Equestrian sport psychology
Dressage, Eventing, Hunter Jumper, Rider Health & Performance, Western

In Your Right Mind: Dr. Darby Bonomi, PhD, offers tips on staying positive even when others aren’t!

Question: Dear Dr. Bonomi,

I have been working on my mental strategies for competition and my overall resilience in the saddle. I am determined to bring my best to the barn every day, to appreciate every moment, and to learn from my mistakes. Riding is the best time of the week for me! It’s my therapy!

Sometimes I have trouble, however, dealing with negativity around me in the barn. Some riders are very pessimistic, self-critical, or focused on things I don’t feel are helpful. I try to counter the negativity with positive comments and suggestions, but then I just feel drained. How can I shield myself from their negativity and keep myself in my positive head space—especially at shows?

Thanks for your help,

S.R., Washington State

Answer: Dear S,

Thanks for writing! I’m glad to hear that you are working on your mental strategies and resilience in and out of the saddle. Your hard work will show up in your performance, both at home and at the shows. I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing some negativity at your barn; I know it can be challenging to navigate negativity as a client in a show barn.

When I work with trainers, I always urge them to actively cultivate a positive barn culture. A bad mood, or a negativistic or complaining attitude can penetrate the barn quickly—like a bad odor—and it’s hard on everyone. I believe that it’s up to trainers to sense when negativity is growing and address it head on.

In your case, my first suggestion is to not engage in it. Easier said than done, I realize, but make a deliberate decision to stay out of it. Remember, the barn is your time to emotionally refuel and focus on your own riding, so it’s neither your place nor your responsibility to fix others. It is also not fair of them to ask you to do so.

When you encounter chronically negative people, create an emotional boundary between you and them. Think of putting yourself in an ‘emotional bubble.’ Sounds weird, perhaps, but I can tell you, it works. Make a deliberate choice to shield yourself from whatever the negative person is saying. While you can remain courteous, refrain from taking on any of the complaints or the negative energy.

Stay Focused On Your Own Goals

It sounds like you have tried to help by offering your sunny perspective and helpful suggestions. As you have discovered, doing so will exhaust and frustrate you. If someone is really stuck in a negative place, no amount of offering will help. It’s important to note that chronically negative people are not actually wanting to change—otherwise they would approach their problems proactively rather than passively through complaints.

I would urge you to stay focused on your purpose at the barn, what you love about your horses, and what your goals are for every ride. If you keep your focus on what is important to you, you will be fulfilled and also set a good example for your barn-mates. My advice is to not engage in too much chatter with others about the negative, complaining person. Although confiding in our friends does relieve some stress, too much talk about the situation can also just lead to an expansion of negativity. Do make a pact with your friends to stay focused on your riding, your goals, and your horses—all the things that you love about our sport. At shows, be extra deliberate in supporting each other and keeping a positive mental focus.

Darby Bonomi, PhD
Darby Bonomi, PhD. PC: Holly Cassner

Last, if the negativity becomes overwhelming, I would find a discreet time to talk to your trainer about what you and your friends experience. Keep your comments concise and non-emotional. Most trainers will want to hear that there is negativity brewing in their barn and will address it if they haven’t already.

Author Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.

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