Darby Bonomi
Dressage, Eventing, Hunter Jumper, Rider Health & Performance

In Your Right Mind: The Ins & Outs of Moving Up.

Dear Dr. Bonomi,

I’ve been riding at the same level for a long time, and I really want to jump bigger. I also want to be in a higher division at the shows. Most of my friends have left me behind, and even at home I’m not in their lessons anymore. I’ve asked my trainer to move me up, but she keeps saying I’m not ready yet.

Can you give me some advice?


S.T., Sacramento, CA


Dear S,

Thanks for your question. Yours is a frustration I hear all the time, mostly from hunter/jumper riders. It’s a sensitive issue because emotions tend to cloud the full picture. In my experience, riders often want to jump bigger for reasons that may not align with their technical level, and trainers get caught between the rider’s feelings and what they as trainers sense is best for the horse/rider pair.

First, I would ask you to take a step back and ask yourself why your trainer has moved up others and not you. Be realistic and not idealistic with your self evaluation. I assume that she has clear reasons for saying that you are ‘not ready.’ Your job is to determine what aspects of your performance are weak and get to work on those. Here is some areas you will want to evaluate:

  • Technical skill: Jumping bigger is not just about height. With bigger jumps and higher divisions comes the need for more sophisticated technical skill. Sure, maybe you can jump 1.20m jumps, but do you have the skill and experience to successfully navigate a 1.20m course? Do an honest assessment of your current ability, and think about what skills you need to develop to be successful at a higher level.
  • Physical stamina: Are you physically fit enough to move up? Riding at a higher level requires more aerobic capacity and strength, not just in your legs but also your core. Do you need to devote more time to cross training to be able to handle bigger, longer, and more complicated courses?
  • Your horse’s fitness or soundness: Speaking of fitness, is your horse physically able to jump bigger? Will he be able to sustain jumping at a higher level, or are you asking too much of him?
  • Your horse’s brain: Can your horse carry you to the next level, emotionally? What if you make mistakes over more complicated tracks? Does he have the brain to “take a joke,” and help you out? In my experience, many behavioral problems arise when a horse is asked to cover for a rider too many times. To be successful, your horse has to be confident and feel the job is easy.
  • Your mental and emotional skills: Many times athletes are technically proficient, but their nerves or emotions prevent them from riding well under pressure. Are you tense or anxious as a rider? Are you prepared for the added stress and expectation of a more advanced division? Do you perform well at home but collapse at shows? If you have a fragile psyche, your trainer may be hesitant to challenge you or even talk to you about the situation.

All these factors may weigh in on your trainer’s assessment, but of course you won’t really know for sure unless you can have a straightforward conversation with her. The fact that you are asking me this question makes me think that you’re hesitant to ask—or that she is hesitant to be frank with you. If that’s the case, ask yourself why. We all need direct and honest communication with our trainers so that we can air our frustrations and desires, receive constructive criticism, and craft a plan to move forward. Our trainers are our partners—not our obstacles—on our path toward achieving our goals. I suggest that you ask to sit down with her in a quiet moment to discuss your wishes (and your frustration), and figure out both a long term plan and next steps. 

And remember, all horse rider pairs develop in their own unique way. While we can be tempted to compare ourselves, I find it’s most productive to keep focused on our own goals rather than looking over our shoulders at others’ progress. 

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

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.

featured photo: PC: Clara Bonomi

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