Stick With the Program

Stick With the Program

It’s taken me a few years to realize the importance of being in a “program” with your horse and what that means as far as my success in the show ring.  I think it’s a hard topic to write about, because the “program” is different for everyone.

  • Just because you board at a fancy barn with good lessons, doesn’t mean you’re in a program.
  • Just because you keep your own horses in your back yard, doesn’t mean you aren’t in a program.


So what is a program?  Our friend Mr. Webster says:

a planned series of future events, items, or performances.

Okay, but what does that mean for horses?  To me, being in a program means you are falling in line in a few different categories.

You have professional help in the form of lessons, and those lessons are not  “when my horse is being so bad I can’t do it on my own anymore.”  They may be weekly lessons at your boarding stable with your trainer, or it may be once or twice a month when you can haul out to a qualified professional that you like… but there’s a routine to them.  Your trainer gives advice when dealing with your horse, and your trainer has your back with situations that may come up at shows or with the barn owner.


You ride consistently.  Maybe it’s three times a week and maybe it’s not, but both you and your horse get a consistent amount of time in the saddle.  This is over a long period of time too – not I ride once a week when I feel like it and then every day I ride for several hours galloping because that feels fun to me that day.  Consistency is fairness to your horse if you expect him to train and advance at a steady rate.   If you can’t get out there consistently, you supplement with training rides or rides from a working student/barn buddy.

You have tangible goals that your trainer helped you set.  So you want to go to Rolex, and you’ve broken that down into lots of mini goals to accomplish each year.  Maybe you just want to stop being nervous when showing, but a rider in a program will know exactly what they are striving towards and when.


Of course we know that life shit happens.  You lose your job and horse funds go away for a while.  The horse is lame.  It rains forever.  All of things these can derail the program, but the program oriented rider will get back on track as soon as possible.

So that’s my opinion of what a program is, but why do I think it’s a good thing?  I’ve ridden willy nilly with sporadic lessons and riding before, and I’ve ridden consistently in a program.  I much prefer the program (even though it is harder work and more expensive), and this is why:

  • I have more confidence in my riding and my horse.
  • If I do bad at shows, I know exactly why.
  • I don’t second guess myself at shows, because I follow my trainer’s advice.
  • I never over face my horse.
  • I’m more relaxed at horse shows, because I know I’m prepared.
  • I feel like my riding goals are possible to achieve.


When I didn’t ride in a program, a lot of things happened.  I would show up at a horse show and decide to change my riding last minute because I thought other people were doing it better… you can guess how well that went over.  I would take lessons from the really good trainer at the barn whenever I felt like it instead of consistently, and then wonder why I wasn’t ready to do the 2’6″ division yet (we both were pretty frustrated in that situation).  I would make fence height decisions based on how I felt that day, instead of building a proper foundation and slowly moving up… because of that, my horse could be a very dirty stopper at times.

During all that, I had a lot of excuses about why I didn’t need to ride or didn’t need to lesson.  Lessons were expensive.  It was too cold.  He’s fine with a few days off.  Blah blah blah.  All of those things are totally fine until you add showing to the equation.  If you want to show, you simply have to put in the effort and… wait for it – get with the program.


So what about you – do you ride with a program or without?  You’ve heard my opinion on the subject, what are the pros/cons of each way as far as you’re concerned?

25 thoughts on “Stick With the Program

  1. Totally agree with you. I think it takes quite a while to figure out what works best for you and your horse, and what type of program (frequency of riding, necessity or lack thereof of professional rides, etc). However, one question I thought about when reading this is, “how does someone know if they are in a ‘bad’ program?” I so often see people get stuck in programs with “bad” trainers. I hate sitting back and watching friends and their horses decline because of this. Sorry to derail! lol

    1. Not derailing at all! I think that’s something that the owner/rider has to decide for themselves. It’s easy for me to look at someone and think, “I wouldn’t do things that way at all…” but if the rider is happy with their horse and their level of performance who am I to judge? Now if my friend isn’t happy and is wondering why she is continuing to do poorly, I think it’s really up to them to have the self evaluation skills to realize that the situation isn’t working.

