February 2020 - Just Ride!
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Saturday, 01 February 2020 22:00
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Finding the joy is the first step into “the zone.”

by Kim F. Miller

Since directing a career’s worth of clinical psychoanalysis training and experience to the equestrian world two years ago, performance psychologist Darby Bonomi, PhD, has been touched by the gratitude of the many riders she’s helped. It was a dentist’s praise, however, that most recently rocked her world.


While presenting a clinic for young riders at a Southern California hunter/jumper barn, she invited parents to listen in. “One mom who is a pediatric dentist told me afterward that everything we’d talked about helped her and related so well to her challenges at work.” Along with her growing equestrian-oriented practice, Darby is an amateur hunter competitor and the mother of three, two of them talented young riders – Adele and Clara.


The praise from a fellow working and horse show mom meant so much because it reflects how critical and broadly applicable performance psychology can be. It also illustrates how performance psychology differs from sports psychology.

“Performance psychology, or peak performance psychology, is the study of how we are able to generate our optimal state for doing whatever we do,” Darby explains. “How we get in the zone, if you will. I work holistically with my clients. That means that, of course, we’re working on bringing out best performance in the ring. In order to do that, we have to work on our overall psychological fitness and our routines and foundations.”

Mental skills training and performance psychology are sometimes wrongly perceived as interchangeable terms. Mental skills, Darby points out, are a subset of the broader approach of performance psychology.

“Performance has three aspects: technical, physical, and psychological,” she continues. “I break down the psychological into the mental, the emotional/body and the spiritual. By ‘spiritual,’ I mean how do we get ourselves into the zone.  The goal of psychological fitness, for me, is to have a clear mind, a relaxed and ready physical and emotional body, and to be readily able to access the ‘zone’.”

First Find The Joy

Thanks to mental health having an escalating profile in general society, Darby brings her coaching to the equestrian world at a good time. Mental toughness and gritting one’s way through fear or physical and mental pain are traits often paired with the horse bug. Darby was a top junior rider herself and she recalls there being few release valves for the mental pressures of equestrian sport back in the day.

Today, performance psychology is seen as a great performance enhancement tool across all sports. The immediate results may manifest in ribbons, but the more meaningful results are tools for reliably “tapping into the joy of the sport: the reason we all do this,” she explains. “A lot of people have that backwards. We think that, if we can get into the zone in our sport, that will bring us joy. In reality, the way into the zone starts with getting back into the joy of it.”

Analyzing equestrians and observing uber successful professional athletes, Darby defines a “champion” as one who “never gives up, who continually connects with their love of the sport and who, when something goes wrong, can get themselves right back into the zone.”

Clients came Darby’s way even before she’d hung out the proverbial “shingle.”

“One of the characteristics of being a psychologist is that you are open to people.” While on career hiatus when her kids were young, people – friends and acquaintances alike – gravitated to her for help. This occurred more as she returned to riding herself, re-igniting a childhood passion and doing so alongside her daughters. “People were asking me for advice about horses, trainers, their kids, how to talk to their kids after a good or bad round.”

Eventually, “I realized this was something that was calling to me.”

A Range of Issues

Fear, performance anxiety and pressure to excel are among the issues clients bring to the barn, to their show experience, and worst of all, to their time with their horse. Working with clients over the phone, in person and in clinics, Darby offers a variety of exercises that help riders leave these issues behind.

The immediate benefit is in-the-moment focus that results in a better ride. As these exercises ingrain as habits, the bigger benefits enable clients to deal more positively with all aspects of their life and relationships, and to better connect to the source of joy in each.

Re-finding the joy has been critical for one of Darby’s clients from the eventing world. Even having accomplished a lifelong dream of successfully competing in the Olympics, in 2016, the rider struggled with worries over the many things that could go wrong as she prepares for a hopeful Tokyo Olympics run.  

“I encouraged her to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Darby shares. “I asked her to explain why she wanted to get to the Olympics again. ‘Because I love it!’ she said. I asked her to expand on that incredible feeling she had with her horse at the last Olympics, and I saw her emotions totally change.” Worry paralysis is a common condition. Bringing forward and staying connected to the sensations and experience that make any effort worthwhile usually comprise effective treatment.

Figuring out what’s going on is the first step with clients. Adults are often relatively good at identifying that, especially when fear is the problem. Teenagers, not so much. “Teenagers don’t want to talk to a therapist, but they’re happy to talk about their horse.” In talking about their horse, much is revealed about their mind’s inner workings.

Riders often describe their horse as getting distracted, for example. “That’s partly true, but the horse mirrors our energy, so what they do is really what we do.” Distracted moments are the biggest cause of mistakes in riding or horse handling. On course, for example, worrying about a jump that is several fences away can lead to neglecting the corner that sets up the approach to it.

The horse is naturally “in the moment” all the time, but for riders that is typically a challenge, especially today with digital devices buzzing in the pocket and busy schedules. The result is horse and rider being out of synch.

Simply talking about what’s going on sets in motion the process of paying closer attention to it, Darby adds.

Try This At Home

Mindfulness Meditation: Making the zone accessible begins before arriving at the barn. “10 minutes or so before you get there, become aware of where you in the present time. Feel yourself sitting in the seat and look around at where you are. So, when you get to the barn, you can really be there. Continue this on arrival. When you get out of the car, smell the air at the barn.”

Breathe: Deep relaxation breathing is good for relieving or preventing any tension. Inhaling for four counts, exhaling for seven, holding for eight, is one effective relaxation breathing pattern.

Connect With Your Horse: “If you groom your horse, and I really hope people do, ensure that your mind is not just chattering away. Be mindful of your horse. Look in his eye, notice how he responds to your touch, connect with him emotionally. That is a great help to being grounded and present.”

Focus: “When it’s time to mount, focus on putting your foot in the stirrup. That directs your energy there, which helps you stay mindful of it.”

Intention: “Think about what you want to happen today, taking into account that day’s circumstances.”

Reset: These pre-ride routines are equally effective in action. Darby coaches riders to have a plan of action to reset their present-tense mind if something goes wrong or they make a mistake. Zeroing in on the feeling of the seat in the saddle, a quick touch to the horse’s shoulder, and a deep breath can bring the rider back into the present. In that state, they are best able to put the incident or mistake behind them and react effectively to what’s happening in the moment.

Speaking From Experience

Darby is a San Francisco area native. She grew up riding casually on her family’s farm and started in a training program when she was 14. She started with Riley Wilson in Monterey, spent several years with Butch and Lu Thomas at Willow Tree and finished her junior years with Linda and Champ Hough at Sutton Place.

It was in the era when juniors rode the same horse in hunter and equitation, and sometimes jumper, divisions. There were usually 40 entrants in a class and not getting a ribbon was the norm. She has first-hand memories of big-time competitive pressures and its disappointments. “It was a dream come true for me to go to the Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City,” she recalls. After the first round, she was 24th in a field culled to 23 for advancement to the flat phase.

It was a lot of pressure back then, but not as much as Darby sees young riders face today. “The level of perfectionism expected now is much higher and that’s true across the board in society,” she observes.

As a junior, Darby had an advantage she’ll never forget and one that infuses her coaching. “When I first came to Linda Hough, she said, ‘You’re a good rider. Go ride your horse. Just ride!’ For me that is still a very free-ing thing to think about and very confidence building.”

Darby pays forward that good advice. It may be a little harder to tune out the pressure and distractions these days, but tuning into the joy of “just riding” is still the surest way to success.