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Corro Stories

Remembering Your Why: Making Your Passion For Horses Sustainable with Annette Paterakis

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By Riesa Lakin

"Start with why," or "remember your why," is not a new concept. Many people have heard that phrase thanks to Simon Sinek's wildly popular TED Talk back in 2009. However, it seems that now, more than ever, "remember your why," couldn't be more important for equestrians, as we navigate through the pandemic, as well as post-pandemic. In fact, it's one of the most important conversations that equestrian mental coach Annette Paterakis has with her clients. Without your "why," this very mental sport—no matter what type of riding you participate in—can get tiring, frustrating, and even unsustainable. 

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Annette, who is currently in the process of writing her second book, and got a sneak peek of some of her recent findings for how to stay motivated and measure success in a way that is both fulfilling and sustainable, AND is easily applicable to equestrians across all disciplines—from recreational riders to the top professionals. Her solutions, including "remembering your why," may not seem revolutionary, but the power behind them is the difference between putting in the work and experiencing rewarding and fulfilling improvements—which can make ALL the difference.

Here are some of her latest findings and helpful tips that will help your days feel less like Groundhog's Day, and give you the confidence and motivation to help you continue to succeed—no matter what success looks like for you. Also, you will find a special offer from Annette Paterakis at the end of this article.

Photo courtesy of Corro

Photo courtesy of Corro

What is an equestrian mental coach, and who can benefit from working with one?

The equestrian mental coach is a term that I kind of came up with myself. When I started seven-and-a-half years ago, it didn't really exist—there wasn't a specific equestrian mental coach out there. Luckily, now there are more of us. Basically, what I do is I help equestrian riders and athletes become, be, and stay the best version of themselves. It's almost like a life coach specifically tailored for the equestrian rider.

I get a lot of different questions from, "I have this fear because I've fallen off and I've lost my confidence. How can I get it back?" to "Can you help me reach my big goals? I feel like I'm not getting there in the best possible way," to "I'm not tapping into my full potential. Can you support me on my journey?" and everything in between. I would say it's more than sport psychology. It's not just about performance. It's about feeling fulfilled about your journey, feeling excited and inspired, feeling like you're the best version of yourself most of the time, and to really be able to enjoy that journey of growing and becoming better every day. I am lucky enough to call this my work—to be able to guide and help riders to do that.

The more you invest in your personal development and becoming more self-aware is the first step to achieving any goals.

Who do you work with? Is it just top riders in the sport or can anyone benefit from an equestrian mental coach?

I believe anyone can benefit from this. This work reaches further than just the equestrian sport. Anyone who would like to better their lives, tap into their full potential, and would like to lead a fulfilling life is who I think can and should work with a coach. I have a few different coaches that I work with myself, even though I'm not competing anymore or even riding at the moment. I work with them because I want to constantly grow, learn, and be the best version of myself.

I, personally, work mostly with competitive riders who compete at local or national shows to 5* level riders. Most of the riders that I work with, because I started my business here in Europe, are professional riders that ride internationally. But I have worked with and still work with riders who also ride recreationally. I am doing that a little bit less now, but there are more mental coaches out there that work with any rider who would like to either overcome something or improve their confidence to be able to enjoy riding again.

Even for the recreational rider, it can sometimes be challenging to stay in touch with why you actually do what you do. Especially when you are a very driven person who is guided by goals and ambition, we can sometimes get off track and forget that we ride for a hobby. That is our choice—to not have to go to any kind of competition or ride at a certain level–that's just a certain pressure we put on ourselves.

Anyone can work with a coach if you want to improve in any field, in anything you do. The moment you work with people that can help you grow as a person, you will ultimately get closer to your goals. That's a belief that I have as a coach that I've seen many times again. Everything starts with self-awareness. So, having a coach by your side, whether it's a life coach, a mental coach, or a business coach, the more you invest in your personal development and becoming more self-aware is the first step to achieving any goals.

