Sport and Performance Psychology With Darby Bonomi PhD

Happy New Year! 

To ring in the New Year, let’s talk about joy! What? You’re thinking…the holidays are long gone! Aren’t we over the season of joy? 

How about this year, we set an intention to make every season the season of joy. 

Why? Well, joy is an important topic. I work with far too many riders who are disconnected from happiness in the saddle. Instead, they are stressed, anxious, competitive, and perfectionistic. I feel that way too sometimes, and it makes me sad. Don’t we ride because it brings us so much joy just to be around horses and have them as our partners? 

Do you ever stop to watch the pony lesson at your barn? Here’s the 7-year-old pony girl trying to get her pony to canter—see the joyfulness in her face when she gets it? Or that first time she jumps a cavaletti—that is pure thrill, right? We all have some version of the pony girl in us, even if we didn’t start riding until mid-life. 

For me, I feel like a pony girl every time I get to the barn and see my sweet CB looking at me from his paddock. Or when he gives nose snuggles on my ear. Or when I groom him all up and he looks fancy. Or, when we jump a really beautiful course. 

Here is my challenge for us all this year: let’s set an intention to connect to the joy in our sport, day in and day out. I’m not just talking about those amazing days when everything flows, but every single day. I want you to be connected to your joy even when you get spun off, or it’s freezing cold and you can’t feel your hands, or you can’t find a distance to save your life. 

Really, Dr. Darby? Yes, really. 

You see, what you focus on expands. If you focus on happiness, or joy, you will feel more of it. If you focus on negativity, the more you will experience that. Since life, especially life with horses, is always complicated and never perfect, a deliberate practice of looking at the bright side is an essential tool—in and out of the saddle! 

In my work with athletes, I regularly observe that happy, joyful riders ride better. You might tell me that riders who perform well become joyful. That might be partially true, but I urge you to consider this: if you actively focus on the joys that horses and riding bring to you, you will ride more effectively. I see it time and time again: once I can get a rider to re-claim her experience in the saddle, defining the experience for herself, she will enjoy it more and also start to ride up to her potential. 

If joy isn’t motivation enough, better performance might entice you. 

So, if you’re willing to take my challenge, let me offer up some ideas to get you started. 

First, set an intention to be fully present at the barn—on the ground and in the saddle. Most of us amateurs don’t get nearly enough time with our horses, so let’s agree to be fully there when we are with them. 

Savor the small pleasures—nose snuggles, whinnies for carrots, even cleaning tack—not just the big wins. 

Accept, even embrace, the fact that things will go wrong this year and don’t let that fact mess with your joy. Let’s face it, not everything will go your way in 2022. You will make mistakes; your horse will not be perfect. Your horse might get injured or sick; your show might get rained out; the list goes on. The more you accept that riding has its ups and downs, the more you will be able to enjoy riding the ‘waves.’ 

Last, but not least, remember: a day at the barn is better than a day not at the barn! If you’re with a horse, you have a reason to smile. Just ask a pony girl! 

Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at: www.darbybonomi.com

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