May 2020 - Riding’s Unique Challenges
Written by by Hailey Esses
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 05:01
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Every month should be Mental Health Awareness Month

by Hailey Esses

Being an equestrian is a physical sport: we jump, we fall, we kick, we trot, we canter. However, riding animals that weigh over 1,000 pounds is as much a mental sport as it is a physical sport.


The month of May celebrates Mental Health Awareness from May 18-22. During this month, we can provide support for others, educate ourselves, and advocate to end the stigma associated with mental illness.

As an equestrian, I understand that there are many reasons why someone may suffer from fear or anxiety surrounding the sport of riding. Some struggles related to an equestrian’s mental health can include perfectionism, being judged, a previous fall or injury, advancement to another level, and pressure to please parents or trainers, among many others.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Darby Bonomi, a sport and performance psychologist based out of San Francisco. She is also an equestrian and mother to three children, including two equestrians. Bonomi understands the sport from all different angles: as a mother, rider, and professional. She has had years of experience helping riders of all levels improve their performance and providing support for mental wellness. Bonomi has ridden for over 40 years as she started riding when she was 10. She competed in the indoor circuit when she was younger and now competes in amateur owner hunters, equitation, and medals.

Bonomi assists equestrians of all disciplines by providing individual coaching as well as clinics. She helps juniors, amateurs, and professionals bring their best efforts to the ring.

Bonomi works with a lot of teenagers and, according to her, 20-25% of teenagers at any given time are suffering from an anxiety disorder. Many competitive equestrians are hard working, expect a lot from themselves, push themselves hard to be the best in everything they do, and have very high standards for themselves. They are also very tenacious and willing to put in the work rain or shine. Perfectionism is the most common struggle Bonomi sees in teenage equestrians. Although a certain amount of perfectionism can be good, a certain level can get in the way and can become a weight rather than a motivator.

Author Hailey Esses is a hunter, jumper rider and competitor who trains with Elvenstar. 

According to Bonomi, performance has three aspects: technical, physical, and psychological: 90% of performance is psychological, which consists of both thinking and getting yourself “into the zone.”

Equestrians can be anxious about making mistakes, pleasing their trainers, and not living up to a certain standard rather than focusing on the moment, their horse, or the task at hand.

“One of the ways I try to turn that around is by really focusing on just riding your horse,” Bonomi said. “There is a shift in perspective from thinking about making mistakes to riding your horse to the best of your ability on any given day, owning your ride, and being present.”

In other words, ride the short or long distance to the best of your ability without winning being the only goal.

Additionally, preparing yourself to ride is as important as being focused while riding.

“It is really important to clear our minds, be calm and centered in our bodies, be present, and be able to generate that zone quality where we are focused and ready to perform,” Bonomi said.

Riding as a Progression

It is also important to keep the big picture in mind and stay psychologically healthy. One way to do this is to think of riding as a progression towards an end goal on a continuum and to consider where riding fits into your life rather than focusing on short term winning or losing. Another piece of advice she gives is to allow 10-15 minutes to be upset after a disappointment, and then to let it go, move on, and fix it; you should be in a progessive mental state without being punitive or degrading yourself.

According to Bonomi, the level of anxiety in teens is very high, and the rate of teenagers that are suffering from an anxiety disorder is slightly higher than the adult rate.

“I believe that we as adults need to help reduce this level of stress because it is not good for the brain or the body,” Bonomi said. “It is up to adults and parents to help lessen stress and give a broader perspective.”

Some of Bonomi’s favorite ways to help reduce stress and anxiety include mediating, practicing relaxation breathing, being with her horses, and other forms of exercise. Some of the skills from meditating such as being present and mindful can even be useful while riding.

Riding is not only an individual sport because barn dynamics and having a supportive team are very important in relation to riders’ mental health. According to Bonomi, having a team atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie will improve mental health on an individual level and for the barn as a whole.

Trusting an animal that weighs over 1,000 pounds can be scary, but realizing that I will not always have control can be even more frightening. Mindful riding helps me focus on the moment and spurs my best thinking. As an equestrian, I have learned to deal with disappointment: I may not always ride the easiest horse; I may fall and get injured; I may ride a horse that gets hurt before a medal final. These scenarios have all happened to me, but I have learned that anything worthwhile is going to require me to keep working hard in all aspects of riding, both psychological and physical, despite the obstacles.

We as an equestrian community should come together and support each other. We can all take the extra steps to be our most present and mindful selves, as every month should be Mental Health Awareness Month.