One thing I love about horse sports is that no matter what you achieved last year, there’s always more you can do the next year. No sooner do you accomplish one goal than you’re planning the next feat.
For me, January is the time to create a blueprint to accomplish bigger and better things with my horses in the coming year. The coldest and darkest days are behind us now, and there is much to look forward to in the months ahead. Maybe living in the Colorado mountains, where winters can be intense, makes this time of reflection and projection more meaningful.
With horses in particular, looking 3-6 months ahead is always important in your goal-setting. It takes time to develop the training and conditioning of a horse and rider, collect the right equipment (like my new saddle for Annie), and plan your logistics for the upcoming riding season in order to accomplish your goals.
We often think of a horse’s training and conditioning in 30-day increments—and that’s for good reason.
Whether you are working to improve a horse’s fitness, it’s skill level (performance), or it’s fluency (reliability) in a given discipline, the 30-day increments are telling in terms of what results we can expect to see. Knowing that the training and development of a great horse takes time, we set our goals 30, 60, or 90 days apart.
Imagine you were planning a mountaineering expedition in the Andes for yourself, but you didn’t start preparing until a few days before the trip. You’re scrambling to put together the critical equipment you will need, you have no idea how it works, and you didn’t have time to break in your hiking boots. Your physical condition is soft, and you’re not used to carrying a heavy backpack. Chances are good it will be a miserable, if not impossible, trip.
Now imagine you are taking your backyard, flat-lander, “pet” horse on a 5-day, 100-mile wilderness pack trip in the mountains. Sending an unprepared, “soft” horse into an intense riding situation like this would be disastrous. Preparations would need to start a year in advance.
Because my husband and I have ambitious plans to travel with our horses this spring and summer, we are starting our preparations now! Preparation takes a long time with horses and for me, this is the time of year for planning, forecasting, organizing, and executing changes.
Over the last month, I’ve taken a long, hard look at Annie’s saddle-fit and bridle suitability, and made changes to both. I’ve got a brand new saddle on-order, to better accommodate her short, small stature, and I’m using an entirely different bridle—from bit, to headstall, to reins.
I’m using a different mouthpiece that she clearly likes better (as evidenced by smoother transitions and better self-carriage) and by switching to romal reins, I’ve forced myself to ride one-handed and with far less rein contact—which is more appropriate rein handling for Annie’s level of training.
In addition to the full assessment of my tack and equipment, I also evaluate my horse’s current fitness level to figure out what we need to do so that she is at her physical peak when the riding season begins. I look at weight, muscling in the legs, topline, abs, and hindquarters, as well as hoof condition.
Annie is barefoot now, but once I start riding outside more (rocky terrain), and when I am training harder on reining maneuvers, she’s likely to need more farrier support—another course that must be charted.
To have the kind of riding season we are hoping for, our horses need to be sound and fit before the season starts. Knowing it takes a solid 90 days to make much impact on the horse’s physical condition, it’s time to start now!
I use my horses not only for fun (like tagging along with Rich to ranch horse events), but more importantly, in my job as a horsemanship clinician and for content production. That makes the planning and preparation that I do with my horses even more crucial. I need them to be fit and camera-ready year-round.
I also have to plan for specific events and any traveling that will be required. Traveling with horses is logistically complicated, and I need my horses to be comfortable and mentally prepared for life on the road.
Next month, I’ll travel with Annie to Denver for the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo. I’ll have two prime-time presentations on Saturday, and it’s been a couple years since Annie’s had to perform in a large coliseum in front of a crowd. Beyond having her tuned up, slick, and fit, I also need her to stay calm and focused in a highly distracting and unfamiliar venue.
Sometimes that means riding alone months in advance or hauling to ride in unfamiliar arenas alone, to build some confidence in each other. Fortunately Annie’s an old pro, so it won’t take much prep—I just need to get her in the right mindset.
Annie is 15 years old, very well-trained, and highly seasoned (experienced in many ways). I don’t have much to “work” on with her, other than strengthening our partnership and refining our communication.
However, I’ve been working hard to reprogram the “cinchy” behaviors Annie developed in the last year. Right now I am approaching that magic 30-day mark of training on it, and I am starting to see great results. I take my time to saddle her, and mix up the process a lot to ease her anticipation.
I am happy to report she is standing quietly and even lowering her head and taking a deep sign when I snug up the cinch now. I still see some remnants of her cranky behavior, but in another 30 days, I expect that to be gone too.
(This month’s episode of my podcast takes an in-depth look at “cinchy” behavior—and how to address it. It will be released next week, so be sure to subscribe to Ride On with Julie Goodnight on any podcast app so you don’t miss it!)
I’ve got lots of work to do planning the logistics for a summer full of travel with our horses—but to me, that part is fun!
I’ve got a color-coded 12-month calendar that gives me a visual glance at the whole year—showing me when I am gone, when I am home, and what I need to prepare for. I will have to stay focused to meet the high demands on my time between work obligations, special events, and fun. If I want to have it all (and I do), I’ll need to be organized!
We like to say that with horses, it’s about the journey, not the destination—and I fully subscribe to this belief. Without solid planning months in advance to meet our ambitious goals, there would be no destination. And the planning, practicing, training, and preparations are all part of the fun for me—part of the journey.
It’s time to get started now, and to enjoy the ride!