in behavior and training has given me the skills to create doable building blocks, so that I can recognize when my horse and I have accomplished a step in the right direction. Appreciating the ever so slight improvements, stride-by-stride, keeps me riding with generosity, which in turn insures that steady progress is made.

Even so, time and again, I’ve gotten stuck in that narrow focus of trying to achieve a riding goal. Currently, I’m aiming for a right canter departure that is seamless from the trot. Sometimes we get that, but too often there’s a hop, or a hesitation, or a sideways swerve, or a buck. So I try again. When I find myself repeating the same exercises in the ring, day after day, I take a step back and think. Although I’m goal oriented, I don’t have big aspirations in the show ring. One of the benefits of having purchased a little horse for the trails is that when I did start competing with Tonka, I didn’t have the pressure of a pricey purpose-bought horse to live up to. Everything my horse gives me is a gift (and often a surprise.) When I do get caught up in that feeling of frustration, I rethink what my goals really are. What’s the big picture? The answer is always about the partnership between Tonka and me.

There’s nothing more satisfying to me than getting on Tonka, settling into the saddle, and having him say, I’m ready.

To get that, we cross-train.

For the last two weeks, the weather has been mostly good, which has allowed us to have a varied schedule. We’ve ventured onto the trails that lead off of Greystone. One day we went out on our own. It was very windy and the swirling leaves kept Tonka on high alert. But he kept on because I asked him to, and we both felt brave and accomplished when we got home.


A few days later I did the same route with friends. Switching it up, sometimes going in company, and sometimes solo, keeps Tonka flexible and confident whether in a group or by himself.


Yesterday, I trailered Tonka home to Turtle Hill.


We rode on the path along the marsh (here’s a full minute video, made especially for those of you who are in lockdown and need some horse time.) I don’t know why, but Tonka loves this view. He’s always eager to do this loop in the woods.


We also trotted a bit in the field. Look at that lovely topline! I was especially pleased that he kept that frame while going up and down the slight slope in that corner of the field. This is something he hasn’t been able to do in the past. Gymnastics over poles in the ring have helped to make trail riding more comfortable for both of us.


Horses are intelligent and all too often their confined lives don’t give them opportunities, or permission, to think. Last Saturday, I did scent training with a member of my search and rescue team. This is the very beginning of work that requires Tonka and I to be in close communication and to have trust in each other.


Last Friday, Tonka and I had a jumping lesson. There were opportunities to work on that canter transition, but no time to dwell on it!


I still have the goal of reliably getting a perfect canter transition. I continue to do flatwork in the arena.


As winter arrives, there will be more and more of these indoor rides. I’ll have to be more creative about how to do the cross-training that keeps the big picture the driving motivation for my riding. My goal is a horse who has this attitude: amendable, thoughtful, tuned-in to me, and engaged in what we’re doing. So far, I haven’t found that striving for that is frustrating at all!


What’s the big picture that makes you happy? What do you do in the winter to keep from losing sight of that? Tell me in the comments!


(Wondering about my color choice? It’s hunting season here. If I’m outside, I’m in safety blaze orange.)

5 thoughts on “The Big Picture Goal

  • Shaste

    Love the orange! I have a horse I’m working on a smooth right canter transition too. It seems like he’s actually stressed about it and thinks too hard; he’ll actually strike off with the front in an effort to ‘pick it up’. I’ve found lots of ground work helpful, just as if he were a baby 🙂

    My other riding goals are centered around my daughters who really want to get out on the big trails! But it takes lots of practice in the arena to be safe out in the woods. Our trails are 5000 acres of varied terrain that connect to another 20,000 so not for beginners!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’ve done slo-mo video of Tonka, and when he has difficulty with the canter transition it’s exactly that – he’s trying with a front leg first instead of stepping off from behind.
      Yes to learning how to be safe in the woods and find your way home.

  • Chris from Boise

    Air-scenting by horses – WOW! You have just officially blown my mind, Terry. Thanks for the link. I love watching my dogs air-scent (untrained), but had never thought of equine air-scenting.

    That being said, “My goal is a horse who has this attitude: amendable, thoughtful, tuned-in to me, and engaged in what we’re doing.” is fantastic. Thanks for a good, thought-provoking post, as always. We’re doing the same with our dogs, but not as thoughtfully: agility training, cooperative care training, good manners at home and out-and-about, lots of mental and physical games, and lots of off-leash hiking. It’s all building toward the same goal. Thought-provoking indeed.

      • Chris from Boise

        Not ideal, but a life worth striving for, with two border collies. Retirement helps, and one bright spot about this terrible pandemic is no “I’m too busy to” excuses. And everything we do (excepting the occasional formal class) is free, which is helpful for those of us on fixed incomes. Your post is a great reminder about why we do all these things – the Big Goal.

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