March 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by CRM
Monday, 02 March 2020 19:04

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Darby Bonomi

During a competition, I occasionally will get a late ride time and have to spend all day preparing and getting nervous for my ride. Often by the time I ride, I feel tired. How do you recommend I mitigate this ongoing pressure for a later ride time?

—Lauren Billys, International Eventer and Olympian, who recently secured her spot in the 2020 Tokyo Games with Castle Larchfield Purdy.

Dear Lauren,


Thanks for this great question. It’s a common situation for all athletes of all levels or anyone who performs—we don’t always get the performance time that suits us best! Most of us prefer to ride first thing in the morning, when we’re mentally sharp and physically rested. An early ride time doesn’t allow too much time to ponder over the track, watch others, or get nervous.

The preparation path is clear—get ready and go. As the day wears on, it can be harder to focus our minds and get ourselves geared up for competition. We are tired, perhaps amped up from watching our colleagues perform, and our minds can become frazzled from too much thinking. Later in the day, it’s also more difficult to productively channel our energy. Nonetheless, as you well know, many of the biggest events take place in the late afternoon or evening. Whether you’re an elite athlete or an amateur, it’s imperative to hone your pre-performance preparation so that you can gear up no matter when you’re asked to perform.

First, it’s key to manage your energy during the day by developing the skill to turn your performance energy ‘on’ and ‘off.’ I know that sounds funny, but what I mean is, if your ride time is late, you need to be ‘off’ or on ‘low’ most of the day and then deliberately turn it ‘on’ when you need it.

Tip: Envision your energy
like a flame on the stove,
regulated by a knob.
You can turn the flame up or
down, but it’s a waste of energy
to be on full flame all day.

When you’re not competing or getting ready to compete, dial your energy to ‘off’ or ‘simmer’. Being ‘on’ all day will wear you out. About an hour or so before your ride, turn up the ‘flame’. Deliberately start to raise your energy as you begin your afternoon pre-ride preparation.

Second, once you have your energy turned up, it’s time to clear your mind and get focused. I suggest that you develop a deliberate pre-ride routine that is tailored to your needs.

Pre-ride routines have three components—clearing mental chatter, centering and grounding the emotions and physical body, and narrowing the focus (or getting into ‘the zone.’)

We all have pre-ride routines, whether we’re deliberate about them or not. I strongly advocate that all show riders develop ways to efficiently and effectively get themselves fully ready to be in the saddle and present for their horse.

Tip: Develop different
pre-ride routines for different
times of the day or week.

Since we all have different needs at different times of the day, we need to adjust our pre-rides accordingly. Similarly, your pre-ride on Wednesday may look quite different from your Sunday preparation. Why? You’re tired—mentally and physically—by Sunday!

Envision a pilot’s take-off check list. About one hour before ‘take off’, start the check list. It’s at this point you’re gearing up—but not before then. For afternoons, you’ll have to figure out how to get yourself from ‘simmer’ to full flame (energized) and focused. Personally, in the afternoons I need to do some extra physical warm up, get some caffeine and protein, and practice energizing breaths. After raising my energy and grounding my body, I study my course, watch several of the best riders perform—but not too many—and then visualize my own ride while I activate my excitement for performing with my horse. Note that when I’m watching others perform, I’m either ‘on’ (intensely focusing) or ‘off’ (just casually watching). I am explicit in my mind about whether I’m in ‘prep mode’ or just ‘spectator mode’.

Tools for raising energy and focusing in the afternoon include: physical warm up and stretching with energizing breaths, listening to fast music, limited caffeine and adequate sustenance, visualizing the feeling of a great ride.

This kind of preparation is a mental and emotional skill and takes time to develop. I suggest a daily practice of making mental energy choices (on, off, simmer). When you’re at a competition, you will need to both change your thoughts and deliberately change your behavior. Don’t allow yourself to watch too many rounds. If you need to leave the showgrounds, take a nap in your car, or go shopping to be ‘off’, then do it. Even if you can’t physically leave, reframing to yourself that you’re in ‘relaxation mode’ will reduce your stress and give you a mental break so you can gear up later for your ride time. Remember, rest is a necessary component of performance.

Thank you again, Lauren, for the great question—it’s good to know that riders of all levels work on these kinds of challenges!


If you have a question for performance psychologist Darby Bonomi, PhD., please submit it to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . You are welcome to ask a question anonymously, but please provide relevant background regarding your experience and other details that enable her to best answer your question.