  2. I guess I wouldn’t have considered myself in a program, but the way you outline it, then yes, I am in a program! I plan out my show schedule 6 months in advance, my lesson and clinic schedule a month or two in advance. I set mini goals with long term goals in mind. I try to ride every day….when I don’t ride I clean tack and groom.

    I really don’t know how the hell people show without doing this!

  3. Interesting — I didn’t realize how strongly I’ve moved in the direction of a “trainer-supported” program versus a “trainer-led/trainer-shaped” program until I read this post and found myself going, “Yes, but…” I don’t mean that as a criticism; I am genuinely surprised with myself!

    I think the point about routine and consistency is really well-made. One can take a lot of lessons and do a lot of riding towards a lot of goals, but if one is going seventeen different directions or constantly switching/sampling instructors, that’s not actually a program and not likely, as a way of life, to get ’em where they want to go.

    Making decisions/taking action _to a purpose_ is the key in my world.

    1. Yeah, and I think either way you use a trainer can lead to success. I don’t think an equestrian exists though that can do it 100% on their own without at trainer – even if that means a handful of lessons a year or clinics or something.

  4. Great post! My life is a little different when it comes to that, I take lessons twice a week and hack quite a bit on my own, my trainer never worries about canceling on me because I grew up in her program. At this point I’m a self running robot. 😛

  5. In high school I rode in a show barn in a pretty set program. Two-three lessons a week, no jumping without a trainer, and we had to ride at least 5 days a week if we wanted to show. Looking back, I know this gave me a great foundation and work ethic when it comes to riding and schooling my horses but I think it was too limiting. Everything was “do as the trainer says”, with not much room for trying to figure things out myself. I still try to ride 5 days a week but only lesson maybe 2-3 times a month, with a lot more jumping by myself. I’ve learned a lot by having to do it myself, more general horsemanship, than I think I ever would have gotten staying in a more rigid showing program.

  6. I’m absolutely in a program. I know how many rides I need to put in a week, and I know how long they need to be and have a plan to work towards a goal with each ride (even though I can’t seem to keep up with those on my blog! Argh!). The last year is my first with regular instruction (monthly), and it makes a HUGE difference in my riding. I see the month between my lessons as time to work out the kinks and really absorb what we learned in our last lesson, and the next lesson refines the pathway forward and gives me knew tools to work with and work on.

    I can’t imagine trying to show without having some sort of large plan in place!

  7. Also one big lesson I have learned over the years is to pick a program and stick with it. I used to be one who clinic-hopped. I would go to so many clinics with different trainers – all of them of course told me totally different things to do – and then I’d find myself frustrated with no idea how to proceed. Yes, attend clinics but pick them according to who is most similar to the program you and your home trainer/instructor follow. THAT has allowed me to make progress.

  8. All the horses I ride are in my program. I think my trainer would say I’m in one too, but Lex and I are moving along at different speeds. It’s all about planning the work and working the plan, whether that plan is getting yourself to a show or riding a good serpentine.

  9. Another big advantage to the program–little problems don’t escalate into big ones because you catch them in time. 😉 Huge fan of that feature. Having a program keeps me honest and consistent.

  10. I don’t currently have a program because I don’t really have any goals at the moment. Part of that is that I’ve been really burned in the last year with setting goals and then having catastrophic things happen, so I’m a little leery of going crazy with show goals. Plus, Paddy and I are pretty new to each other. He’s so willing but has a lot of holes that we MUST fix before we can seriously consider spending any $ on a show (cantering, anyone?). Plus my lesson schedule is pretty haphazard… whenever my schedule and my trainer’s match seems to be the current MO. Having said that, I DO have a plan of what to work on, I focus rides on specific issues, and I can see progress. So maybe I’m in my own “program”? But I’m not putting pressure on anyone, especially myself. This last year has taught me that just enjoying rides and having a sound, healthy horse is sometimes all you can really ask for.

  11. Program all the way(tho our program has changed as Henry and I have changed).. but I can say, there were times in my life that I didn’t have money for a program so it wasn’t an option. As much as I can help it, a program is the way I like go 🙂 I am a very plan oriented person and in my life, there isn’t much if any room for flying by the seat of my pants 🙂

  12. I’d really love to be in a “program,” but I am so unmotivated right now it’s not even funny. Doesn’t help I flat don’t have the cash to show. 😛 That being said, I’ve done best in the past with periodic (but regular) lessons and a whole lot of saddle time on my own, so one of these days I hope to get back to that!