That's great! In addition to coaching, you're an author who is working on your second book. You had mentioned to me earlier that it's based on research and interviews with top equestrians in the sport. Can you share some of your findings?

My first book is about sharing practical tools and thoughts about what equestrian riders can do to help their own mental game. At some point after finishing and releasing the first book, I realized that I wanted to take it a step further. We have a lot of ideas and beliefs, including myself, about what it takes to become a successful, accomplished equestrian rider. But are these beliefs true? I didn't know and I couldn't find any body of work that could answer that question. I felt like there was a gap in terms of research that had been done in the equestrian sport, especially talking to successful riders, that looks at how they got to where they are now. So, that really drove the idea for this book.

I learned that these riders are not driven by winning a certain title. It's not ego-driven. What these riders have in common is that they are driven by something bigger, more fundamental for them, which is their love for horses and their love for improvement.

I was very eager to keep learning. I've done a lot of research into peak performance, so this book is a combination of that research and listening to showjumping riders at the top of the sport to see what they have in common—what are their patterns—and combining that with my own experience and thoughts into one book. I came up with what I call, "winning habits to success." They range from the mindset that we have, to deliberate training, to being focused on what you do, to also staying connected to your "why" and what is your motivation—what motivates these top riders and going deeper into that.

During this time, I learned that these riders are not driven by winning a certain title. It's not ego-driven. What these riders have in common is that they are driven by something bigger, more fundamental for them, which is their love for horses and their love for improvement. It's about being able to get the best out of their horses, to feel the connection with their horses, to build a relationship with these beautiful animals, and to be able to achieve their full potential as a team.

This was quite a revelation to me because I always felt like if you want to be successful, then you have to focus on winning, you know? What I saw in terms of the motivation that drives every single thing they do and the decisions they make is actually much bigger than that. They get up every morning because they love what they do.

So, my theory is that because they're motivated about the work itself and not because of winning a certain title—of course, that too is fun and is important, but it's not their main driver—they stay a lot more consistently motivated. In times like these for example (during the pandemic and ban on horse shows), they're still equally motivated to get up every morning and work their horses because they know that they still have so much to work on, so many details to really hone in on, so many horses that they never got a chance to ride because they were traveling all the time. Now, they have the time to work on improvement. So, improvement, the love for horses, and that teamwork—that is what drives them.

"You know, I just got back to 'I love horses.' I love horses and I love to get up every morning and just get on these horses and feel them improve...That excites me." - Laura Kraut

To give you a few examples of the answers I got, the first thing U.S. rider Laura Kraut said when I asked her about what motivates her, she said, "You know, I just got back to 'I love horses.'" She shared, "I love horses and I love to get up every morning and just get on these horses and feel them improve. Even if I have a five-year-old that's maybe not that talented or doesn't have that much potential, but that day I feel that it's improving a little bit, that excites me."

Annette Paterakis with Jeroen Dubbledam via Instagram

Annette Paterakis with Jeroen Dubbledam via Instagram

Talking to Jeroen Dubbeldam, who is an Olympic Champion, World Champion, European and Dutch Champion, I said "Listen, you've won every single championship there is to win. How do you stay motivated? What makes you get up every morning?" And he said "What excites me, what I'm passionate about is to get out the full potential in a horse. And if this horse's limit is to jump over 1.30m and I get this horse to jump 1.30m consistently, then I'm really happy, and I feel really fulfilled by that."

Italian showjumper Lorenzo De Luca, who works for Stephex Stables in Belgium, said, "It's not all about these 5* shows. I can get just as excited and happy with feeling a horse improve like the other day when I was at this 3* show. I had this young mare with me. She was jumping her first Grand Prix, and she was doing such an amazing job." He said, "I just feel so much joy from being able to do that."

These are just a few answers of these riders that are driven not to prove themselves, but to improve themselves and their horses. To me, that really stood out. I think that is something that we can all apply to our lives. What is actually important to me? Why do I do what I do?

