September 17, 2018

Good Advice from the Horse World?

Annette Paterakis’ article “What Separates Mentally Strong Riders From the Rest of the Pack: Ten Habits You Should Adopt Now” is currently making its way through the dog agility world, and for good reason—the article lists 10 striking characteristics of “mentally strong riders” that separate them from everyone else. Annette is a former equestrian competitor who now provides coaching for the mental aspect of that sport. She identifies two aspects of mentally strong riders (#4 and #5 on her list) that are usually overlooked in our sport. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn:

“They let go of the outcome.” The author describes the paradox that occurs when a competitor overly focuses on winning. As you invest in and profit from a specific outcome like winning a big event or qualifying for a world championship, you risk extreme disappointment and loss of motivation because so few competitors can attain those goals (after all, there’s only one winner). Even worse is that actually achieving the goal may result in the same disappointment and loss of motivation! Many an Olympian has learned that hard lesson when they captured a gold medal, only to lose sight of why they trained so hard and sacrificed so much.

What’s the antidote? Focus on the process and let that fuel your motivation. When you enjoy spending time with your dog, training and trialing with your dog, and delighting in your mastery of skills as a team, then the results become secondary to the process, and your enjoyment of the sport will be sustained, not corrupted, by your actual results.

“They work on improvement like a scientist.” Sometimes I think that the agility field is my own personal laboratory. I’m free to train, experiment, and think about what I’m doing in a logical, reasonable way—as long as everything is going well. Annette points out that when mistakes happen, mentally strong riders quickly let go of bad emotions and figure out what they need to do to get better. I am passionate about dog agility, but I am cold and clinical in my approach to training (at least, I try to be). In our podcast with Max Sprinz, the 18 year-old European Open champion notes that he wants to “get my emotions out of the game and watch my dog and then I can relate to it and then I can do my new training plan.”

Strong, emotional responses to mistakes can strike quickly and have a lasting negative impact on our relationship with our dogs. In dog agility, mistakes happen quite often and are a very natural part of the sport. Having reviewed thousands of training videos over the past several years, I think the biggest mistake made on the agility field is how we as trainers deal with mistakes.

In general, trainers should ignore mistakes while rewarding behaviors they’d like to see again. There’s no need to dwell on a mistake or pair it with a negative emotional response from the handler. Ignore the mistake and quickly move on. In this podcast, we talk about how to work through mistakes in your training.

If you have any comments or questions, please send them to and give me a few days to get back to you.

Happy Training,

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