Have you ever thought/felt/verbalized one of the following sentences in your riding career?

  • Miss Rides-Her-Heart-Out is jumping 2’3”/2’6”/2’9”/3’/etc on SassyPants. Why am I still only doing cross-rails/tiny-verticals/2’3”/2’6”/etc? I must not be a very good rider.
  • There’s a show coming up. I don’t want to be stuck doing calvalettis/cross-rails/18”-2’/2’3”/’2’6”/etc when all the other kids or other adults are doing higher jumps. That’s lame. I have to do more or people will think I’m a bad rider.
  • If only I were jumping (insert height here) I would be a better, happier rider.
  • If only I could learn to keep my heels down/hands up/legs on/two-point/toes-in/toes-out/(insert body part here) I would be able to do more.
  • I’ve been riding for (x number of years), but I’m only still doing (insert where you are now). I should be doing (insert place where you think you should be). Why am I not progressing faster?

If you answered yes, then fret not–you’re not alone. If you answered no… then you’re either the most well-adjusted human being on the planet (in which case, can we talk soon?), or your paddling your canoe down the river of Denial.

It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. We’re always striving to reach some lofty goal based on the perceived success of someone else. Riding is no different: The paddock is always greener on the other side of the electrical fence.

Except that… it’s not. Often times, when we reach for the grass on other side of the fence, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. In our haste to be on the other side of the fence (because, of course, that’s where everyone else is, so we have to be there, too), we want to skip steps, take the short cuts.

But you can’t (safety reasons aside).

Riding is a difficult sport. If it wasn’t, all those people that tell you that the horse does all the work, would be riding, too. What makes our sport even more frustrating is that there are no concrete targets. They all move. As soon as you learn to walk, trot, canter, then you have to learn how to do it with your heels down. Then you have to learn how to do it with more leg and less seat bones. Then you have to do it with subtle leg, seat, and hand aids. Then you have to learn how to do it with your aids as light and unobtrusive as possible while maintaining good form, forward impulsion, and not leaning in on your turns and circles. And that is literally, just walking, trotting, and cantering. Throw in a jump (or a whole course) and there’s a slew of new things to learn, remember, and perfect.

Every time you master something, something else will need to be worked on. Every time you reach your target, a new one appears just further down the line. Every bit as daunting and hard to reach as the last target.

Every day, you roll that rock up that hill just a few more steps. And you progress. At your own pace.

Your pace. No one else’s.

In the great competition of life, the only person you should ever compare yourself to is your past-self. Where were you six months ago? A year ago? Two years ago? You didn’t get to where you are today overnight. Nothing ever happens overnight except breakouts. But you were progressing in steps so small, you didn’t even feel yourself moving.

That’s your measurement of success. Where you’ve come from. The stretch of blood, sweat, and tears behind you. They’re yours and yours alone. The fertilizer for your own green pasture of your own making.

Of course, not every step is a step forward. Sometimes we backslide. Or we plateau. For every great high, there is an equally great low. And when we look back, and we see our past-self standing just a bit higher on the hill than where we are we now, it’s easy to get mad and upset and feel like a failure. Instead: Forgive yourself. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, so you can learn and grow. Experiences are all about what we make them. If you’re too busy beating yourself up about things you should have done, you’re missing out on the positive things that you actually did, and the chance to fix problems so you don’t have repeat the same mistakes.

Every person may ride for a different reason, but we all share one commonality: We enjoy it.

So just enjoy the ride. And accept all the ways different ways it challenges you. You’ll be a better rider for it.

(For accountable measures of success, every rider should work with his/her instructor to come up with at least three attainable goals a year, then meet at the end of the year to review them.)

In case you’re wondering, here’s my responses to the questions from above:

  • Miss Rides-Her-Heart-Out is jumping 2’3”/2’6”/2’9”/3’/etc on SassyPants. Why am I still only doing cross-rails/tiny-verticals/2’3”/2’6”/etc? I must not be a very good rider.
    • Every horse/rider combo is different. Each rider has his/her own strengths and weaknesses. Above all, everyone should have the foundations for the jumps they’re jumping. Jumping a lower height doesn’t mean someone is a bad rider. It’s laying the foundation work for the higher stuff. Some horses, like schoolmasters, will help riders achieve this foundation faster. Some horses have to learn it at the same time their riders are, making it a slower process.  
  • There’s a show coming up. I don’t want to be stuck doing calvalettis/cross-rails/18”-2’/2’3”/’2’6”/etc when all the other kids or other adults are doing higher jumps. That’s lame. I have to do more or people will think I’m a bad rider.
    • A show is not the place to push yourself to jump a height higher than what you’re used to. Shows = people watching just you, which means nerves. Dealing with nerves is hard enough. Dealing with nerves while riding is even harder. Whenever you’re showing, do something you’re comfortable with, so the height of the jumps is the last thing you’re concerned with. Whenever I show, I show one division down from what I jump at home. That way, I know I’m comfortable with the height and I can worry about other stuff. Like breathing. And not falling off. 
  • If only I were jumping (insert height here) I would be a better, happier rider.
    • Every new jump height comes with a requirement of skills to be honed and refined. It also means another plateau while you work on those skills. It’s another set of moving targets to achieve. A better way to think about this would be: When I feel comfortable with the height I’m at now, I would like to start incorporating bigger jumps to start working on the skills needed for that height. 
  • If only I could learn to keep my heels down/hands up/legs on/two-point/toes-in/toes-out/(insert body part here) I would be able to do more.
    • Again, this is a refinement of skills. Choose a body part, work on it every ride. Eventually, it will become part of your muscle’s memory and you can pick another body part. Create a strong foundation and build it up. 
  • I’ve been riding for (x number of years), but I’m only still doing (insert where you are now). I should be doing (insert place where you think you should be). Why am I not progressing faster?
    • Progression happens as fast as pouring honey from a pot in winter. Riding for a certain number of years doesn’t guarantee you anything skill-wise because people learn at different rates. I’d been riding all my life when I switched disciplines and I could barely post in an English saddle my first few rides. Six years later and I still want to drive with my seat. Be patient with yourself; you’ll get there eventually. And if you feel like you’re not progressing, check in on your past-self, and see where you’ve been. Then check-in with your trainer, set some goals, and start working on them.