December 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by by Dr. Darby Bonomi
Wednesday, 02 December 2020 03:24

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Darby,
It’s December, and I’m already looking ahead to the 2021 season. Like most of us, I  didn’t get to show consistently this year. I ended this season feeling that my horse and I finally got back into our groove. Will you give me some tips on staying mentally sharp during the off season? When I get back to competition early next year, I want to be my best right out of the gate.
Thanks very much,
—C.N., Newport Beach

Dear C,

Thanks for this great question! With COVID and the wildfires, 2020 was indeed a stop-and-start show season for us here in California. It’s been a very stressful year, no doubt about it. I am happy to hear that in the last couple of months you were able to get into your groove—that speaks to your determination, focus, and hard work—all of which will serve you well next year and beyond.

First of all, I advise taking a break. I know that may sound like a strange first step, but recovery (mental, psychological, and physical) is an essential part of the performance cycle. It’s just not possible or productive to stay on ‘full flame’ all year. You wouldn’t expect that of your horse, so don’t expect it of yourself either. Horses need time off, and so do we.

Remember that lots of integration occurs during downtime, so rest assured that your hard work isn’t going to waste. With more downtime, you hopefully will have some more mental space. Don’t rush to fill that space with busywork; plan your weeks so there is time to reflect and recover.

Full disclosure: I am not good at downtime.
Give me a schedule with goals and tasks
to accomplish, and I’m right there, but
give me a week off and I might get lost.
For this reason, I try to schedule my
downtime just as I do my work time.
Those boundaries allow me to actually
take a breath and give myself a rest.  

Do take some time to review the factors that helped you to get into your groove at the end of this season. What did you refine or do differently, both for yourself and your horse? Make a few notes about the mental prep, technical work, or physical conditioning that made a difference—and add a few notes about what you might tweak for next season.

During this time when you’re not riding as much, challenge yourself to develop your physical fitness. Change up your routine. Maybe try a new workout or consult with a fitness trainer. Now is a great time to focus on getting stronger, more flexible, and developing your endurance. Do an assessment of your physical fitness to pinpoint your weaknesses, and go after those. One of your rewards will be that physical fitness provides all sorts of mental and psychological benefits too.

As we get older strength,
flexibility, and endurance
are crucial to our performance.
I personally have found that
cross training is an
essential foundation to my riding.

In addition, the off season is an optimal time to do some extra reading. Sounds like you’re game to enhance your mental strategy, so I would suggest some sport psychology books such as Mind Gym, The Power of Full Engagement, and The Champion’s Mind. There are many great texts out there—find something that speaks to you and see what you can glean from it.

Make a plan for next year. Think about where you and your horse are now. Outline where you want to be this time next year and how you’re going to get there. Focus not only on your show plan, but also your training goals and mental/psychological goals for performance. Writing down your goals and your plan will help you solidify them in your mind and keep track of your progress.

And, remember: no matter how much off-season prep you engage in, when we come back from a break, we’re all a bit rusty. Expect it, plan for it, accept it as a part of the cycle of performance. Not every show is the Olympics; nor should it be! Finals and championships happen at the end of the year for a reason. Be reasonable in your expectations of yourself and your horse, and always have gratitude for the process.

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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