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Darby Bonomi


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The Fear Factor

Photo by Alden Corrigan.

Do you ride with fear? If so, you’re not alone. Fear is one of the most prevalent topics in my practice. While we can — and most of us do — ride with fear, it takes its toll on our effectiveness and resilience. In this column, I’d like to put fear in perspective and offer some tools to manage fear in the saddle. Let’s see if we can’t at least reduce the fear factor in your riding — or even eliminate it altogether.

First of all, it’s important to know your fear. In my experience, most people run from their fear. They do everything they can not to feel it or know it. They’re afraid if they pay attention to it, the fear will expand. Usually, the opposite is true. In order to address fear, we have to get acquainted with it.

Tip #1: Take a deep breath and accept you have fear. It’s ok. Many, if not most, riders have fear.

Once you have accepted it, start to examine your fear. Ask yourself, what is your fear really about? Is it about falling? Is it about getting hurt? Is it about being seen or watched? Are you afraid of being judged? Are you afraid of letting yourself or someone else down? Many people conflate fears, so be sure you can untangle the different feelings. You might need to talk this out with your trainer or a friend.

Tip #2: Define your fear. Is it physical (“I’m going to get hurt”) or is it mental (“I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”) Or, is it both?

Ok, so let’s start with the physical fear — the fear that you’ll fall or get hurt. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to ride if you are hyper-focused on the risk. As you well know, your horse feels the tension and starts to wonder what he should be afraid of. In addition, fear can paralyze us, so we can’t react appropriately in the saddle. None of this sets us up for a good ride.

My advice to riders who are very physically fearful is first to set yourself up for success. Make your situation as safe as possible. For instance, if your horse is too fresh, longe him, turn him out, or work him from the ground. Ask yourself: do you need more lessons, better horse care, or a more complete training situation? Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the safest choices possible. In my experience, toughing it out usually doesn’t end up well. Horses are tougher than we are! Reduce the risks as much as you can and give yourself time to build up confidence in your program.

Tip #3: Set yourself up for success — reduce risks as much as you can.

But what if your fear is more mental—the fear of making a mistake, not being ‘good enough,’ letting a trainer down, or being judged negatively by someone. These are very weighty fears and can paralyze us just as much as physical fears.

Usually I tackle mental fear first with a big perspective shift: ask yourself, who are you riding for? If it’s not for you, then ask why.

I talk to my riders a lot about the concept of owning your ride. My view is that you must ride for and against yourself. Sure, you might be in a competition, but in the end, you are aiming to ride your best on that particular day with the horse underneath you. That is it. Owning means knowing where you are in the process of becoming a rider, and working each day to become a little bit better. If you thoroughly believe this, others’ judgements — perceived or real — will fade away. No one, including the judge, knows where you are in the process of your development as an athlete.

Tip #4: Own your riding. Ride for and against yourself.

Finally, ask yourself: how much of your fear is fueled by perfectionism? From where I sit, a significant portion of all fears has some root in the rider’s insistence (conscious or unconscious) on “perfection.”

Let me address this head on: perfection paralyzes us. It’s a rigid standard we have in our heads, a standard that is unattainable. What I see in performance is that a perfectionistic rider lets down or stops really riding once he or she feels something has not gone according to plan.

I encourage you to challenge your perfectionism habit. Accept that your ride will not be perfect. You’ll make mistakes and so will your horse. Once you have accepted this, you can release yourself to be in present time and ride every step.

Tip #5: Give up the habit of perfectionism and release yourself to ride

Fear is a complicated, multilayered topic, as you can see. Here I’ve only brushed the surface of the issue, but I hope that I’ve given you some food for thought and tips to start dismantling your fear. In my view, the saddest part of fear is that it interferes not only with our performance, but also our joy in riding! If fear is spoiling your rides, take heart, you can make change your relationship to your sport and enjoying your horse again.

Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist based in San Francisco. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. Learn more at

Five Mental Wellness Tips for Equestrians

This article originally appeared on Athletux and is shared with permission.

Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash.

May is mental health awareness month! It’s a great time to consider strategies to keep ourselves mentally and emotionally strong and fit. Riders go hard, and often ignore signs of stress and overwork. While we are deliberate about our horses’ care, we tend to be much less so with ourselves. Here are five tips to get you started on a path toward improved psychological self care.

Take time breathe and listen to yourself.

Even if it’s a few minutes a day, be deliberate about connecting to your mental and emotional state and breathe into it. Inhale through your nose, exhale out of your mouth. As you inhale, imagine your breath cleansing and replenishing you. As you exhale, allow yourself to expel the stress and angst of the day.


Keep a watchful eye on your perfectionism and self judgment.

While it’s great to be driven, too much perfectionism and self criticism takes a toll on your self esteem and undermines your performance. Give yourself balanced feedback with a healthy dose of compassion.


Take care of your physical health. 

To be mentally strong, we need to be physically resilient. Good nutrition is essential. Eating junk, eating fewer calories than you need, or overindulging in a variety of ways diminishes your mental and emotional resilience. In addition, physical fitness is a key component for mental fitness. A good aerobic workout will lift your mood, combat anxiety, and improve sleep as well.


Take time to nurture your relationships.

None of us is an island. We all need a village to celebrate our wins and support us when times are tough. Make sure not to neglect your relationships. Good friendships need time and space to develop.


Rest and restore.

Downtime and rest are essential—both for mental health and performance. Do your best to prioritize sleep and rest—even on those long horse show days. Fatigue decreases our emotional resilience and adds to our overall strain. Prolonged fatigue can leave us depressed, anxious, and physically vulnerable.

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.

Stressed Out, Perfectionistic Junior Riders: Let’s Help Them Put It in Perspective

Photo by Alden Corrigan.

I work with a lot of adolescents. I love teenagers—they tell it like it is and have great senses of humor. I find that they are very open to new ideas and concepts. They learn fast, and keep me on my toes. My sample, a group of competitive riders from different disciplines, are extremely high achievers. They have lofty goals and strategies to get there. They are willing to work hard and regularly push past their comfort zone. They are very successful—both in and out of the saddle. And, they are carrying too much on their shoulders.

Many of these riders have extraordinary expectations of themselves, and feel that others do as well. They have anxiety about all kinds of things—worries that affect their every day performance in the saddle, and their psychological and physical health. Along with unrealistic expectations, the most prominent trends I see are: worries about being perfect, preoccupation with what others think about them, and feeling that they are on their own and have to “know it all already.”

Here are some recent examples from my work:

  • One teen is a dedicated, developing event rider. She has an upcoming opportunity to work with a prominent clinician, but is sick with worry that she will “fail” in the clinic. She burdens herself with the task of having “to know it all” rather than embracing the fact that she, like all of us, is a student of the sport. Instead of excitement to work with her idol, she feels panicked to the point of throwing up.
  • A young adult dressage rider feels she is “letting herself down” if she or her trainer doesn’t punish herself mentally for every error (perceived and otherwise). Her self-bullying interferes with her learning and disrupts her communication with her horse—and most importantly, leaves her suffering between rides.
  • A teenage hunter rider feels afraid to ask her trainer for clarification in her lesson. She cringes, believing that others will judge her. Instead of asking, she does what she thinks the trainer wants, but does it incorrectly. Afterward, she feels humiliated, and dreads her next ride.

Many teens do not have a realistic sense that we all are a work in progress. We’re all perpetual students — even the elite among us. Challenges, trial and error, mistakes, failures — they are all part of our ongoing development. In addition, many young athletes don’t see the adults in their lives as resources—including their trainers and parents. Teens often feel that they are on their own to figure things out. So many teens feel it’s a
blow to the ego if they have a question. “If I ask, my trainer will think I’m stupid,” is a sentiment I hear repeatedly. I remind them that in my experience, the best and brightest always ask questions—and they welcome questions as well. Courage means asking a question when you don’t understand and embracing yourself as a perpetual student. Cowardice is pretending that you know something that you don’t and hoping it turns out OK.

