Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Horse Whispering - Mastering Your Mental Game

I love writing about the mental aspect of sports - it is my profession and my passion.  I specialize in sports hypnosis and I help a lot of people learn how to manage the mental side of their sport.  The mind is a powerful and fascinating enigma and I learn new things about it all the time.

I like the analogy of the conscious/subconscious parts of our minds being like a jockey and a horse (I fully admit this idea came from another hypnotist but I like it so much I'm going to use it here).  Our conscious mind is like a jockey, making rational, logical decisions about how to guide the horse around the race track.  We like to think that the jockey is in control but the reality is that not so much.  The horse of course is the subconscious part of our mind and it's the one who's really in control.  It goes around the track because it wants to not because the jockey tells it to.  The jockey may encourage and guide it and have the illusion of control but in the end the horse has the final say.  And sometimes the horse chooses to defy the jockey.  Maybe it develops a fear at a certain part of the racetrack, stopping in its tracks and rearing up, refusing to go any further and the jockey has no idea why because up until today the horse went around that corner of the track without batting an eye.  Maybe the jockey communicates poorly or is abusive and the horse decides it's had enough.  Or the jockey is afraid and passes his fears onto the horse.  Perhaps the jockey is doing everything right but the horse still won't perform for whatever unknown reason.  And while it's important to work on the jockey's skills, the key to it all is working with the horse.

There are interesting studies of elite professional baseball hitters that show that the key to their success is not their reflexes, which are average or in some cases below average, but rather their ability to anticipate where the ball will go.  They're subconsciously able to read the body language of the pitcher, anticipate where the ball will go and thus prepare for the hit well in advance of the ball reaching them.  The process is completely automatic, the hitters don't even realize they're doing it.  I suspect those handlers that move like poetry in motion with their dogs are doing the same thing.  And our dogs do this as well, sometimes not to our advantage when they anticipate the wrong thing.  But how do you build this automatic, subconscious skill if it doesn't come naturally?  It's all about working with the horse.

So how do we talk to the horse?  Well, there are lots of ways and it depends on the person but with practice it's easy to do.  It's all about getting your mind in a relaxed drifty state so that it's very open to suggestion, conscious defenses and self-limiting beliefs fade away, and we can go in and make suggestions to the horse, create some new, better self-beliefs, restore the horse's faith in the jockey, calm the horse's fears.  In a clinical office setting this is easy and once you've experienced it it becomes easier each time and you can learn to do it for yourself.  However there are some techniques you can do on your own.  One thing you can do is to focus on your breathing.  Close your eyes and start to pay attention to your breathing, no right way or wrong way to be breathing but rather just focusing your mind on the way your breathing feels.  Noticing the way it feels and sounds when the air enters your nostrils.  Noticing how it feels as the air fills your lungs, noticing that place where the breath turns around and the feeling of your lungs emptying out, the sound of the air leaving your nostrils.  After several breaths you probably notice your heart rate slowing a bit, your breathing becoming heavier and more relaxed and your mind starting to relax and letting go.  You feel yourself only in the present moment, thoughts of the past and future drifting away.  And then maybe you can start to imagine going through a particular sequence with your dog, every handling move perfectly timed and the dog responding easily, with plenty of time to react.  Or perhaps you imagine yourself stepping into the ring and up to the start line brimming with confidence, those chemicals that used to make you nervous and give you butterflies in your stomach now making you feel excited and energized instead.

Getting excited rather than nervous about the mass swim start at Xterra Off-Road Triathlon Nationals.

The Light Switch Technique is another method I use to teach my clients self-hypnosis .  The following is the handout I give to clients that explains the technique.  It's easier to do if you've already been formally hypnotized in a clinical setting but still you can get the idea.


Light Switch Technique

When you’re first learning self-hypnosis, do this 5 times a day for about a minute.  You can leave sticky notes around your house/work/school to remind you to practice.

1.  Place your finger up as if on a light switch in the ‘on’ position.
2.  Move you finger downward as if flicking off a light switch and close your eyes at the same time.
3.  Put yourself into hypnosis by counting yourself down a staircase of 10 stairs to a special place where you feel safe, comfortable and relaxed.
4.  When you’re first starting off you can spend the minute putting yourself in hypnosis and enjoying your special place.  Eventually you should be able to put yourself into a nice relaxed state more quickly and you can use the remaining time to give yourself positive suggestions.
5.  There are 2 rules for the suggestions.  They must be positive and they must be for something you want rather than for something you don’t want.
6.  At the end of the minute, move your finger up as if turning the light switch back on and open your eyes at the same time.