Photo courtesy of Annette Paterakis

Photo courtesy of Annette Paterakis

These interviews are focused on showjumpers. You also work with equestrians in other disciplines. Does this advice ring true across other disciplines? Can any horse person use these learnings?

Absolutely! Yes, I work mostly with showjumpers and that's just because I used to be a showjumper full-time, so my network started there. But yes, I work with dressage riders, eventing riders, and even other athletes in different sports. This applies to any other discipline. It's a little bit like the "driver." If you can stay in touch with that, it can really keep you very focused on what's really important to you, instead of what other people around you are doing and comparing yourself and your results to your friends or other people at the barn. That can really bring your confidence down or cause you to feel uninspired or like you're not good enough.

What is most important is to look at your journey and what motivates and drives you—which is unique for everyone. I suggest that any rider, whether you ride Western or English, to take a moment to be still and reflect on: When did I first fall in love with horses? Why did I start started riding in the first place? What was that moment that I found really exciting, really engaged, or really passionate about the sport? What was it about that moment? Was it a certain smell? Was it a certain horse or pony that you just love so much? What was it about it that you love so much?

Whether you're a recreational rider or a top sport rider, it doesn't matter. If you can stay in touch with this [love for horses] and keep going back to the connection with the horse, that honestly is what fuels you.

It's going back to basics and checking in with yourself on what is it that makes you go to the barn every day. Often, what you'll realize for most people is it'll be the love for horses in itself. That has nothing to do with getting certain results or doing well. It's all about the teamwork with the horse, the love for the horse, taking care of the horse, or maybe it's like some of these top riders who like being able to bring out the full potential of a horse. Maybe it's about building up a special relationship with a horse, but it's all to do with the horse. Sometimes, we can really get off track and forget about that connection. What I've learned along the way is that it's all about this connection. Whether you're a recreational rider or a top sport rider, it doesn't matter. If you can stay in touch with this [love for horses] and keep going back to the connection with the horse, that honestly is what fuels you.

With the state of the world right now with the pandemic, what can we, as riders, be doing right now to strengthen our connection with horses, especially with some people who are unable to even visit their horse right now? What kind of work should we be doing right at this moment to help with our connection when there's this kind of pause?

First of all, really focus on what you have 100% control over. Right now, we're in a time where there's a lot of things that are happening around us that we can't control and that we can't change. If we stay focused on the things that we can't change, like when the shows are going to start again or when we can go back to the barn and again, you're going to lose a lot of energy, get frustrated, and won't get one step further. So, the first step is to fully focus on what you can control right now.

If you notice that you're feeling a lack of motivation right now, I would challenge you to think about that and ask yourself the "why" question—why do I do what I do? Am I driven to prove myself at horse shows or do I feel like I can only improve if I go to a show? If your answer is yes, it may be a sign that you're driven by something called the "fixed mindset." In my book, I will go much deeper into that topic, but basically, if you're noticing that urge of wanting to prove yourself or you're someone who lives for these horse shows because those are the moments you feel like you can shine, that could mean that right now you may be asking yourself, "What's my motivation? What's the point?" You may feel like you don't have much to work on right now. If so, I suggest that you look at what is one thing that you would like to improve on and look at what is 100% within your control. Answer the questions: What is my "why?" Why do I do what I do? What really drives me and what, in essence, do I love to do? What really sets my soul on fire?

If you know that the connection with your horse is the most important thing for you, then there are things that you can do now to improve that relationship—to give the relationship what it needs or deserves. Maybe that is more time. Maybe you realize that you've been very serious and diligent about improvement for a long time, but what you actually need right now is a bit more fun in your relationship with your horse. Now is the time that we can actually take a step back and reflect on what's working for us and what isn't. For the things that aren't working, let's change that! That will be different for everybody, but with any relationship, if you don't invest time into the relationship, that can impact the quality of the relationship. With the horses as well, I believe that sometimes certain ways to really build this relationship doesn't even need a saddle or tack. Maybe it means that you just want to spend some time with your horse out in the field, or you want to do some fun games with your horse and teach your horse different skills that have nothing to do with riding but really helps to build that relationship. Maybe you just want to give you some rest because you've been going from show to show. It's really about taking the time instead of staying stuck in the belief that you need to feel happy and you're not having that right now.