Where do teens and young adults get these ideas? Perfectionism is part of our culture right now, fueled by social media. Nonetheless, we as parents, trainers, and coaches can make an impact. We need to step in to provide a healthier, realistic perspective and educated support—and set an example ourselves. We need to help our teens see the big picture, and redefine what it means to be “successful.” When our child makes a mistake, falls off, or simply doesn’t win the class, it’s our job to ask: what did you learn, and know that this is part of development, not the end of the world.

A mistake is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

The goal of sport is to continually challenge yourself to improve. We need to praise curiosity and learning, not perfection. We need to encourage questions, experimentation, and inquiry and never condemn failure when it emerges out of doing one’s best or trying something new. Let’s adopt this mindset not only so that we can help support our teens’ healthy development, but also so that we can unburden them from anxieties and pressures that in the end, do not serve them in the saddle or in life. Having perspective means we always keep the big picture in mind.

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: The Makings of a Great Competitor

Kristen Vanderveen & Bull Run’s Faustino de Tili. Photo by Alden Corrigan.

What makes a great competitor great? Why do some riders rise to the top despite challenges and others who have all the advantages never fully shine? Is it talent? Hard work? Determination? Better training? Luck? This question deserves contemplation—especially right now as we reflect on our 2020 season and look to next year.

Just for fun, let’s start this exploration by calling to mind those supremely successful horses we have known. What are the qualities that that make them so much better than the others?

Talent is of course a good place to start—it’s just a leg up. Nonetheless, I’ve known quite a few horses with tremendous talent who never did much of anything. One of them was a super athletic, gorgeous jumper, with tons of scope and lovely movement. He was very attractive and compliant, and had a reasonable work ethic. He vetted completely clean. Despite his talent, he was never consistently good. Why? He didn’t really seem to care that much about the job. If he put his mind to it, or if he got lucky, he would win. But just as frequently, he’d would have a rail, or just look bored.

On the other side of the spectrum is another horse I had, a chestnut gelding who was adorable, but jumped only average. He had iffy X-rays, but he never trotted unsound. Nonetheless, this horse seemed to know only the color blue. It didn’t matter which of his riders was in the irons—this horse gave 200%. I bet you know a horse like this—hopefully you’ve had one in your life. What’s the secret ingredient? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that this horse loved his job. He just adored it. He had a terrific work ethic, but the difference really seemed to be the attitude—his joy in doing the work day after day.

Now think about those riders around you whom you consider the best of the best. The riders I admire are certainly hard working and dedicated students of the sport. They love what they do. There is a joyfulness and a passion to their efforts that inspires everyone around them. These athletes devote themselves to every ride; at shows, they are fierce competitors. Why? Again, talent is great, but it’s a small piece. Hard work is key too, but if it’s drudgery then the effort is lacking in shine. I think the key is passion—and dare I say it—joy—in the process.

Does that sound cliché? I beg to differ. Take a look at another world class athlete—The Warriors’ Steph Curry. I admire Curry as an athlete and a leader, on and off the court. He is a tremendous example of someone who uses his joy to fuel his ultra-premium performance, day in and day out. If you listen to his postgame interviews, he regularly mentions his joy as the reason for his success on the court. Ron Adams, a Warriors assistant coach for many years, remarks:

“Curry plays with great joy. The way he does it — and I’m not saying others haven’t or can’t — is really unique. He’s an outlier. That’s who he is and how he lives his life.” — NBC Sports, May 1, 2020

I realize it may feel like a challenge to talk about joy at the end of this strange and, in many ways, devastating year. Well, I’ll take a cue from Steph and issue a challenge:locate your joy in this sport—and in life—and expand on it. Shed your negative thoughts and grab onto that which you enjoy. Think about that horse who happily gives his all every day, despite the weariness and repetitiveness of training. Observe how the perspective lifts not only your performance, but also your entire experience of the work.

What do you have to lose?

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: 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