Aspirations, Expectations, and Staying in our Lane

With Sports Psychologist Darby Bonomi PhD

Darby Bonomi PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of competition. We are thrilled to include this ongoing element in our publication to help riders improve in all aspects of the sport.  

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps said it best: “stay in your own lane.” As a swimmer, any glance over to the next lane can get you off your game and cost you precious milliseconds in the water. While it’s a reference to swimming, Phelps is clear that this perspective is useful both in and out of the water. 

For us equestrians, it’s not much different. Comparing ourselves to others can easily take us away from the singular focus on our own path, and often leaves us disgruntled, frustrated, and unsatisfied. But, you might ask: aren’t horse shows all about judgment and comparison? We’re competing against other horse/rider teams, attempting to win a blue! Indeed; maybe that is why there are so many unhappy people at horse shows. It’s one of my imperatives to turn that perspective around and bring more joyfulness back into our sport. 

“Comparing ourselves to others can easily take us away from the singular focus on our own path, and often leaves us disgruntled, frustrated, and unsatisfied.”
Photo by Grand Pix

Let’s consider sprinters. Their goal is to best themselves. If your PR in the 100m in 13.5 seconds, then you don’t expect to run the race tomorrow in 12 seconds; you hope to run in less than 13.5. You don’t hang onto illusions of beating your teammate who regularly runs a 100m in 11.75 seconds. Comparison with her is irrelevant for your purposes. Sure, she may win the meet, or at least the heat, but her winning has nothing to do with how well you run your own race. If you consistently compare yourself with her, and define success based on whether you beat her, you might as well hang up your spikes. Can you admire her speed and at the same time admire and appreciate your own successes? 

My experience is that riders often come to a show with a singular focus on winning and quickly lose track of where they—and their horses—are on their own path. When the blue eludes them, they often become negative and unreasonably self-critical. 

I sometimes see bad sportsmanship erupt as well. Let’s face it: we need to keep in close contact with where we are on our path and what progress we’re making toward our individual goals with our horse. Otherwise, we will end up constantly unhappy. 

Consider this very common scenario: you have just moved up from the 1.0m jumpers to the 1.10m. You were a consistent winner at the lower level, but now you’re struggling. You’ve had some mistakes that have resulted in rails, time faults, and even a refusal. You look over and see your barnmate winning consistently at this level. Comparison and judgment set in, and all of a sudden you have forgotten the achievement of moving up a level. Expecting yourself to have mastered the new level at this point is unreasonable. You’re being unfair to yourself and your horse. 

Or here is another common scenario: your horse has been rehabbing and is showing for the first time midseason, but still you expect to come out on top with a great score. Is this asking too much of your horse for the situation? Perhaps your expectations are out of line with what is appropriate for her first time out. If you focus on comparisons, you’ll lose touch with where you and she are in the process of bringing her back. 

One last very frequent example: you have a new horse, and he’s fancy. You’re expecting to go out there and win right off the bat. It doesn’t happen. There are mistakes; you become timid and frustrated. And your trainer puts you down a level. Why did you buy this horse if you’re not yet winning, you think to yourself. In this scenario, you have lost touch with the fact that it usually takes time to learn a horse, even a great horse. Developing trust, establishing a successful routine, and becoming a team don’t happen overnight. Again, your expectations of instant success are unfair to yourself and your horse—you have lost touch with where you and your new horse are in your process of becoming a team. 

“Developing trust, establishing a successful routine, and becoming a team don’t happen overnight.”
Photo by Grand Pix

Now, I have to say that while comparisons can be detrimental, they are also important—if done with a constructive mindset. In my view, we need to know what we’re aiming for, and we also need to admire those who are doing it at a higher level than ourselves. Consider this: many times I hear riders at shows complaining about not winning, but they have lost connection with what it really takes to win, and where they are in relation to that. Personally, I love to watch the best in our sport, and even those in my divisions who I consider better than myself. They inspire me, and I try to emulate certain parts of their rides. 

So, while it is imperative to stay in your lane, it also is important to keep your eye on your goals and recognize that others are farther along on the path. Or, that they might get to a level that we may never reach. Just because my friend won the heat, doesn’t mean I’m not doing an amazing job running my best race. She might be fitter, stronger, or simply a more gifted sprinter than I am.

So true in equestrian sports. Not every one of us will reach the highest level of our discipline or even our divisions. Our focus needs to be on performing the best we can on any given day, and attempting to become a better version of ourselves every day. If we have that perspective, we will move forward in our sport, have a healthy appreciation of ourselves, and enjoy the journey along our path. 

Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at:

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