If you're feeling a lack of joy, fulfillment, or motivation right now, then this is actually a great time for you to take a step back and learn from that and see what's actually underneath those feelings so you can still work on improvement. Trust me, there are always things that we can work on to improve.

If you're not able to go to the barn to see your horse, maybe now is the time to read that book that you always want to read but never had time for before. Maybe now is the time to look online on YouTube and learn from your heroes. Maybe you can visualize yourself riding with your horse or connecting with your horse, or maybe you can just send some love and kindness in your meditation to your horse every day if you can't see them. There is always something we can do, but it's what we focus on that matters. If I focus on the things I cannot change and they are negative, I'm not going to feel great. I'm going to lose energy. It's really not productive or helpful at all. Instead, learn from this, take the time to reflect, and rest if you need to. Let your horses rest and enjoy this change in pace. For most of us, we often complain that we are so busy that we don't have any time. This time is actually a gift—it really all depends on how you look at it.

Image by Kenny Webster via Unsplash

Image by Kenny Webster via Unsplash

That's true! Without a positive outlook, every day can feel like Groundhog's Day, especially if you are riding every day. Those are great trips to break up your routine and to focus on the improvements that are within your control.

Yes, if you're able to ride and are working on making improvements, break it up more and look at what the one thing is or maybe even write a few process-based goals down for yourself in terms of improvement. What are the things that I would like to improve when it comes to my horse's abilities and my own? Maybe you want to improve your posture on the horse, or the connection with your horse, or to make sure that your horse stays straighter on the jumps. You can write down all these process-based goals that are focused on the process and not so much the result. Then, pick 1-3 maximum that you're going to work on, and think of specific exercises that you can do to improve those specific process-based goals.

That's great. We're all capable of finding ways to improve our riding. You previously mentioned "deliberate training." Can you talk more about how it's not just for professional riders?

One of the beliefs that I talked about earlier when I was thinking about my second book was around talent. Many of my clients still today have this belief that you need a certain amount of talents to succeed. And that really got me curious. Is that really true that we need talent to succeed? That belief gets us straight away into a fixed mindset—believing that you either have what it takes and are gifted or you're not. That gives this feeling of "I'm not 100% control over my own destiny." And, obviously, that also creates worry about failure—you're worried about making mistakes because all of that is proof that you're not good enough.

Research into peak performance and talent has shown that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that talent is a requirement for success. Looking at genetics, talent assumes that you are born with something. I asked all these riders that I interviewed for the book about their ideas around talent, and what I found is that, first of all, we have about 25,000 different genes that all interact with each other. Now, I'm still new to all this research, so don't quote me on this, but what I do know for sure is that we are not born with an "equestrian" gene. There is no such thing. So, when I asked riders if they believe that we are either born with an equestrian gene or not, they laughed and said no, obviously not. At the same time, they believe that you do need to have something, and so I dove into what that something is.

I think we can all, as riders, agree that these are all things that we can learn and improve on. So, in essence, we need to focus more on training those unique and important skills that we need as a rider, and train them in a lot of more deliberate ways...

For the showjumper rider, I wanted to break it down. What do we really need to be successful? It is that eye for the distance, being able to judge a distance to a jump, and also being able to feel the horse underneath you and what that horse needs at that moment— that's what's important for showjumpers, and I believe for any rider in general. So, I asked these riders if these two specific elements, seeing a distance to a jump and feeling the horse underneath, if they are trainable? And all of them answered, "Yes."

