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The Psychology of Peak Performance Riding Part 2

May’s issue of Polo Lifestyles covered many topics for Mental Health Awareness Month, and it was never timelier, especially with the world collectively grieving the terrible tragedy and death toll from COVID-19. What is more daunting is that we are just beginning to understand how the coronavirus will disrupt our family, work and most especially, our social lives for the unforeseen future. Three months into the pandemic, we have accepted that it is our duty to protect our lives and to respect the lives of others by limiting our time and interactions with people in public spaces, something that we could not have imagined before the outbreak. 

Peak Performance for Athletes

As the world waits for a vaccine and a clear path out of the coronavirus pandemic, we must be optimistic, with a measure of caution, if we are to persevere. The BBC recently published an article about the psychology that drives athletes and professional sports competitors to perform at their “peak” both physically and mentally, and how the coronavirus has devastated both. When leading up to a major event, such as the Olympics, athletes experience anxiety known as “anticipatory emotions”, according to Chris Dawson from the University of Bath.

“These are feelings triggered by the anticipation of a future event that cause you to either take immediate pleasure in inevitable success, or, conversely, feel dread about impending failure...balancing your expectations can be tricky, but in most cases, once the event has transpired, you can find at least partial relief in knowing the outcome.”

Unfortunately, with the postponement of most events and competitions, the closure that the outcome would provide is out of reach and has left many feeling frustrated with very little in the way of an outlet for that anxiety. 

Peak Riding Performance – How to Maintain Your Competitive Edge

The preparation that goes into competitive sports permeates all aspects of life for an athlete. It includes monitoring the food they eat, committing to a rigorous exercise regime and working with coaches and trainers that provide the mental and emotional motivation to maintain a state of optimal fitness. For equestrians, the shelter in place order, closure of training centers and the inability to be around too many people means that they are not able to train. 

Dr. Darby Bonomi, a specialist in the psychology of peak performance riding, believes that equestrians have the grit to weather the storm, as strength and toughness are characteristic of the sport. An equestrian must work in harmony with their horse, an animal known to be moody and unpredictable. Dr. Bonomi believes that equestrians are particularly suited to deal with external and uncontrollable factors. 

“Equestrians, as I said before, have all the tools to adapt, to dig in, to make lemonade out of lemons. Riders, and horse people of all stripes, live with uncertainty daily. We ride horses, after all. We know that a horse can scoot from underneath us in a split second. Or spin us off. Or be sound today and dead lame tomorrow.”

Additionally, she points to the solidarity horse people feel towards each other, whether they are helping their fellow riders pursue an opportunity, or coming together during disasters, such as when people had to rescue horses from the devastating California wildfires;  equestrians know how to unify and do whatever needs to get done. 

The virus presents some very different challenges, though, and many equestrians are struggling to cope without the dedicated time to practice with their horses. Like many of us, one of the most difficult aspects involved in readjusting is that the coronavirus has completely altered the routines and schedules that once kept us grounded and focused. So, what are some tools for equestrians to maintain their peak?

A unique aspect of Dr. Bomoni’s methodology is that she infuses her coaching with her own special tools. Not only is she a lifelong expert rider, but she is also an equally accomplished and experienced clinical psychologist with a private practice. Being certified in Intuition Medicine further supplemented her training, and she uses that certification as an approach to help clients to surpass mental or psychological blocks that might be holding them back.

Strategies for Equestrians

Two strategies to get through the uncertainty of the pandemic are keeping long-term goals and staying in the present moment. One crucial aspect of keeping your eyes on the long-term goals ahead is staying physically fit, as it helps with building a new routine. To stay optimistic, be mindful of the amount of coverage you take in, instead, try finding joy in the little things around you. 

Intuition is an important bond with your horse when you are with them, but you can also do it through visualization meditation if you cannot be there physically, and it is beneficial for the rider and the horse. Bonomi believes that horses also need this constant nurturing connection as it releases endorphins. Through visualization, put yourself back in the saddle and try to take in all the sensory details you can, such as smells or touch. Dr. Bonomi's suggestion was to talk directly to your horse and ask for understanding and mercy during this challenging time. 

Clearly, Dr. Bonomi has a gift for helping her clients build confidence and courage. You can read more about her special work and get more tips on how to maintain Peak Performance Riding by visiting her website and keeping current with her blog where you can also directly ask questions and get advice. 


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