August 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by by Dr. Darby Bonomi
Monday, 03 August 2020 03:44

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Bonomi,
As the mom of a 16-year-old equitation rider, I’m wondering how best to support her. She puts so much pressure on herself. She gets really upset when things don’t go as planned or she doesn’t get the placing she feels she deserves. I don’t know whether to stay away from her at shows, or give her space. Should I comment on her rounds or not? Should I meet her at the back gate or stay in the stands? Sometimes I say ‘good job,’ but I know it wasn’t a great round, and then she barks at me. How much and what should I say to our trainer? Finally, the evenings in the hotel after a bad day are excruciating! I could use some advice as we get into Finals season.
Thanks for your help.
K.L., Big Eq Mom, Southern CA

Dear K,
Your letter is a version of questions I get all the time, so please know that you are in good company. To help guide you and all the parents out there, I have a few overall principles to consider. Reflecting on these points will help you answer your own questions.
First and foremost: our job as the mom (or dad) is always to parent. This sounds ridiculous, but I find that a lot of horse show parents become trainers, coaches, and friends to their children at shows and abandon their role as parents. Here is what I mean:

As the parent, we’re the keeper of perspective. Ask yourself: what’s the underlying meaning of being in our sport—is it to win or to learn? It’s our job to keep the life lessons front and center and not get so focused on results. In my view, winning a blue—or a finals—is not the most important aspect of being in sport.

As the parent, we set the rules on expected conduct in any setting. Just because we’re at a horse show doesn’t mean the rules go out the window. What do you usually expect of your child in terms of graciousness, generosity, kindness? Nothing should change at the show. In my book, you get 15 minutes to be upset about a ‘bad’ round or mistake. Then it’s your job to let it go and figure out how you’re going to move forward. Remember, it’s not the last mistake you’ll make, so you better figure out how you can make use of it to improve.

As the parent, we are there to hold our child in victory, defeat, and everything in between. Remember, you’re there for your child, unconditionally. Sure it’s great when our child wins, but they need us even more when they lose.

As the parent, we help troubleshoot issues but don’t solve problems. As much as possible, guide your child toward independent thinking and resourcefulness. Remember our task is to help establish life skills, not just riding skills.

As the parent, we are not the coach (thankfully!)  Let’s leave training to the trainers. It’s important to recognize the difference between trainer questions and mom questions. This can be a tricky one for us rider moms; I know I personally get lured into answering these questions (When should I get on? Should I put on draw reins? Big spurs or small?) Trainer questions need to go to the trainer. In this vein, don’t pass judgement on your child’s rounds. Let the trainer give feedback.

With those principles in mind, here are some specific answers to your questions, K. Sounds like it’s time to revisit the overall ground rules of behavior at the shows. It’s not ok for you to be having excruciating horse show evenings or to be barked at. I’d talk about the 15-minute rule and troubleshoot how your daughter is going to move forward out of mistakes rather than stewing in them. Stewing solidifies poor performance, anyhow. Make clear that your role is to support her, but you expect certain graciousness and respect. Make a game plan of what will feel right to her in terms of your participation at shows. Everyone is different about whether they want to be greeted at the back gate or not. Let your trainer give feedback. If your daughter really seems stuck and frustrated, then I would sit down with the trainer at a good time (not in the middle of a busy horse show) to discuss the situation and craft an effective plan to rectify the technical or performance difficulties.
I hope this gives you some guidelines. Effective parenting of athletes is big and sticky topic and requires constant reevaluation and work. I know this one from both sides.

Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist based in San Francisco. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. She can be reached at

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