Mental Tools for Maintaining Peak Riding Performance at Home

The global pandemic sweeping through the world has forced us to see how much we need our most valued social relationships to sustain our mental health. We are rapidly losing our ability to create meaningful connections in real-life scenarios. By meaningful, I am referring to the time when people did not have to cover their faces, stand six feet apart or stay at home most hours of the day. It almost feels like a by-gone era. I certainly hope not, but mentally we must cope with uncertainty and quickly adapt to a new, slightly dystopian world where we are collectively fighting a formidable enemy. We must change the way we eat, breathe, sleep and interact with the world with very conscious intent every moment from now until no more are lost to this enemy too terrible to name, so I will just call it 19, hoping, like last year, it will come to pass. 

May is also mental health month, so I am covering a special topic for Polo Lifestyles on how equestrians can adapt to some pretty big constraints. Training for polo matches is exhausting for both rider and horse, so several ponies are used, with teams of people needed to prepare for each new ride. Social distancing would appear to be impossible in many equine-related sports. Claude Alix-Bertrand, Captain of Haiti’s Polo Team, explained what goes on behind the scenes daily to stay in shape and to play professional polo:

“There are a lot of people involved in the handling of polo ponies – grooms, coaches, vets, delivery people, etc. Due to the number of people involved in the running of a barn, I’m spending less to no time at the barns in order to avoid contacting anyone potentially with the virus.”

Adaptability and Peak Performance

It might be difficult for ordinary non-athletes, such as myself, to understand, but reaching the level of peak performance getting to the level of professional competition often takes starting a physically challenging fitness routine at dawn and ending at dusk most days. The athletes who will no longer compete in this summer’s canceled 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo must certainly be heartbroken. Aside from feeling collective grief with the rest of the world, they must feel crestfallen with disappointment from not being able to compete after years of intense physical conditioning to achieve a spot in the prestigious competition. 

In fact, in the world of professional sports, at any time, lost training can affect the physical condition of athletes, not to mention the lingering impact it can have emotionally and mentally. After all, they have passionately pursued their lifelong dreams to compete at this level. Equestrian sports must take into consideration that there needs to be complete cooperation and confidence between the rider and the horse.   

Peak Performance Post – Virus

The government-mandated lockdown, its ban on public gatherings and closing of businesses has surely impacted anyone who has a horse or professionally rides either through sport or show. In the case of practicing equine professionals such as polo players, it is now impossible considering we know how many people must be involved. 

There is something unique about the relationship between a horse and the rider that demands constant attention to detail. Like all good relationships, it takes a lot of time and patience. Being an equestrian is not for the weak; it takes strength, discipline and stamina to stay in peak physical condition.

 To get a better understanding of this relationship and about the time and energy that goes into maintaining and elevating equestrian sports performance, I had a chance to speak with who else? A horse whisperer. 

Darby Bonomi has had a passion for riding horses since she was in high school and is an equine specialist. While she holds multiple degrees in counseling and has her own practice as a therapist for human problems, she also specializes in “horse problems” and coaches competitive riders through a wide array of psychological blocks toward progress. Clearly, she has the academic and professional expertise required for such a niche role in the industry. Still, besides her breadth of knowledge on traditional techniques to enhance performance, Bonomi relies on something unique to anyone who understands what it means to be an equestrian: intuition. 

“The importance of relying on an unspoken communication system between you and the massively strong animal you are trying to ride and control simply cannot be underestimated.”

She should know, she began honing her skills and the mastery needed to become a world-class equestrian while still a teenager when her family bought a ranch in Sonoma county. The discipline of the routine that goes into grooming and the maintenance of a horse was hard work, but it paid off handsomely when Bonomi went on to ride and win in many prestigious shows and competitions. The ranch not only took her far away from the hectic city life of San Francisco, where she had grown up, but it was also a reprieve from the hectic events going on in her personal life.

“My parents got divorced in my late teens, and like most kids, I took it hard. Going to the ranch and just being around the horses was very healing- they were my sanctuary, and they still are.”

Unlike many other traditional sports that do not rely on the cooperation of another animal, riding requires that you gain trust and the confidence of the horse first, and if you are emanating anything other than confidence, then, unfortunately, the horse is acutely tuning into that energy too. The language used between a horse and its rider is a sacred contract, an unspoken agreement that has enabled civilizations and humanity to progress, this language speaks through our intuition. Horses have had an incalculable role in humankind's evolution, and continue to be an inherent creature of fascination. Our love affair with them has sustained, even in this modern day of the era of endless ever-knew technology. But like all relationships, fear can get in the way of harmony when the rider feels emotional or psychological roadblocks, is experiencing frequent frustration or no longer having positive feelings about riding altogether.

Bonomi has been working with precisely these types of issues, and as someone who has honed her intuitive capacities, as well as being an expert in equine and human behavior, she can diagnose by gently peeling back the layers behind what else? Fear. This word is often associated with many mental health issues. Her clients might experience fear of failure, anxiety during performances or competitions or frustration when hitting the same obstacle in training. Her work is fascinating, and her approach is so holistic that this will be covered in a two-part series where she gives more insight and advice on weathering through this pandemic (at home!) and staying in peak performance.

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