Emily Abrahams sold everything, packed her border collie Loki and flew from her home country Australia to Europe. After spending a year in Europe, training in 7 countries, competing in 11, forming quite a network in agility world, she tells us what she’s learned about life, people and agility. The things that are closely connected with agility addicts like you and me.
Off the comfort zone - one step after another
But what makes a person leave everything (except the dog) behind and jump alone (except for that border collie) into the unknown? “I’d never felt like Australia was home. Not in that deep, inner sense of belonging. I wanted to go and find a place that would call to my heart, that would ask me to stay. I’d been to Europe twice and loved the forests, the rivers, the lakes, the mountains, the culture, the history, the agility. So, when I found out that my now ex-husband was cheating on me, I thought to myself: if you could do one thing with your life right now, what would you do? The answer was: take Loki and move to Europe.”
Emily doesn’t think that she’s as brave as people think: “A lot of people tell me how brave I am but I don’t feel that way. I’ve always been a very good planner, and not a very good do-er. Now, when I needed little pushes and a belief that this crazy dream could actually happen, another ex came along. In addition to her encouragement, as I began planning this journey, things started happening. Every time I ticked something off my “to-do list”, it felt like I was saying: “Well… there’s no turning back now…” In the end, I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other on that road full of “to-dos” until they were no longer plans but real things, and then I was quite literally stepping onto the plane.”
Training in 7 countries, competing in 11
Trying to find places and ways to train regularly when travelling hasn’t been easy for Emily. “When you’re at home and you have your club or your trainer and you go there a couple of times a week, you tend to take that for granted. When I’m on the road, I don’t know where I’m going to be in three days time, so trying to book a hall is almost impossible - and I have to find a hall, first!
Emily has had help from her agility connections to find the places to train and coaches to train with. She has trained in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, England, Switzerland and Sweden, and competed in those countries plus Norway, Slovakia, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
“I’ve trained with for example Katarina Podlipnik, Lisa Frick, Tereza Kralová, Krisztina Beitl-Kabai and Alex Beitl, Nina Gregl, Zeljko Gora, Isabelle Orenius Emanuelsson, Jouni Orenius, Juha Orenius, Monika Ryskler, Maruša Podjed and a whole lot more people.
Different systems lead to different kind of agility
For the first 6 months in Europe, Emily and Loki had a steep learning curve in agility. “The style of agility in Europe compared to agility in Australia is really different. The courses flow differently. The skills required are different.” The most important things she has learned so far are to stay connected with Loki, how to run and also still handle, how to find a balance between trusting your dog to do the job, but still being really clear about what their job is, and a lot of course analyzing skills
Emily tells that there are two categories of competitors in Australia. Sport competitors who are out there to win, who want better, faster, more challenging courses, and then there are hobby competitors, who want a qualifying score but don’t mind what place they get. They want straightforward courses that aren’t too hard, with plenty of time for them to get around it. “I’m not saying one group is better than the other, or more right than the other. But I’m obviously in the “sport” group.”
“In Europe, there is definitely more drive to get the fastest times and winning scores. Maybe this is because of the systems in place to move up classes and once in A3 to then look toward qualifications for bigger events. In Australia, you don’t need to win to move up classes, you just need a number of qualifications. Once you’re in A3, you can then steadily collect points toward your Agility Championship title without necessarily winning or coming in the top three. So from my perspective, there is a divide here between the need to be competitive and fast vs. rewarding consistency even without speed.”
Flowing, fast and challenging courses enjoyable
When asked about the favorite judges, Emily is clear and fair: “Any judge who sets a flowing, fast and challenging course is my favourite. One where Loki doesn’t land on top of a trap obstacle, where you don’t have to control every inch of the course.”
“Tamas Traj’s courses are always highly enjoyable, and I ran something by Alex Beitl after we first arrived and wasn’t ready for it, so I’d love to run some of his stuff now that we’ve improved so much. I really loved Kristia Myrefelt’s and Jocke Tangfelt’s courses from this year’s HulaHopp and Stefanie Semkat’s courses at PAC earlier in the year.”
Back home, Emily loved running anything by Scott Fletcher. His courses were, according to Emily, beautifully designed and always gave you plenty of options for handling, and you really did have to handle them to succeed. His courses were those kinds of courses where even if you disqualify, you’re still happy about having had the run.
Annika af Klercker the number one source of inspiration
“My favourite handler in Europe is Annika af Klercker. I loved watching her videos on Instagram before I came to Europe, and when we met in Sweden, we got along as if we’d been friends for forever. So not only is she the loveliest person ever, and not only does she handle her dogs so beautifully but I also love her attitude to running Storma in big events. “Go out there, give it EVERYTHING you have, fight for the win, run like there’s nothing to lose”. And every time she crosses the finish line, no matter if it’s a disqualified or she just went clear, her arms are up and she’s celebrating as if they just won the world championships. I love that. And because I’ve spent time with her, I know how dedicated she is to her dogs’ fitness and wellbeing, too and I really respect that. Basically I’m a bit in love with her but let’s just keep that between us, shall we?” - Of course ;)
“Sure, there’s the “big name” handlers who handle perfectly, some I’ve met, some I haven’t. Some I haven’t felt are as personable or approachable as others, or they don’t celebrate with their dog at the finish line because something went wrong. So it’s less about the perfect handling for me than a combination of how they treat other competitors, how they treat their dogs outside of competitions and so on.”
