Trainer Talk: Setting Goals For You Is Easier Than Setting Goals For Ourselves

Dec 14, 2022 - 7:57 AM

In the spring, as I was prepping for the busy summer ahead, my coach Susanne Hamilton, a super cool person and top-level expert, asked me what my plan was for the 2022 show season.

I waxed poetic about plans with my clients, how I was going to juggle things to get everyone where they needed to be, to meet the goals that had been set. I probably gave her more information than she’d requested, but that’s how I roll. After my long explanation, Susanne looked at me like I was clearly not paying attention and said, “I was actually wondering about you… And, you know, your own actual horse.”

Well this was unexpected! I proceeded to answer that query much less helpfully: I had signed up for a spring show but expected to do my normal routine of seeing what happened and going from there. No grand plans. No delusions of being grand champion of the third level world.

While I don’t exactly wing it, you really cannot plan effectively for September with developing horses when it is still May. Since I am a good student and was asked to voice a goal, I scrambled and said, “I really wish for Dubai to consistently maintain his composure in the show ring this year. And I really want some good, professional competition photos.”

Sara Bradley setting goals action
Not technically a professional shot, but blogger Sara Bradley’s mother flexed her photographic muscle taking this picture of Bradley and Dubai at HITS Saugerties (New York) competing in third level, test 3, for the first time. Photos Courtesy Of Sara Bradley

Solid goals. Big mover and shaker right here.

After promising that I had no intentions of going to, or even qualifying for regionals—and definitely no intentions of gunning for nationals—Susanne and I moved forward, supremely confident in the plan for calm sailing and many glamour shots with the pony.

What I experienced that day seems to be par for the course for many of us seasoned pros: We’re great at formulating solid plans to help our clients reach their goals but far more fluid about how we’ll reach our own.

Ask me to coach you to your USDF medals or to a new level; ask me to take over the ride on your horse to make them more valuable to sell or to campaign them through the levels. Ask me for any of these things, and I’m going to be right there giving you a plan (and a backup one in case we need to be flexible). I will know where you should be and when. I’ll know exactly what scores you need and when and where we should get them. I’ll do everything in my power to get you and your horse to that show arena healthy, happy and ready to crush. I will become your goal-oriented cheerleader, I will be your scheduler, and I will be your No. 1 motivator. And, above all else, we will have a roadmap to get where we need to be (with room for detours because horses are horses!)

Pros, however, tend to start thinking in years, or decades, as far as what their plans might look like. I will often say, “In three or four years when Dubai is at the FEI Levels, I look forward to doing thus and such.”

Because I only have myself to answer to in regards to his competition schedule and results, I definitely take the fluid approach, especially since he took 2020 off because of the complexity of navigating COVID times. Over the years I have ridden many young horses and found if you make plans too far in advance, the horse will let you know they are the wrong kinds of plans. This is all good, and for the last few years my competition schedule has indeed been more of a “wing it” then a “schedule.” Many of us, myself included, also find that successful training is just as, if not more, rewarding than show ribbons. (But ribbons are cool.)

So let’s back track. I went to the first spring show, and Dubai was civilized every time I rode him, and I got some nice photos. With all the goals met, I retired and hung up my hat.

Kidding. I decided to sign up for a late summer show and throw a Hail Mary, trying to qualify for Region 8 Championships at third level. It was going to be a competitive show, and I figured if he could maintain his composure, he could probably handle regionals. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since it would be the first time for him doing the third level, test 3, at a show grounds that historically make him a tad wild. I figured the cookie would crumble the way it would crumble, and that would be that.

As it turned out he went to that show and qualified handily, finishing in the top three in every class. Go figure.

“I’m off to regionals,” I told Susanne, who now has trust issues because of the way I change my mind about things. This show was a real turning point for me with this particular horse.

Sara Bradley setting goals ribbon
Bradley and Dubai won the Third Level East Coast Riders Cup at HITS Saugerties (N.Y.) in August.

Despite his good show record, he did not have an equally good record of being confident or consistent in competition situations—typical young horse stuff. Up to this point, I would always enter a class fully using it as good training and not intentionally riding to win. In my third class at this summer show, I said to everyone as I prepared to enter the arena, “I am riding this to win”—which is the first time those crazy words have crossed my lips in about a hundred years. I then did just that, and Dubai stepped up to the plate wonderfully. (Did I win? No; I was fairly beaten by exactly 1 point, and I very happily took second in a large class. Not to sound corny, but no blue could have made me happier!)

Since I’m really not trying to write a blog about my whole entire competition season, I’ll stop here with the humble bragging about my super horse.

Personally, it was great to be able to step up competitively and confidently with a horse who I have had since he was 3. It was a delight to ride not just to train and gain mileage, but to be a real competitor. I think for all of us as professionals, as coaches (and my amateur riders will say, as people who have jobs and families) we can get very hyper-focused on making everyone else’s dreams come true and allow ourselves to take the back seat without realizing it. This is part of the business, and it’s one I love. Seeing my clients meet goals brings me as much personal satisfaction as meeting my own.

That said, I have already set a couple of exciting goals for myself in 2023. I look forward to the challenge this will bring, for the excitement of trying new things (and possibly failing, but who cares!) and the joy of doing these things with a horse I have developed.

And in case you are all wondering, I did set these goals after making the competition calendar for my clients. Baby steps!


I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer and trainer. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and young riders at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center in Maine. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well and have some lovely ones in my stable!)

When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my farm, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I enjoy many dressage adventures with my German Riding Pony, Dubai’s Dream, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.

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