Losing Confidence After a Fall: Sport & Performance Psychology With Darby Bonomi

Lost Confidence After a Fall? Give Yourself a Leg up on Full Recovery. 

Fact: In our career as equestrians, we are going to fall. As one horse show announcer regularly remarks, “the only riders who don’t fall are those who don’t ride.” Most falls are routine—the rider dusts off and jumps right back on with only a bruised ego. When falls are severe, involving a physical injury or an emotional scare, getting back in the saddle takes courage, effort, and patience.

In my experience, emotional rebound takes longer than physical healing. Both the speed and thoroughness of recovery depends on the severity of the fall and the rider’s personal level of courage. When you think about it—we’re just like our horses. If we have a naturally brave horse who is inclined to keep going despite poles coming down, then his emotional recovery from a fall will be easier than a naturally careful horse who hates to touch the jumps. A crash for the latter horse reinforces his naturally high level of fear—which in good times can make him a winner. He’s a perfectionist. However, this horse is going to need additional time and patience to come back after a bad experience. The more easy-going type—the one who doesn’t get upset by knocking a rail—is one who will bounce back sooner.

So too with people. Two riders can hypothetically sustain the same fall, but one will be back jumping courses as soon as she can, whereas another will need to gradually increase the intensity and complexity of the work until she feels confident again.  

Have you been rattled by a fall? Are you wondering if you can ever feel confident—or even comfortable—in the saddle again? Here are some ideas to get you started. 

Compassion for yourself and respect for your fear are good places to start your recovery. 

First of all, know what kind of rider you are and have gratitude and compassion for yourself. Are you super eager to jump back on or feeling tentative about being back in the saddle? There is no right way to be. If you can accept the way you personally need to heal, you’ll be one step ahead of the game. As you can see in my example above, there are benefits to both kinds of horses. Let’s extend our compassion to different types of human personalities, too, and especially to ourselves. 

Give yourself time. 

Take more time than you need. I imagine you are familiar with how long it takes to bring a horse back from an injury. It feels like eons when you’re in the middle of it, but we all know it’s much better to take more time to rehab than rush and risk re-injury. It is the same with pushing yourself to the next level after a fall. If you’re the anxious type, take more time than you think you need to build your confidence. Don’t let anyone rush you. 

Reinforce positive experiences. 

Desensitize yourself by being immersed in positive experiences. This step should come naturally for a horseperson. If your horse were fearful of an obstacle, you would be painstaking in its reintroduction. You would reward him for every positive step and avoid negative interactions with the feared object. Treat yourself similarly.  

Visualize competent rides. 

Visualize your ride and how you specifically want to be ‘back.’ You can only ride so much, but you can visualize riding as many times as you like. It’s well documented that visualization alone can substantially improve your performance without any physical activity at all. Use visualization not only to see yourself riding the way you want to ride, but also correcting the mistakes—or circumstances—that led to the fall. This kind of visualization may be uncomfortable, but if you can gradually allow yourself to ride the course again in your mind, and correct the mistake or a mishap, it will be healing and empowering for your psyche. 

Set yourself up for success. 

A successful recovery relies on an assumption of basic safety. As riders we are always at risk for falling, but if a fearful rider is mounted on an unsafe or unreliable horse, healing will be a challenge. A frequent example in my practice is a horse and rider combination who have come to mistrust each other such that the horse regularly stops. Once this pattern has been ingrained, I feel it’s time to question the match. It’s not productive for either horse or rider to continue a negative pattern. The good news is that often when new partnerships are formed, both horse and rider can go on to have successful careers. As we know with people, not all relationships endure! 

Get some help. 

Are you feeling stuck? It’s very hard to recover alone. Be sure you have a supportive community around you, including a reliable trainer to help you navigate the riding challenges and possibly a sport psychology expert to lead you back into a confident state of mind. Recovering from falls is a particularly vulnerable time, and we all need some outside input to get us on the right track.

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 the competition. We are thrilled to include this ongoing element in our publication to help riders improve in all aspects of the sport.

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