You can do longer sessions eventually if you like but when you’re first learning it’s better to do more short sessions rather than fewer longer sessions.


There are things that the jockey can do as well.  Telling the horse how awesome he is is perhaps the most important thing the jockey can do.  Smacking the horse with a whip and telling him how much he sucks is not going to help the horse have faith in the jockey.  So be mindful of the negative self talk.  Reframe it to positive self talk.  Fake and pretend if you have to.  Eventually the horse will start believing it and so will the jockey.  Look at failures as learning opportunities rather than reasons to smack the horse with the whip.

Another thing the jockey can do is not absorb other people's negative emotions at a trial.  Trials are full of all sorts of different people with different ideas of what is the best way to make it through the day.  They're not trying to irritate you or purposely screw up your day, they're just going through their day with their own version of the world and this will not always line up with yours.  Anybody who's been to more than 2 dog trials knows that at some point somebody is going to do something or say something that pisses you off.  Being angry or irritated at some stupid thing that someone did is not going to help the horse.  And if someone is having a bad day and intentionally spreading around their unpleasantness, well, it doesn't mean you have to buy into it.  Just because someone throws crap at you doesn't mean you have to catch it and put it in your pocket.

And perhaps most importantly of all, make sure to take time before your run to connect with your dog.  It's so easy to lose sight of our partner in the chaos of waiting our turn to go into the ring but it's so important to put all the other mental techniques aside and spend that mental energy on connecting with our bestest buddy before going into the ring.  It helps prepare your dog mentally because his mental preparation is important too but it also reminds us of that special bond we have and what is really important here.  In the grand scheme of things our time with our dogs is so fleeting and special, it's good to take those few moments to look into our dog's eyes and remember to savor every run.

If anybody has any questions about anything or would like to see more posts on this subject leave a note in the comments sections and I'll be happy to answer questions and entertain other posts.  And if anybody is interested in exploring sports hypnosis my website is:   I'm happy to answer more involved questions via phone and I do Skype sessions as well.

 This post is part of Dog Agility Blog Event Day.  Go here to read more posts on the topic.


  1. I totally agree, we spend too much time in our conscious minds and don't rely nearly enough on our sub-conscious knowing. Great post! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  2. This is great stuff Elayne. Someday when I am in a position where I can receive this type of coaching I would love it. In the meantime I'll check out your website.

    I am getting much better, and more relaxed before I go in the ring. Not that I have ever been frantic but I just get unfocused--not freaking out but more just "fuzzy-headed". I took the Clear Mind course and that has helped me immensely. I do still have these weird moments though where just on particular runs--and this is just at local trials, nothing too exciting--where I'll walk in the ring and notice my heart is pounding. Its pretty random and definitely only about 10-20% of the time. Its almost like by the time that has happened its too late to do anything about it... Any thoughts or advice on that?

  3. Ring Stress is the single most common issue that agility people have, I think I'll do a whole post on it. I have an article in the Jan. 2012 issue of Clean Run that addresses ring stress a bit, if you have Clean Run you can dig it out and take a look. In the meantime, there's lots you can do. One thing you can do is to reframe the feeling of your heart pounding. You step in the ring and suddenly feel your heart pounding - great! Right now you probably associate that feeling with a negative emotion, maybe fear or whatever. But what if that pounding represented excitement? What if it's about an adrenaline rush that's going to help you run with more power? It's all about creating a new conditioned response to the heart pounding. Often when we get those physical manifestations of emotions we start thinking negatively about them because we think they're making us feel bad physically. I used to have an occasional fear of open water swimming in my triathlons. It didn't happen often but when it did I'd have a terrible panic attack about 100-150 yards from shore during a race. I've worked on it and don't have it any more but I do sometimes get those butterflies in my stomach when I'm waiting for the race to start. And instead of telling myself that it's a sign I'm going to have a panic attack I tell myself that I can use these chemicals as an energy to swim stronger. This feeling only makes me more confident, etc., that kind of self talk. Sometimes I'll even phrase it to myself like, 'What if these chemicals only make me stronger, more confident, etc.' Some people prefer a more direct phrasing of 'These chemicals make me feel so much stronger and more confident, I'm going to feel that strength in my arms while I'm swimming, etc.' So you can turn that heart pounding into whatever you need to help you in the ring. It's o.k. to be a little wound up during a run as long as it's in a way that helps you and energizes you rather than interfering with you.