  13. I’ve been in a program for the last three years. And honestly, it’s really when I started to ride, because everything else was just willy-nilly. I’ve been derailed with job loss recently. But I still stick with the program even if I can’t take lessons like I was. I still ride the same amount of time (a bit more probably!) and I watch other lessons of similar riders. I also ride on lesson days in the same space so my coach can yell at me from across the arena. 🙂 Because I have the several year relationship with her, we are both invested in keeping me on the path even if I have to take a mandatory breather.

  14. GREAT post! Having it listed out like that is so helpful. It makes me realize that as much as I wanted to be I was not on a good program all summer. As you pointed out life got in the way. Moving from out of the country, money issues and all sorts of things and I’m sure that is at least partially a factor in our “big fall.”

    I’m now trying to get back in the program. I still can’t afford to lesson as often as I’d like but I’ve set a goal to at least be more consistent and get in at least 2 lessons a month. For the most part riding consistently hasn’t been an issue for me. I generally ride a minimum of 3 days a week up to 6 days a week. But, it isn’t just about how often you ride but what you are trying to accomplish on your rides. Even if it is just a hack I find I get more out of it if I have a set goal for that particular ride.

    Riding in a program is the best way to advance whatever riding goals you may have, in my opinion.

  15. Oh, this is excellent! I’ve kind of run the gamut of programs—from one-lesson-a-month, how-come-we-aren’t-getting-better, to the super intense, full-time training program that was amazing and WAY too expensive. The program I’m in now is working, thank goodness. Lessons at least 3x/week, usually a 4th and help at the shows, with lots of goal-setting/realignment conversations.

    Really, an awesome post!

  16. Totally worth the $ if you have it! I think it is critical as an adult re-rider for time reasons (I would never have a horse if I couldn’t afford her to get the proper amount of work and training IF I have showing goals) and for progress reasons. Training rides and lessons are so important for me and Savvy to improve and build confidence. I do need to have the goal setting conversation tho as I am really do like knowing where my trainer thinks I should have my sights on. I am under sell or over sell my goals and I want to be on target. good post!

  17. I’m not in a program because life happened… I have no desire to show and there is no urgent need to have Chrome trained in any particular amount of time so it’s okay. When I finish my house, have some money and get to feeling better I will get back into a program. 🙂 Great post!

  18. I love a program! As a not very confident rider I do rely on my trainers to help me build confidence. In fact- I just had a lesson today where my trainer excused herself for a moment and said she’d be back to set fences. My first thought? Maybe I should just say that I want to do flatwork today. Or perhaps crossrails. She came back and set a course of 2’6″ fences and told me to jump. And I jumped! My program right now is getting saddle time and jumping around- no questions asked (but a little commentary from myself of course..i.e. Git Git!)

  19. Right now I am kind of “out of the program” because I’m in my third year of law school and this semester I don’t get out of class/work until 6 three days a week and 8 on Mondays! So the only days I can feasibly ride, now that the sun sets early and there’s no lights on our ring, is friday-sunday… I HATE IT!

    But, I do plan to get “back with the program” soon. I started picking up shifts at the barn to ease the board fee burden, and I’m still the “trash man” for the old barn to discount lessons. As soon as next semester starts, I will be able to leave work early enough MWF to ride! SO, a little month and a half reprieve, then we’re right back at it…!

    But good write up on it- I definitely agree. Sticking with the program is so much more beneficial.

  20. I think steady and consistent work with your horse is necessary if you’re going to travel away from the barn for anything. I hate people who always make excuses for everything that bothers them about their horse’s behavior but never fix it. If you worked with your horse and approached things as they presented themselves you likely wouldn’t have so much trouble. Or, if you continued to have trouble, you’d at least learn to manage it better.

    I don’t have availability to a trainer other than myself. I accept this and thus take all of my horses’ issues into my own hands to fix/mold as I see fit – especially when issues arise.

    I absolutely love seeing partnerships where horse and human have obviously spent so much time working together. Its a beautiful thing worthy of praise (and sometimes envy 😉 ).

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