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.
My blog on making friends with fear touched a nerve. I heard from many riders about how they feel fear, anxiety, and even trepidation going into not only their show rounds but also their lessons at home. It’s clear that we as a group are very gritty and determined. Nonetheless, this question presents itself: if we are pursuing our passion, why don’t we lead with joy more of the time?
Some riders describe their fear as based in trauma—the result of having had a bad fall—and others’ fear is based in the worry about making a mistake. In both scenarios, one thing is clear: there is not enough joy happening at the barn.
For those with trauma, I suggest a lot of compassion and patience. When it comes to ourselves, I have found that riders are lacking in both of these traits. With our horses it’s another story. If our horse experiences some sort of trauma or injury, we do whatever it takes to rehabilitate him. We know not to rush him, and we take pleasure in caring for him. I often ask riders to treat themselves as they would their horses, and in response they always soften and become more compassionate toward their own struggles.
For those whose fear is rooted in perfection, I prescribe joy. Joy is the reason we ride. Sometimes we forget. We get distracted by small things, like our competitiveness or worry about others’ judgements. The riders that I work with are deeply passionate about their horses and their riding. They go to extraordinary lengths to have a horse or two in their lives, and barn time is most important to them. They forgo vacations to be with their horse; when they do go away, they wish they were back with their horse. Needless to say, they love being at the barn.
Professionally and personally, I have found if I connect with my joy, that deep pleasure that I get from riding and just being with my horse, I clearly have more fun—and things actually go better too. I own my ride and my whole barn experience. Barn time—in and out of the saddle—is MY time. It’s not my trainer’s time or anyone else’s. I get to have it—regardless of the outcome. From start to finish, it’s mine, and I savor every moment. Although this sounds easy, it actually take some practice and determination. What I have found is that usually people allow themselves to feel joy only after they succeed--they win the class or their trainer praises them. But then joy is conditional—dependent on something external rather than internal. You only get to feel good if you are good. Yes, I know we’re all competitive, but that is not the reason we all started riding (at age 5, 15 or 45). We started riding because of the joy of being with and on a horse and because we love all things horse.
Next time you’re at the barn and start to feel fear, try remembering why you’re there. Connect with your younger self who rode the pony just to ride. See if you can allow yourself to own the moment. After all, barn time is too precious to waste.
Want to talk about reclaiming the joy? I'd love to hear from you. Contact Darby here and get a LEG UP on your performance.