What’s your motivation?

People ride for many reasons—it’s fun, it’s good exercise, it builds mastery and confidence, it offers time with human and horse friends. Usually, these incentives are enough to foster improvement. But all of us tire of drilling a particular skill.
We know we should post without stirrups for 15 minutes, but, aww… maybe tomorrow?

Motivation comes in two basic forms: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is supplied by rewards—prizes, cash, jobs, praise, salaries, attention—that other people provide. Rewards fuel our interest in today’s goals, but they don’t do much for next week. They also undermine the long-term drive for improvement that is critical for outstanding performance. By contrast, intrinsic motivation is a feeling from inside that we want to progress for the sake of our own well-being. This inner drive encourages us to master skills through hard work, set and achieve goals, overcome tough moments, and focus on personal growth. These are good traits to develop no matter what we do in life, on horseback or off.

To kindle intrinsic motivation, shift your performance orientation away from outcome and toward mastery. Mastery-oriented athletes love the process of skill development for its own sake. Work on a skill set for a month. Are you better at it than you were before? Then you’ve succeeded! Whether the rider down the barn aisle does the same skill better or worse than you do is irrelevant. By focusing on your own improvement, you teach yourself to create competence.

Mastery-oriented equestrians—regardless of skill level—value learning and progress. They choose moderately challenging tasks, regardless of whether such tasks cause public mistakes. They work long and hard with singular focus, applying effort to a problem for months at a time. They respond to setbacks with increased effort, and they know that failure is caused by factors under their own control. They do not give up on themselves or their horses.

If you want to ignite your passion for riding well, develop inner motivation instead of seeking rewards. Identify factors over which you have control. Seek internal attributions for success and failure, rejecting the easier path of external attribution. Build self-efficacy by setting moderate goals that allow small but frequent victories. Reinforce yourself with inner speech that is positive and helpful. Refuse to give up entirely, but learn when to change tactics, call for a trainer’s help, or give the horse a break and try again tomorrow. Focus on personal mastery rather than social comparison. How others ride just isn’t that important—how you ride is.

Soon you’ll find yourself bounding out to the barn, impelled from within by the satisfaction of learning. Go ahead, drop those irons for 15 minutes. You’ll feel better for it all day long.