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Darby Bonomi


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Sports Psychology with Dr. Darby Bonomi: Body Image Woes? Beauty Is as Beauty Does

Photo by Alden Corrigan.

Feeling dissatisfied with your body? It’s a common challenge for many women, even female athletes. Want to step out of that struggle? Let’s change your mindset. Put your attention on what your body does for you—rather than on how it looks. In other words: focus on being an athlete, not on being a model.

Think of all the riders whose bodies do not conform to the stereotypical ideal. There are many in our midst, and many who are at the very top of our sport. You know them: they are too tall, too short, too small, too big. What these riders have in common is their ability to use their bodies effectively to seamlessly partner with their horses. Isn’t that what we’re all about? Isn’t that what we find beautiful and satisfying?

What does it mean to be an athlete? It means directing your focus to your abilities not your appearance. Notice what your body can do physically at this moment. Then consider what you want your body to do going forward. Do you need more strength, more flexibility, more balance, or more endurance to go where you need to go in your riding? Being an athlete means you figure out how to take care of yourself to meet your physical goals—just as you would do for your horse.

Focusing on how you look is a distraction. Frankly, it’s a waste of time, and let’s face it — there is no time to waste.

I believe that this perspective is easier as you get older. As an older athlete myself, I work hard to maintain my strength and flexibility, and to increase my stamina. Being able to operate at the highest level possible for me is what it’s all about, especially as I feel the years pass. As I get older, I don’t intend to be a pretty shelf decoration gathering dust; I intend to be an athlete all the way to end of my riding career and beyond.

Are you with me?

Riders, here is my challenge: focus on your athleticism. You can allow yourself to be dissatisfied with your imbalance, your core strength, or your endurance—and use that dissatisfaction to push yourself to a higher level. There are always improvements to be made. Serious athletes, by their very nature, don’t bask for long in the satisfaction of a success. A win today is great, but it’s back to training tomorrow. Physical fitness, like technical development and mental fitness, is a continual, ever-evolving project.

Make a commitment to see beauty in your athleticism and abilities. Remember: beauty is as beauty does.

About Dr. Bonomi: Darby Bonomi, PhDis a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.

Sports Psychology with Dr. Darby Bonomi: Frustration — A Guide Out of the Cloud

Olympian Lauren Billys, a client of Dr. Darby Bonomi, and Castle Larchfield Purdy at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Frustration. It’s a cloud of dark energy that hovers over us. Under it, we feel stuck and irritated, unable to see our way out of a situation. We all hate that helpless, overwhelmed feeling—especially us riders who thrive on action plans.

As you know, nothing gets worked out in a state of frustration. Certainly nothing in the saddle gets fixed. My feeling is that if you’re overcome with frustration on the back of a horse, you’d better get off and sort it out before you bring your horse back into it. So, what if you find yourself in that yucky frustration cloud? Maybe you can’t figure out a problem horse, or you can’t seem to find a distance to a jump, or you have a client who is driving you nuts. Here are steps to lead you out of your storm.

First and foremost, remember:

Frustration means you FEEL stuck. It doesn’t mean you ARE stuck.

Step 1. Lean in to the frustrating situation. Yes, I want you to feel whatever it is. In order to get out of the cloud, you first have to accept it, and then sit with it. Paradoxically, once you accept whatever it is, you will feel relief. You have already begun to let go of the resistance.

Frustration is resistance to accepting what IS.

Step 2. Now approach the situation from a more neutral head space. In order to move forward, you need to look at the problem more objectively and less emotionally. This may be challenging because you may not like what you see. There will be things that you can’t change. It won’t feel good. That’s OK. That’s not the issue here. Your job is to embrace and accept what is.

There may be things you can’t change, but there are other things you CAN change.

Step 3. From your neutral, full-acceptance state of being, you will now see options and be able to make choices. Now you’re in the driver’s seat again: it’s a place that most of us riders feel comfortable. Remember, we don’t mind challenges. We are great with tough, sticky situations. After all, we deal with horses on a daily basis! It’s when we resist what is in front of us that we get stuck in the frustration muck.

Here is an example from a client this week. She is very frustrated with a horse she has had for a long time. Hers is a familiar story of chronic injury, recovery, bad behavior, re-injury, and so on. She continually bangs her head against the proverbial barn wall about what to do. The frustration, in my view, stems from the fact that she wants this horse to be something other than he is. She continues to throw time, money, and energy into him, resisting the signs that he’s not the horse she hoped he was going be. Yes, it’s very painful to see and feel, but it’s only if she allows herself to stop resisting and see the situation clearly that she will be able to start thinking about options and find a way to move forward.

