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Goals and Flexible Deadlines

On my website home page, I have a tagline that says, “Helping People Achieve Their Goals and Dreams.”  I am inspired by this quote and it helps set the stage for how I want to help my students:

 “A DREAM written down with a date becomes a GOAL.  A GOAL broken down into steps is a PLAN.  A PLAN backed by action becomes REALITY.”  – Greg Reid

Because I am working with horses, I know that goals with a plan means “flexible deadlines”.  It is important to set a time frame so that I have a concrete place to aim; but with horses it also important to recognize that they might need more time and the more we get stuck on a time frame, the less likely we are to put the relationship first.

This past summer/fall I set two goals with “flexible deadlines”.  I didn’t meet either deadline BUT I accomplished both goals.  My goals had been too many years in the making because, at first, I got too fixated and my horse felt the pressure.  I hated what that did to our relationship, so I threw out the goals for a time; and I hated what that did for progress, so I finally got to the point of a flexible deadline.  I got more creative, I got more perceptive, I tried for the goal on the deadline…and then observed what wasn’t working, what I could do to help with the challenges, and retried.  The most important part was making sure that my horse understood and that I rewarded the slightest try.

Part of one of the goals involved doing flying lead changes at liberty with my horse, Sophie.  We were attempting to do them in the round pen on my farm, which can get somewhat muddy in one section and during one session Sophie began going a lot faster than I was asking and wound up sliding and falling the mud.  Understandably, she was reluctant to maintain the canter the next time we went into the round pen.  Wanting to continue to work toward the goal but also to do it in a manner that built confidence and acknowledged her worry; I found a creative solution. 

We have these “standards” in the barn that we inherited from our martial arts time, they were used for creating “arenas” for tournaments and our barn had room to store them.  I was able to use these with rope going across the top to split my arena in half to give us a “square pen” in which to play.  The rope was about 4 feet high and on the other half of the arena I set up some other obstacles to play with; a pedestal, some barrels on their side to jump and go sideways over, and some cones.

And so, we began our canter in preparation to do a lead change; Sophie cantered a lovely lap and then “bing” she joyfully jumped the rope, cantered to the pedestal, proudly put all four feet on it and turned to look at me with an expression that could have read, “TA-DAA”!  I immediately started laughing because she looked so pleased with her fantastic accomplishment.  I backed up a bit and called, “Sophie here!” and she cantered up, jumped the rope again and stopped in front of me with fantastic exuberance.

Okay, take two; Sophie began her canter, jumped the rope, jumped the barrels, jumped the rope and stopped in front of me with another big “TA-DAA” moment.  Again, I couldn’t help laughing and actually really appreciated all the wonderful things she was offering to do; but now I needed to figure out how to let her know that I’d really love it if she stayed on the same side of the arena and circled so we could do the lead changes.  Right before she would jump the rope, she would give a little look in that direction; and so we learned a new (and admittedly not very positive) cue.  When she would look, I would just give a low, “noooo” cue and draw her back toward me with my energy and body language.  In a few minutes we had the new cue working nicely, got the lead changes done, and went on to do the other fun things she’d been offering moments before.

I wish I had video of the rope jumping extravaganza; I loved it!  The thing that I had given up for the past few years was lead changes online (never mind trying at liberty) because they were incredibly difficult for Sophie and I had made it stressful and awful for her when we first tried a few years before.  For me, her enthusiasm to show me her “mad skills” and to make the effort to jump BACK INTO the roped off area to be with me was a confirmation that I was getting things right this time.

In the end I accomplished both of goals within a month of my “flexible deadline” and I learned a whole lot about my horsemanship; I also learned to take my own advice to “enjoy the process” and more important, I think my horse actually got to enjoy the process too.

I have new “goals” for this spring (once the snow and ice and cold have finally gone).  I am going to set some flexible deadlines to help me keep those goals in mind.  My biggest goal, however, is to make sure I put the relationship first and keep my horses’ natural willingness and exuberance intact…that’s the goal that will never be finished.

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