    1. Anonymous7:55 AM

      Hey what a cool concept. I made a major breakthrough with my dog this past year when I learned to reframe his crazed barking/howling/spinning/lunging right before our runs as *constructive* excitement (it would always totally freak me out b/c he's never otherwise like that, and *I* would be all mental and neurotic by the time it was our turn... yet in reality it does not have a negative effect on his performance in the ring, at least not as long as *I* can avoid getting all messed up about it!). But it never occurred to me to try to reconsider my own ring nerves in that light. Have to try thinking about it this way and see what happens. Thanx!

  4. Anonymous12:08 PM

    What an interesting post, full of positive things to think about, and things we can do to adjust our own outlook, instead of simply reacting. Thank you for sharing.

  5. One other thought about the heart pounding thing - are you having caffeine on trial day? I was having the same thing, weird heart pounding suddenly occurring and I finally figured out it was the combo of caffeine and excitement/adrenaline/disruption etc. of being at the trial. I stopped having caffeine and the heart pounding went away. I've started up again because now I know how to manage it and it'll still happen from time to time.

  6. Thanks for the great perspective on ring stress and the information followup

  7. Thanks Elayne, that makes sense RE the "reframing" of it. maybe when I catch it happening I will tell myself it will make me run faster, get into position quicker, react faster, etc. I like that.

    What I would like to figure out--though I'm not sure how--is which runs I get hyper on, and what those triggers are. My good friends have told me I run more conservatively at trials, though I am not doing it consciously. For obvious reasons I am, but I'm not thinking about it in the front of my mind. Just happens as a byproduct of me wanting to have clean runs apparently.

    RE caffeine... Ummm, yeah. I always always get myself my special coffee on trial mornings, a cappuccino. I am such an addict, I wonder if I don't have it, it may make me feel worse? But maybe I could back off and try to get a half-strength version? Good call, I am sure it is not helping my case.

  8. You could try to figure out the triggers but to what end? A better strategy is to create your own triggers, ie conditioned responses, for whatever you want. For example, whenever you take off your dog's leash at the start you suddenly feel a rush of energy or confidence or focus or a combo of all those or whatever you want. It's easier and quicker to build up these associations in hypnosis partly because that defensive wall of self-beliefs/etc. is faded away and you can build up the associations on the subconscious level. But you can do it consciously too. Even just closing your eyes and letting your mind drift and daydream a bit before you mentally install the new triggers/behaviors will help. It's not a difficult process, just takes a bit of practice like anything else. You can create contextual triggers, eg taking off the leash, kinesthetic triggers, eg touching your thumb and first 2 fingers on your hand together is paired with relaxation, auditory triggers, eg you say to yourself 'running with confidence' or whatever and you feel confident, visual triggers, eg every time you see the color blue you feel calm and relaxed. I almost always pair breathing with relaxation for people. Take a deep breath and feel a wave of relaxation passing through you, etc. That way you're not at the mercy of the triggers in your environment.

    As for the coffee, if you're deeply addicted and going to have pounding headaches, severe crankiness, etc. I probably wouldn't give it up. I'm not addicted to caffeine so it's easy enough for me to skip it though if I have to get up early for a long drive to get to a trial and I'm worried about staying awake I'll stop for coffee and deal with the consequences at the trial. Again you can use the pounding heartbeat as a trigger, just change the association to something useful. Or use a relaxation trigger to calm yourself down. Or even just say to yourself, 'oh yeah, that's just the caffeine talking, I'm not really nervous about my run, I'm just having a reaction to caffeine and I can handle it, no big deal'.

    I'm a big fan of keeping things simple and looking at ways to turn things around to my advantage rather than fighting against them. Keeping an eye open for those small windows of opportunity that most of us miss every day.

  9. I guess the short answer is that it's more effective to work on achieving what you want rather than trying to avoid what you don't want.

  10. This is wonderful advice Elayne, thank you so much for taking the time to offer it.

    I have been trying to work on more productive pre-run routines, but you've made me realize that I can do a far better job implementing them by better conditioning my thoughts and attaching my actions to things I can control. I love the leash idea---that is something that will always happen, so I can attach it to my breathing and/or my phrases that I say right before our run. Not to mention that's easy to practice in class, all the better. Also like the fingers together--again that is something I can do, at any time, just need to work towards conditioning it. I will think about all this and come up with a plan...

    I agree, working with what I have instead of trying to change ingrained habits it is going to be far more productive. I've been learning this a lot in life lately and have some huge changes coming down the pipe, if I can go with the flow and make small adjustments rather than try to control "the big things" I am going to be far better off, in many ways.

    You are awesome, thank you!!!

  11. It's wonderful how many life skills and lessons we can learn from sports. They're more than just hobbies. I have that parents bring their kids in for sports and then become more excited that the mental skills the kids learn are things that will help them through all of life.