Written by Darby Bonomi PhD. Darby Bonomi is a practicing psychologist and consultant that works with people of all ages to achieve lasting change and establish foundations for mental wellness. Darby combines her life-long experience in the equestrian world with her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions. Riders of all levels and their families reclaim joy in the sport, leading the way to improved performance and better health.
I used to ride scared. I still do sometimes, but now I’ve made better friends with fear. Not perfect friends, mind you, but better friends. After all these years, we’re still getting to know each other.
Most of the riders who come to me for help are wrestling with some form of fear: going too fast, jumping too high, falling off, missing a distance, going off course, not being perfect. The list goes on and on. I’m always impressed with the level of fear that many riders carry in every round and still come back for more! Over the years I’ve found that when I really get to know my fear, what I find is my competitive drive and exhilaration. When I make that connection, my fear changes from obstacle to motivator, and my worry transforms into excitement. In other words, I ride my best and really enjoy it too!
For a long time I lived with a fear of falling off. I had quite a few stoppers in my day and got thrown into quite a few fences and even endured ripped breaches in compromising spots. (Those are stories I’ll tell you at another time.) Nowadays I don’t usually fear getting dumped. If my horse is fresh or sassy, I’ve learned to ask myself—‘Can I ride through this right now?’ I check in with my gut. Sometimes I decide I can handle it; sometimes I make another choice. I know that when I’m facing that kind of fear, I probably won’t ride my best.
My biggest fear, however, has always been about making a mistake. Not being perfect. Ay, what a burden that is. That fear makes it hard to ride at all—or do anything else for that matter.
Mental Fear vs. Physical Fear
Back in the day, George Morris judged me several times. After one equitation class where he pinned me second, he came up to me. In his unique deep voice he said, ‘my dear, you can be a good rider, but you have mental fear. Once you deal with your mental fear, you’ll be a winner—but not until then.”
Ooh. George thought I was a good rider, but he noticed my biggest obstacle. Like a good psychoanalyst, he had seen through the show veneer right to my core. I realized that while I had mastered my physical fear of falling off, my mental fear was taking me down. The fear of not being perfect. George nailed it.
So how do we deal with fear? That question has no one simple answer. What I’ll start with is this: try making friends with your fear. Look your fear in the face. Take a deep breath and reflect. ‘What IS it that I’m really afraid of in this moment?’ Look at it. Feel it. Turn it around and get to know it. Even in my last lesson I had to have a conversation with my fear. The jumping exercise was quite complicated, and my horse was squirrelly. I felt afraid: “Am I going to end up on the ground today?” I checked in with myself. After a couple of breaths, I realized that actually I was more afraid of not doing the exercise right than of being spun off. It was really my mental fear saying hello again…still.
Afraid of not being perfect? No matter how well you ride, it won’t be perfect. I promise you. Life is utterly imperfect, and this round will be too. If you’re like me, trying to be perfect makes it impossible to appreciate and hold onto the many parts that go well and have gratitude for the moment. Most important, needing to be perfect sucks the joy out of pretty much everything, even riding.
Want to get friendly with fear? Let’s talk! Contact Darby here and get a LEG UP on your performance.