April 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by CRM
Tuesday, 31 March 2020 23:37

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Darby,

On a daily basis, I have a lot of different things on my mind. When I get on to ride I find it difficult to shut off those stresses and focus on my horse. What are some things you recommend that can help me focus during practice?
—A.C., Amateur hunter/jumper rider, Carpenteria, CA

This is a common problem for riders of all levels and ages. These days all of us juggle many commitments, along with an onslaught of thoughts, concerns, and emotions. It’s imperative for our horse’s sake and our own to avoid bringing our burdens into the saddle. Horses are extremely intuitive and feel everything. If we’re stressed and distracted, they will become so as well.


First, I suggest creating boundaries around tasks or parts of your day. Designate certain times for work, emails, riding, errands and so on. Mental boundaries help us focus on whatever it is we’re doing rather than all the other things that buzz around in our minds. Let’s face it—it’s very stressful and terribly inefficient to try to focus on multiple things at once.

Boundaries & Time Limits

One way to create boundaries is to make daily, weekly and even monthly lists of tasks. I set time limits around tasks—giving myself 30 minutes to do x, then 45 minutes to do y, and so on. I stick to my plan as much as possible. My lists are designed to organize me, keep me on track, give me a sense of accomplishment—and give me scheduled breathers during the day! I know that when I set the timer on emails, that’s all I get for now; I have to move on to the next thing. If something doesn’t get completed, it goes on tomorrow’s list (or perhaps next week’s.) I can let the task go for now, because I know it’s on another list and will get done later.

A central purpose of setting boundaries is to be able to let go of everything else and concentrate on what you are doing now.

Another tool to leave stress at the barn door is to develop some mindfulness practices to help shed unwanted thoughts and emotions. Remember, mindfulness is a practice, so it takes practice to work.

Try this to start: take cleansing or relaxation breaths as you imagine the contents of your busy mind going into the earth. Pay attention to your body in space, feeling your bottom in the seat of the car or chair, and your feet on the ground, and become exquisitely aware of your present surroundings. Notice smells, signs, sounds to call yourself right to the present. Should a task or a worry come into mind, say thank you and let it go. This practice can be used anywhere—in the grocery line, in the car—even in the saddle! I personally like to start my rides this way, grounding, centering, and connecting emotionally with my horse.

The essence of mindfulness is to be fully aware of your experience at the present moment.

Last, I suggest my riders set intentions for every ride, even if it’s a solo practice session at home. Decide what three things you and your horse are going to work on today, and design your ride with those goals in mind. Having intentions or goals will help you focus your mind, keep you on track, and shelter you from those nagging thoughts about work or outside life. If your mind wanders, bring yourself gently back to the present and connect with the generous animal you’re sitting on. Remember that he or she deserves your full attention and energy.

Actively setting intentions for your day or ride will help focus your mind.

Just as there are a multitude of distractions out there, there are many tools to help draw ourselves back into the present moment and deliberately compartmentalize thoughts. Horses naturally call us to be here and accounted for—it’s part of why most of us consider barn time our therapy!


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.