What Does Progress Look Like?

Progress in riding feels very lateral.

I explain this often when I’m teaching, especially when my students want to know how they are doing. Is their riding getting better? Are they meeting expectations and goals? 

Riding, and learning how to ride properly, is a long, slow climb. There are no shortcuts. Often you feel like you are treading water, repeating exercises and seeing no changes. Improvement does not show itself until you’ve grinded in hours of development.

We are all human, and as humans we want to check things off of our list. 

This is how riding starts - you want to learn to master the walk, trot, and then the canter. 

Depending on your discipline, you may want to add jump to that list. It’s a clear, easy way to track progress. It’s linear. Once you have done those things or accomplished those steps, you check them off the list. 

And this is where I caution riders that there is so much more than that. After riding for more than two decades, I still take lessons from a more experienced coach. Not only that, but I am sometimes in the walk for an entire lesson. Those clear steps of progress blur; there is a lot of grey involved in between. It’s similar to cooking and baking. You can always follow the recipe and get a result that you were trying to achieve, but the excitement, the improvement comes in perfecting the technique, honing the recipes and making them your own. It is much the same with riding. You will spend countless hours perfecting the basics of a sitting trot or a beautiful transition, because just accomplishing it (or some semblance of it) isn’t enough. 

You know what? Those clear, linear steps are just the beginning. You get to the “end” just to realize that you’ve only started the journey. Riding the walk, the trot, and the canter was equivalent to you packing your suitcase; now you have all the materials you need to get going on your journey. It’s frustrating and exhilarating all at the same time. When my riders reach this point, they ask me - what’s next? How’s my progress? What does progress look like?

First, I want to tell you what progress should not look like. 

Every rider’s progress should not and can not truly be measured against that of others. It’s too personal for that. Try comparing show jumping great Ian Miller to barrel racer Fallon Taylor. They are both exceptional riders in their own right, with different styles, goals, horses, and objectives. Because of these vast differences, you can’t hope to compare them side by side. I would argue that the same can be said for riders in the same discipline. Those riders are on different horses, having different experiences, and the measure of their riding quality should not be compared. I caution riders to not make the mistake of measuring progress in themselves by looking at others. 

Progress needs to reflect both the rider and the horse, not one without the other.  

I see this mistake made often and am guilty of it myself. Observing a change in our horse is much easier to see than a change in ourselves. Because of this we set our goals based on our horse. We want him or her to be fit enough to canter a full course. Or are we working towards flying lead changes? We set the goal for our horse to accomplish and feel accomplished ourselves. This isn’t entirely wrong, of course you can take credit for improving your horse. That is what good riding should do. However, it’s a difficult way to track your own development because it only gives you half of the equation. When the focus is on developing your horse to be a better partner for the rider, we forget to look at ourselves and what we can improve to be a better partner for our equine friends. 

Finally, your goals need to be fluid. It should be a living, breathing thing that adjusts with your rides. This is where I see a lot of riders get caught up – they can be too focused on a single goal and ignore other aspects of their riding and horsemanship. Riding is multifaceted. The great riders and trainers remain open, letting the horse often dictate what progress looks like in that week, or month, or year. Remaining fluid saves yourself from heartache when the inevitable back steps are taken; an injury, a sickness, or life simply getting in the way. 

So, what does progress look like? 

It’s personal. It’s introspective. It’s adjustable. 

This new year brings new opportunities and new goals. When setting riding goals, talk to your coach. Ask yourself questions. It’s not a one-step process - let’s be honest - nothing in riding is easy. What are your long-term “pipe dreams”? Where do you want riding to take you? What are the barriers? What’s the next logical step in that direction? What can you do to be a better partner to your horse? What do you enjoy? 

Set your goals, and don’t be afraid to re-evaluate them as you go. Let your development as a rider include an open, on-going discussion between you and your coach. When a ride goes well, put into words what went well and why. Then, watch yourself grow.

It may not be clear at first glance, but that’s exactly what progress looks like.  


Amanda is a writer, instructor, and life-long equestrian whose passion for change is reflected in her bright, colourful hair. She balances high-paced life in the city with daily doses of 'barn time'. Amanda is a cat enthusiast who lives in Toronto with her fiance and two unenthusiastic cats.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published