Wendy Jago is a British Dressage List 3A judge and Neuro-Linguistic Master Practitioner and Master coach. Her article NLP:7 concludes her series on using NLP techniques to improve rider performance with thoughts on how to frame both personally satisfying and realistic goals. (It follows on from her previous piece about modelling the ‘how’ of success.)

When the National Lottery was first introduced, everyone on our yard bought tickets. We all had the same goal: if we held the winning ticket we would build an indoor school! Well, none of us did, so we still school outdoors in all weathers. Of course, our goal lacked one essential element — its achievement was not within our control.

The founding research that led to NeuroLinguistic Programming coaching included goal-setting. Some people seem to achieve their goals; others don’t. Asking the “how” question, revealed that there are common features in achieving successful outcomes to our goals.

NLP teaches us that successful goals are:
* Stated positively
* Sensory specific
* Within our control
* Contextualised
* Maintain positive by-products of the current status
* Acceptable in terms of cost, time and sense of self.

Is your goal stated positively?
People are often clearer about what they don’t want, than what they do. But their framing of what they don’t want usually stops there; it doesn’t lead on to understanding more about what they want to change and without any objective you can’t begin to think about how you might head change in the right direction. For example, let’s suppose your horse tosses her head. Of course, you want her to stop. You might decide to fit her with a Martingale or set your hands so that she argues with herself. Alternatively, do you ask yourself what is causing her to toss her head in the first place? Discomfort in her mouth? Being pestered by midges? The way you carry your hands? Asking her for a shorter, more uphill outline that she is ready for? Clearly you first need a better understanding of what you do want.

Perhaps your goal is something like, “I want a better relationship with my horse through the rein’. Or, “I would like us to do a decent Medium test”; or, “I want her to trust my hands enough to stretch and come back into an outline again calmly and willingly”. Then your goal-setting can be focused, not only on your ultimate goal but also on the steps you could take on the way to achieving it. You can also begin to develop mini-goals and so set up the possibility of mini-achievements, instead of having to postpone the satisfaction of achievement until you win your first Grand Prix!

Sensory specific
When you have interrogated yourself about what you actually want, you can dig a bit deeper. For example, “I want her to be quieter in the mouth”, “I’d like her to be lighter in the hand and more uphill in her carriage”; “I’d like to train my left hand to be more forward-thinking and subtle”. Each of these opens up different courses of action you can experiment with or get help with.

Being sensory specific means you can answer the question, “How would you know that…?” NLP is based on observation, so this is your chance to practise observing yourself and discovering how much you can learn from doing so.

What will your different senses tell you: what would you See, Feel, Hear (and maybe Smell and Taste) when you achieve your goal? I achieved one of my own mini-goals yesterday. Mouse and I spent about 35 minutes working in the school with a harmonious contact. He is a 20-year-old, long-backed ex-eventer with a history of hollowing and sticking his head in the air like a camel. Much of his training history, both before and after he came to us at the age of 10, has focused on this. He has been improving his ability to step under himself more actively, so I have recently been playing around with riding him essentially from leg and seat — the aids he responds easily to.

What were my sensory specifics? And what did I hope to see? I wanted to see a soft, gently-rounded neck and attentive ears. What I wanted to feel was a free, regular rhythm, soft flexibility in the back, balanced carriage and attentive responses to changes in aiding — and, of course, a quiet two-way conversation in the rein contact.

What did I want to hear? Well, regularity of footfall, easy breathing (both of us) and an occasional nose-clearing snort (him!). Of course, there are further goals, and if I up the ante, I’ll have to redefine the specifics.

Is the goal within your control
You want to be chosen for a team — Pony Club, Regional or National teams — and someone else will be doing the choosing. Being good enough to be chosen is a better goal, although success is still not guaranteed. There may be a shortage of suitable people one year, so you get in. There may be a surplus of team-worthy riders another, so you don’t. Your horse may cast a shoe or go lame the day before the team event so you can’t go anyway…. And, of course, there’s your on-the-day nerves…

Is your goal placed within context?
What is achieving your goal going to involve? I remember years ago helping a friend prepare for an interview. Everything went according to our careful plan — except that we hadn’t thought about the presence and impact of the other candidates. She found them unnerving: maybe she would have anyway; or maybe it was our failure to factor them in that disturbed her. We hadn’t prepared fully enough.

Some equestrian professionals find it hard to compete because they think their clients will be watching and expecting more of them than they can deliver. And they fear that a less than perfect performance will lose them business.

And there is double jeopardy — a brilliant performance will only set everyone’s expectations even higher!

Does your goal retain current status satisfactions?
NLP focuses on developing our understanding of ourselves and others, increasing the range of choices that we have and making changes to behaviours and situations we’re dissatisfied with. But that’s only part of it. Most of us having tried every strategy we know to bring about change and still, somehow, it hasn’t happened. The promotion someone else got. The diet that worked for a few months, then somehow slipped. The same-old, same-old in our riding…

NLP also helps us realise that these “stuck” situations can sometimes have a positive function, too. In fact, this is quite often the hidden reason why they remain stuck. People often drop diets because they see them as a remedy rather than a whole new way of life; many diets aren’t designed for the long term anyway. Some people’s histories lead them to finding being over-weight safer than being slim and (therefore, they think) more sexually attractive.

Others find success threatening because it implies more will be expected of them. These apparently self-imposed self-limiting failures to achieve can be a form of self-protection. Therefore, if you’re going to achieve your goal, you need to identify the benefits of the current situation and secure them in another way.

Here’s a personal example. I started attending Qi Gong/Tai Chi classes last autumn. I really enjoy the class, but somehow I just don’t get around to practising at home. “I think I’ll give myself a day or two to recover from the class…” and then somehow it’s the following week and I’ve done nothing.

I don’t fall into the trap of calling myself “lazy” because I haven’t practised, because in my experience as a therapist and coach, so-called laziness almost always has a positive intent, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

So what could be my purpose in not-practising? I believe it’s because I enjoy the guided work-outs in themselves: while I like the feeling of gradually refining my control and flow through a sequence of movements, I don’t want to feel personally responsible as I am with dressage. I’ve realised that I only have short-term goals for attending, so I can enjoy achieving them once a week!

Are goals acceptable in terms of cost, time, and sense of self?
These frame the wider context in which your ultimate goal needs to be placed. My professional work is largely with people in business. Quite a few clients over the years have had promotion as their goal. But the goal has a longer-term context: not all outstanding performers are natural managers, yet that’s what promotion often involves. I know someone who applied for a managerial job and didn’t get it. Afterwards she was very glad, because she came to realise that managing is not her natural interest or skill. Some people I’ve worked with did get those jobs — and soon found themselves bogged down in departmental and institutional politics.

Riding as a hobby is expensive, so over the years that’s going to mean editing some luxuries and pleasures out of the budget. It can involve both minor and major injuries. It absorbs a lot of time: my husband Leo and I reckon riding takes at least three hours each occasion we go to the yard. Riding for us is just recreation. If your goal is for success in competition, each of the factors of cost, injury and time will increase substantially. Our niece was placed in a prestigious 150km distance ride in Australia last year. It involved a lot of training, diet management, transport, overnight accommodation, and a support team — but it was worth it all for both her and her family. (And not just because she was placed!)

In writing that last sentence, I come to perhaps the most critical question of all — does your goal only pay off at the end of the processes of getting there? Or will the process of getting there be enjoyable in itself?

The decision is yours, of course, but my experience tells me that by framing your goals according to these well-proven criteria will give you the opportunity of on-going satisfaction — and a better chance of achieving the bigger goals as well.

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, 14 April 2018

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