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Riding the Waves of an Imbalanced Life

How equestrians can reduce stress & create balance in their lives.

All photos courtesy of Darby Bonomi

By Darby Bonomi, PhD.

There is a lot of talk about the need for balance in our lives. Is your work and home life balanced with optimal levels of stress and relaxation? Do you have ample time for self-care, personal development, and relationships? If you’re an equestrian, you are laughing at me right now, saying “are you kidding me? Of course not!”

I hear you. I’m an equestrian too. But people ask me all the time: I’m super stressed out and I have no time for anything. I feel anxious. How can I get more balance in my life?

Life is complicated. Horses make it more so.

Here’s the bad news: There is no balance, sorry.

And the good news: We can learn not only to handle but to thrive in imbalance.

The other bad news: You are going to have to work at it. It’s not just going to happen.

More good news: It will be worth it.

With determination and practice, you can learn to prioritize, strategize and enjoy what is happening at the moment while reducing stress and becoming more efficient and effective in your life. Even more important, your ability to ride (pun intended) your life’s imbalance will keep stress from snowballing into anxiety.

Grab a notebook so you can keep track of your progress and let’s get started!

First, we’re going to do a priority and time assessment. I like using a large paper calendar (with a weekly view) with some big post-it notes so that I can easily refer back to the prior weeks.

Start by making a list of your priorities. Be sure to include all parts of your life – not just your barn life. Divide up these priorities by importance.

Next, turn that list into a pie chart — it’s ok if some things overlap. For instance, in my sample pie below, family and relationship overlap, as do riding and family, and riding and self-care. Your pie chart doesn’t have to be perfect – this visual tool will help you keep perspective on where your energy should be directed. Flag it in your notebook and revisit it periodically to see if you are spending your time and effort in accordance with your “pie.”

Quick tip #1: When I am feeling confused about what I should focus on, I ask myself: What is my highest priority or best use at this moment? When I feel overwhelmed, I use my pie chart to help me refocus.

Second, time to incorporate those riding goals!

On a new page, start with the long term (two to three years), and move to the shorter term — one year, six months, three months. Use this as your chance to dream big and organize what you are hoping to achieve in your riding. Make sure you are kind to yourself as you lay out your short to long term goals — making your regional finals is just as worth while as a goal as hacking out with your barn friends once a month!

This list helps turn those big goals (like moving from BN to training) into small building blocks that you can refer to when you (and your trainer!) are working on lessons and hacks each month. I use my big post-it notes to help layout and guide my journey.

Quick tip #2: Apply your own training principles and expectations to your own progress. Generally, riders are excellent at setting weekly and quarterly progress goals for their horses. They are compassionate about setbacks and training detours. See if you can treat yourself as well as you treat your horse — honor your small successes the same way you would pat your horse after a particularly scary derby fence — and don’t let one bad ride derail all your long term aspirations.

Third, use what you’ve laid out!

As much as we all love making lists, I want to make sure we use what we’ve just spent the time laying out.

Looking at your pie chart, do you discover that you are spending too much time on details of life that didn’t even make it to a slice? We all have to take care of “stuff,” but many of us get sucked into tasks that are both non-crucial to our lives and also not on our priority list.

I like to inventory my time to check in on how I am using the day. I spent a week writing down everything I did, from sleeping to errands to time in traffic to the barn.

I confirmed that my most important priority in my life right now is my family, and I spend 42% of my time doing something related to family. Despite how it might feel some days, I’m very efficient with errands, grouping them together with other pickups or barn runs. It became clear that my transportation time is very high, but most of it is with some members of my family – which is great for catching up! I definitely could spend more time on my relationships — both with my husband and non-horsey friends. Like all of us, I could also use more downtime!

While this might feel daunting, even journaling your time for a day can help you find places you can rebalance or find happy surprises about just how much you do accomplish in a day.

Learning to thrive in imbalance comes naturally to some people, but for others (like me), it must be learned and practiced. Keeping the end goal in sight while breaking tasks down into smaller bites helps seemingly overwhelming projects become manageable. Writing things down forces us to see clearly and be honest with ourselves. Rewards for the small daily victories helps us appreciate ourselves as we do our horses, and have gratitude for the moment. With time — and practice — we will grow in confidence that riding the imbalance of our lives can be not only effective, but also gratifying and will boost our mental health along the way.

*Thank you, Dr. Laurie Santos, for this tip from The Science of Wellbeing.

Darby Furth Bonomi, PhD is a practicing psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in facilitating positive transformations with clients of all ages. As a sport and performance psychologist, Dr. Bonomi merges her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions with her life-long experience in the equestrian world to elevate the overall health, happiness and performance of equestrian athletes and their support systems. She serves as a consultant to Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center and is on the Advisory Committee for the United States Equestrian Team Foundation.  To learn more about Darby, visit www.darbybonomi.com.

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