Rider Health & Performance

In Your Right Mind: Helping the Hyper-Critical

Dear Dr. Bonomi,

I’d like your advice on how I can best support my child. She is very competitive and becomes even more so once we get to a show. Usually she does very well, but demands perfection of herself. When she makes a mistake, she feels she like a failure. She critiques her ride even before her trainer gives feedback and is incredibly hard on herself. The worst part is that after shows, she only seems to remember the “bad” parts. We are all flummoxed about how to get through to her.


A.C., Bay Area, CA


Dear A,

Thanks for asking this important question. This is a very common challenge for junior riders, their parents, and their trainers. Competitive riders are usually demanding of themselves, which is part of why they are competitive. Generally these juniors expect high performance in all areas of their lives, and they have the skills, habits, determination, and support to succeed. And, they are usually rewarded with considerable success.

You don’t say what level or division your daughter rides in or how long she has been riding. In my experience these demanding, perfectionistic riders improve quickly to a certain level, and then they plateau. The plateau is a normal part of growth; as we advance to more technical riding, our progress is not as rapid as before. We need time in the saddle, more training, and show miles to improve further. But, for many riders this plateau feels like failure. If this is part of your daughter’s struggle, I would try to give her some long term perspective. This perspective might be given more easily from someone other than you or your trainer. Perhaps there is another professional she admires who might give her a sense of her progress and what she should reasonably expect of herself and her horse in the months and years ahead. (And, hopefully this professional can encourage her to lighten up on the self criticism!)

I also recommend that you and your daughter sit down for a chat with your trainer, because this kind of hyper-critical mindset is counterproductive and interferes with progress. First and foremost, it’s important to emphasize that a positive, growth oriented (or challenge) mindset is by far the most conducive mindset to learning. Translated, this means that our goal is to improve every day, to the best of our ability, and measure ourselves by our own progress and not by anyone else’s. An exclusive focus on results or comparisons with others are unfair and can quickly lead to burnout. 

I would talk to your daughter about the importance of balanced feedback—it’s essential to review and understand our accomplishments along with our mistakes. If we only harbor on mistakes, then we’re reinforcing our missteps in our minds. Savoring the well executed parts of our rides helps solidify those productive patterns. 

PC: Kate at The In Gate

Along those lines, I would institute “rules” for feedback to help your daughter establish a new routine. Here are some ideas:

  • Absolutely no critiquing or commenting while riding. Making verbal observations or judgements takes us out of the ride, and is a very bad show habit.
    • After the ride, take a breath. Allow the trainer to speak and give feedback first.
    • Agree on three successes in the ride, and three things to work on.
    • Allow only 15 minutes to be upset about a mistake and then move on.

Finally, be sure that you as the parent are not inadvertently rewarding your daughter’s perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. Apples generally don’t fall far from the tree, so if you’re similarly wired, you might talk to her about some of your own struggles with unrelenting self criticism. Also, please remember never to coach your own child about her riding; your trainer will handle the coaching. As a parent, your job is to love, support, and encourage! When you praise her, be sure to emphasize effort over outcome, and in this case tell her you’re proud of her progress in giving herself balanced feedback too. Affirm her positive qualities and reassure her that she will reach her goals!

Darby Bonomi, PhD
In Your Right Mind
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.

Feature photo by Kate At The In Gate.

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