I think we can all, as riders, agree that these are all things that we can learn and improve on. So, in essence, we need to focus more on training those unique and important skills that we need as a rider, and train them in a lot of more deliberate ways than just saying, "You need to get miles. You need to go to shows. You need to jump a lot." Those aren't specific enough. If I jump a lot and knock every single fence down, or don't see any distances to any jumps, I'm not learning anything. What is more important is that you train more deliberately on how to see distances to a jump. Maybe that means that you train with poles on the ground, or have a trainer giving you feedback. Maybe that means that you need to videotape your progress, your jumps, or whatever it may be. You need to really think about, "How am I going to train the specific skill?"

If you believe that you don't have what it takes, the moment you start making mistakes, you'll give up, feel like you're failing, and may be discouraged or frustrated. But, actually, those are just moments that we get feedback—feedback that we need to train better, that we need to be more deliberate.

When it comes to the feeling with the horse, it's all about what you focus on. Are you in your head thinking about what you need to do next, or are you able to really tune into the horse and feel what you need to do next? All of these things are very much driven by your mindset. If you believe that you don't have what it takes, the moment you start making mistakes, you'll give up, feel like you're failing, and may be discouraged or frustrated. But, actually, those are just moments that we get feedback—feedback that we need to train better, that we need to be more deliberate. Maybe it's specific feedback about what we need to work on more or that something needs to change that we haven't really thought about or haven't realized yet. So, our mindset is incredibly important to anything we do as a rider, as an athlete, as a person that wants to achieve anything in life. Either you believe that you have what it takes, or you don't. If you don't, that can really create inconsistent results, work, motivation, and inconsistent confidence. But, the growth mindset, on the other hand, means that you're not working towards a specific goal—you're just driven and motivated to improve every single day. That is what drives you that is never-ending and what excites you.

Even if it's possible that we are born with certain advantages, it's still crucial that we do something with it. There is no rider out there that was born with certain advantages that became successful by just riding around without deliberate training. In my research into peak performance, a crucial element to success is deliberate training, not talent. Again, deliberate training is not the same as getting on your horse every day or riding 10 horses a day, for that matter, and doing the same thing every day and being on autopilot. That is not the same as deliberate training. If you get on your horse every day just to walk, trot, and canter, do the usual things, and then you get off, you have given this horse exercise. It was maybe a fun ride, but that was not deliberate. So, from my own experience and also working with many clients, what I often see is that they are not deliberate enough about their training at home. The training at home is where the magic happens—not at the show. When you get to the show, you need to be ready. Then, what happens in the ring is feedback on how you train at home. That's all it is.

Thinking about jumping as training is not deliberate enough in my opinion. For example, in many cases for my riders, maybe not at the top level, but even including my own riding career, we often are training our horses at home to really respond to our aides, to be able to collect their body, to stay with us, and that means that we are often training in a certain rhythm. And then we get to the horse show and we need very different skills in the showjumping arena. We need a very different rhythm than what we train at home. When I ask the riders, "If you were to improve one thing that would just really bring your clear round percentage from let's say 50% to let's say 80% for now, what would it be?"

It's not just about jumping jumps. Often, riders are so concerned with that distance but finding the distance is easy if you have the basics right. The same goes for other disciplines. I'm not even specialized in training for riding, but I do know about deliberate training. The riders and trainers who work in a deliberate way about improvement, I guarantee they all have a step ahead.

I think there isn't one proven way of doing things. But if you focus on your mindset, the connection with your horse, and deliberate, those three elements are always key to performing at your best.

Photo courtesy of Annette Paterakis

Photo courtesy of Annette Paterakis

A special offer from Annette Paterakis for Corro readers

To learn more about Annette Paterakis, please visit her website, here, and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Additionally, for Corro readers only, Annette is offering 15% off her Master Your Mind online training program. Use code corromym15 at checkout! Her program dives even deeper into deliberate training and focuses on the mental aspect of the sport with the basics for the equestrian rider. You can access the program anytime and start whenever you'd like.