Sound familiar? This is a complicated example of frustration, but we all encounter smaller versions on a daily basis. Challenge yourself to lean into your own frustration, accept the situation as it is, and evaluate it from more neutral ground. I bet you’ll feel lighter and more empowered to take next steps, even if they aren’t what you hoped for.

Relief from the frustration cloud resides first and foremost in giving up the resistance to what is and then moving forward with acceptance and clarity.

Have questions? Need a hand out of the muck? Reach out!


Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. She can be reached at

Sports Psychology with Dr. Darby Bonomi: Are You REALLY Ready to Ride?

Olympian Lauren Billys, a client of Dr. Darby Bonomi, and Castle Larchfield Purdy at Rebecca Farm in 2019. Photo by Shelby Allen.

It’s often quoted that up to 90% of sports performance is psychological. Even if it’s not quite that high, how much time do you spend working on the mental and emotional parts of your rides? Most equestrians focus almost exclusively on technical and physical training and pay minimal attention to the psychological. What’s going on here? We all know that we can be physically fit and technically competent, but if we leave our psychological game at the start box, our ride suffers.


How do I define psychological? For my purposes it’s the mental (thinking) and the emotional (feeling) components of the sport. The emotional aspect also links to the body (physical) since we usually express feelings in our bodies. For instance, when you’re nervous, your body is tense. If you feel calmer and more grounded, your body will relax. Conversely, if your body is relaxed, you will feel emotionally calmer.


Do you want to elevate your performance, both at home and at the shows? Let’s get you going in the right direction!

In my experience, there are 4 essential preparation steps that increase your chances of optimal performance. These steps are interrelated, but I find it’s useful to think of them as separate stages. And, while these steps are essential for show performance, I urge my riders to practice them daily so they become routine. Besides, don’t you want to bring your best self to every ride?

One note: while the steps are cumbersome to describe, the process should not take more than a few minutes, especially once it becomes routine.

Step 1: Become fully present and ‘in’ your body

Top performance requires us to be fully centered in our bodies and emotionally present. One of my young riders sums it up: “I need to feel calm and have my brain in my body.” How do you do this? There are many ways, and athletes use different tools depending on their own challenges and strengths.  Here are a few tips: create a quiet moment in your mind and take note of your physical presence. Actively feel your feet on the ground, and call yourself to be fully here, right now. Place your attention on your physical space and create an imaginary boundary between you and everything else. Take a few deep cleansing breaths and with each one, let yourself get heavier and closer to the ground. Become increasingly aware of your body right here and now and let go of any mental chatter or unnecessary emotional energy. Some people find it helps to repeat a phrase, such as ‘I am grounded in present time.’ I think it helps to do all of this with eyes closed. This whole process can take only a few minutes.

Step 2: Set intentions for the ride

This is the mental part. How do you do this? Give yourself 3 tasks for the round or ride. Trust me, 3 is enough. These tasks, or mini-goals, are things that you have control of and can do. These might sound something like, “breathe in every corner, ride forward out of the turns, and ride every stride.” Obviously you will be doing a lot more than these things during your ride, but most of it you don’t need to be reminded of. These tasks are things you are working on, and that if you accomplish, you will give yourself a good grade—regardless of what score the judge throws.

Step 3: Turning on ‘the jets’

Ok, now set aside the mental part and turn on your brilliance. In order to have a good ride, you have to show up. In order to have a brilliant ride, you have to show up brilliantly. This step can also be known as ‘getting into the zone.’ You can practice your tempi changes until the cows come home, but if you walk into the ring with your jaws clenched and your energy drawn in, you won’t shine brilliantly and neither will your horse.

How do you do this? This step will require some practice and experimentation. Think back to a time when you felt brilliant. Do you remember that performance? Pull it up in your mind. Enlarge that experience and feel it again. Find a word or phrase that captures it and practice turning on that feeling. For some people it’s a color or image. For others, it’s a phrase, such as, ‘just ride,’ or ‘bring on the sparkle.’ Linking yourself to a joyful experience of brilliance will help you generate that shine in the ring every time.

Step 4: Review and Recover

This step, while it takes place after the ride, is essential to setting up for the next ride.

How does it work? Now that you did your ride, evaluate it: did you accomplish your three tasks? How well? What would you tweak for next time? Was it a disaster? Ok, review that too, make a new plan, and let it go. Did you make a technical mistake or a mental mistake? Be objective, but don’t stew. I let my clients hang on ‘mistakes’ for only 10 minutes. After that, it’s self abuse. Let it go. Make a new plan and go forward. Remember: proper mental recovery from every ride is essential to set you up for the next ride.

Have questions? Reach out! I love to hear from my readers!

Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. She can be reached at