September 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by by Dr. Darby Bonomi
Wednesday, 26 August 2020 20:31

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Darby,

I’m a 15 year old rider at a large show barn. Most of my lessons are with other riders similar to my ability. My problem is that during lessons, my trainer compares us, and makes every lesson a competition. I know she does this to try to get us to ride our best, but what happens is that I get very nervous and self-conscious. It’s really hard for me to concentrate because I feel judged. I don’t know how to tell my trainer how I feel. Besides, I think she might tell me to just learn to live with it.

Thanks for your advice,

—R.A., Northern California

Dear R,


Thanks for writing. I’m sorry to hear that your trainer’s motivational approach isn’t working for you. From where I sit, many riders feel the same. Constant competition at home can be stressful, and I believe this approach goes against some very important principles of sport performance.


In my view, we must ride for and against ourselves, regardless of whether we’re at home or a show. I coach my riders to own their rides. Ride for yourself. Don’t ride for me, the judge, your trainer, or to beat your friends.

Create your own plan—based on your own challenges and aspirations—and actualize it.  

Toward this end, I encourage everyone to set three goals for every ride—whether it’s at home or the show. After the ride, evaluate yourself on those three tasks—did you accomplish them? If yes, how well?

If not, what are you going to change? Give yourself feedback and then refine your plan for the next time. And, remember: while the judge might give you only a ho-hum score for your ride, but it might be a complete victory for you, given your goals for your horse and yourself on that particular day.

The more you define your own goals and ride your own plan, the more you will take full ownership of every ride.

With this perspective in mind, comparisons are irrelevant. Even if you and I are in the same lesson or class, we are not working on the same things. It might be helpful to me to see how how you rode a track, or made an inside turn, but I know that I’m working on keeping my horse straight particularly out of my right turns, maintaining a consistent forward pace, and anchoring my right leg. You, on the other hand will have other tasks to focus on. We might ride together, but our goals and challenges are distinct.

If I were you, I’d have a conversation with my trainer when you can sit down in the office. Tell her how her approach is challenging for you and offer up an alternative. Maybe she’ll join you in helping craft a plan for each ride, and then give you feedback based on your own performance in relation to that plan rather than comparing you to your friends.

I also have found that constant comparisons between barn mates really undermines a positive barn culture. Although ours is an individual sport, much of the fun and learning comes from being part of a barn. Intra-barn competition, in my view, is best kept to a minimum. It’s only natural for us competitors to want to be the best, but I find that most everyone performs optimally when they are riding their own plan—whether it’s at Grand Prix or short stirrup. Even if your trainer is not receptive to this point of view, you can change your own mindset, setting up your goals for every round and riding your plan.

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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