Turning Small Goals Into Big Victories

Kaitlin Campbell & Interline H. Photo © Torrence Sullivan


Goals, rather than motivate us, often weigh us down. We place our hopeful ideals on a high altar in our minds, and from their condescending perch they nag at us for not trying hard enough and mock us when we fail. Even the most ambitious among us are burdened by the expectations they’ve set for themselves. Demoralized, we’re then tempted to discard our ambitions altogether. But we can’t. We need goals to live.

Goals are necessary to move forward in life– or to at least escape the depressing angst of feeling unproductive. Where’s the balance? How can we put goals into practice such that they motivate us, give us direction and meaning, but don’t strip away our self esteem? Factor in a pandemic and economic uncertainty, and framing our goals becomes even messier.  

Now is the time for our smaller goals to shine. Small wins are too often overlooked, disregarded for lacking the tremendous victory we’re addicted to. However, little accomplishments are still a net positive in productivity. Each win gives us that delicious boost of achievement that validates our efforts and motivates us to do even more.  For every prescribed task we check off the list, no matter how insignificant each may seem, we’re winning overall.

The real challenge is deciding what the list consists of. It’s difficult to know where to start when feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed. Too many daunting tasks beg to be completed. This pressure can be too heavy to bear, prompting us to give up and do nothing at all. Procrastination arrives unwelcomed. 

Instead of doing nothing, ask yourself a simple question: What’s the most I know I am willing and capable of doing? If the answer is something barely worthy of being categorized as an accomplishment, that is okay! Maybe you’re only willing to simply open your email to respond to neglected messages cluttering your inbox. Maybe you’re only willing to open the unread emails. Perhaps, on the harder days, just getting out of bed is a small win. If the choice is between doing nothing or something, choose something small.

What could be considered a small accomplishment within the high stakes of competitive riding? There is no task too small to be considered insignificant, as great horsemen understand that “the devil is in the details.” Success emerges from attention to the mundane. Barn life offers endless opportunities for small wins.

If COVID is disrupting your ultimate plans, take advice from Devon Walther (26) on finding success in the details. This active professional in the hunter-jumper industry and current MBA student explains “small goals are what build up to big goals.” Her small wins include cleaning tack, polishing boots, properly hanging halters on stall doors, and focusing on leaving the barn clean. “Cleanliness and organization are what make up good horsemanship.” The prestigious competitive goals of tricolor ribbons are impossible without these smaller horsemanship wins first.

Notably, Walther writes down her big goals. On overwhelming days, writing down your thoughts is an accomplishment within itself. Not only does an articulated physical format of your dreams help you to plan, but it offloads the mission from your brain, granting a sense of completion.

When it comes to riding, Walther says, “I work with a lot of young horses so a small goal that is important to me is simply standing at the mounting block. I may spend a day training a horse to stand at the mounting block.” While basic obedience seems far from a Grand Prix victory, it’s still a piece of the prize.

FEI-level Grand Prix rider and trainer, Kaitlin Campbell, has similarly  shifted her attention from big victories to lower level training. Since the start of quarantine and west coast competition cancellations,“I’m focusing on the younger horses and some of the projects that I have that may not usually get as much attention as the jumpers. The six-year-olds are probably getting more attention than they normally would,” Campbell laughs, embracing the training component of her career since the start of COVID life. 

She approaches their training by fragmenting her goals for each individual green horse. “I’ll take where they’re weak in the ring and break it up into small exercises for the horse to understand. If a horse is wiggly in the ring [for example] then I’ll jump combinations at home and really focus on straightness.” The advantage of these smaller goals are clear. “For the younger horses, as opposed to the more experience and trained ones, it’s easier to witness their progress. It’s very rewarding.”

In the horse world, a small win might also look like consistency. Often mistaken for stagnancy, consistency is absolutely an accomplishment. It may seem counterintuitive, but riders should pat themselves on the back for not improving, since regression is unfortunately frequent when it comes to horses. Thus, no progress can be a win.

Walther values consistency in her rounds. “When I go into the ring, I don’t think about winning. I try to be consistent. Even if I win a class, if I can’t have several solid courses in a row, then I’m not ready to move up.” Consistency is the building block for progress. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

Likewise, Campbell is adamant that “basically, anything besides going backwards [in training] is, for me, an improvement. I think the hardest part for riders is getting bored and trying to do too much and creating an issue and then having to fix that issue… It’s hard to not get too ambitious at times. Sometimes you just need to take a minute, let the horse be a horse.” Progress doesn’t have to be leveling up. Maintenance of your horse’s training is an underestimated accomplishment. Keeping your skills and horse’s abilities afloat is admirable enough. 

“Be aware and accepting of what your horse is actually capable of and set goals that are actually realistic to the horse that you’re riding. You can have as many goals as you want as a rider but you have to have the horse to back that up,” Campbell adds. Unrealistic, overly broad hopes are popular attitudes equestrians carry, but sacrificing practicality can be harmful. Proper perspective of your potential will set you up for achieving the success you desire. 

Riders are often drowning in their own goals. While admirably ambitious, they might set themselves up for disappointment. Don’t wait for big wins, but don’t settle for doing nothing at all. Small wins are the key to frequent triumph and long term success. 

Listen to Kaitlin on the Plaidcast here.

Read about Kaitlin’s wins:

About the Author: Piper began her tenure as the Publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine in 2014. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College [Hartford, CT] in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. She is an active member of the hunter/jumper community, owning a fleet of lease ponies and showing in adult hunter divisions.
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