We should support each other more
We all probably agree that we have such an amazing community here. We’re these crazy dog people who travel all over the place to do what we love. Emily thinks we could do more for each other: “I know that in many places, the agility population is so big that you can’t possibly know everyone but let’s try and be kind and open and welcoming to people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a competition, completely alone with no idea what’s going on, and it would have been so lovely for someone to say hello, or to ask if I needed help. I know it’s really hard to start a conversation with a stranger, but wouldn’t the world be lovely if we all did, once in a while? Imagine the connections you could make, the stories you could hear.”
“I can’t say about the social aspect of agility in Europe much, since I don’t know that many people and I’m a kind of an outsider. But in Australia, a lot of competitors go to enjoy a weekend out with their friends so that social aspect there is quite important.
But, on the other hand, I’ve never seen such fantastic support of one another as at a competition in Sweden where people were cheering and shouting encouragement for the competitors from the sidelines. One time someone shouted for me to keep going too and I loved it. We should support each other more.”
Interestingly, after spending a year alone in a van with nobody but Loki has made Emily way more outgoing and social than she was before. “At WAO and EO I really enjoyed introducing myself to people that I recognized or from interesting countries. And when I find someone to talk to, I tend to be more chatty and open than I used to be – I would have considered myself very shy before this trip. And again, I think that’s all about comfort zones. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ve stopped worrying so much about people judging me. Who cares what they think? Life’s too short.”
You have to make your own happiness
Emily has had time to think about life and humanity during her adventure: “You cannot wait for things/happiness/opportunities to fall into your lap. It’s scary to step out and make them happen, but it’s the best way to make sure they happen.”
“Life is too short to be waiting for something better to come along, and you have to take the time to make your own happiness. I think a lot of us expect external things to provide us happiness. Buying something new. Getting more money. Having a bigger house. But then we’re dissatisfied again.”
Emily thinks that what we truly need is simplicity: “The happiest moments on this trip have been the simplest: sitting in a forest in Sweden, the van’s door open, bed down, the Baltic Sea ten meters away and a cool breeze drifting across it. Loki completely at ease and content.Nothing but birdsong, lapping waves and rustling leaves to disturb us, writing my book, or simply napping. And appreciating every moment of that. Wanting to hold on to it so tight that it’s seared into my memory, this perfect, simple moment.”
Emily has some advice to those of us who are running from one task to another, unable to see the life happening around us: “Find a way to be less busy, to look around and find a moment where you can say: “You know what? This is pretty damn great.” And if you can’t find those moments already, go and make them. We all need them. They’re good for the soul.”
During the trip, Emily has come to realize how capable she is: “There’s not a lot of “comfort zone” left in me anymore. On this trip I’ve learnt how to drive on snow and ice, what documentation I need to cross borders with Loki, how to change a fuse in my spare battery, how to drive insanely steep and narrow mountain passes, how to say, “Hello,” “please,” “thank you” and “I don’t speak _____” in at least 6 languages, how to remove 19 ticks from Loki in one sitting, how to survive with literally 2€ in my wallet and 2.50€ in my bank account, and how to ask for help.”
Now Emily and Loki are preparing for the Agility World Championships. “I’m going to be the first Australian to ever run it, and I’m trying to go in with a clear head and no expectations. Loki and I still have SO MUCH to learn, so many scenarios to face before we’re a really cohesive team. We’ve come such a long way this year and it’s only upwards from here, but I’m trying not to put pressure on for World Championships. I’ll probably be crying at the start line, you just watch!”
After that Emily is planning to settle down a bit in Slovenia. “I really miss having a place to train regularly, and I feel like we’ve trained with so many amazing people now with different styles and preferences that I’m ready to find one or two people who can really take our skills to the next level. At EO this year, my goal was “Don’t be a disaster” and I wasn’t – but next year, I want my goal to be: “Run awesome.”
What would you like to say to your fellow agility handlers
Emily has already mentioned that we all could support each other more. But what else? “Cuddle your dogs. It’s amazing what they can do. Lining up at EO, looking across at Loki and his little face so eager and crazy to do agility, I cried a little – because this little dog has come across the world with me to do this sport. A creature who doesn’t speak my language can do all these amazing things, SOMEHOW, and get around these complicated courses. So cuddle your dogs, because they’re amazing, and take them for a hike in the forest and let them sniff things. They deserve it.”
Both Emily and Annika are part of the team AgiNotes. Read more about them and why they use AgiNotes!