Becoming Mentally Fit in the Barn Aisle

Getting a handle on the mental part of competing can be the hardest part of competition. Darby Bonomi, PhD, works with equestrians to help them develop a mental edge in her program, Conversations in the Barn Aisle.

Photo by GrandPix

By Megan Cahak

If you’ve ever struggled to voice your frustrations about a ride to a parent or well-meaning partner, your barn family understands your pain.

Even if friends or family take a genuine interest in our hobby, which we love, it doesn’t mean they understand what it’s like to have fears or doubts hold you back while riding. It’s hard to explain having a bad ride when, from the outside, it looks completely fine. It’s because what’s bothering you isn’t relatable to people who don’t ride 800+ pound animals for fun.

They just don’t get it. But Darby does and knows how to help you move past them.

Meet Darby Bonomi, PhD.

Photo courtesy of Darby Bonomi

Darby began her career as a performance and sports psychologist working with athletes from all kinds of backgrounds. But it was only a matter of time before she began specializing in the equestrian niche.

Horses have always been in her life and she cares deeply for the people of the equestrian community.

While she continues to work with clients outside of the equestrian world, Darby’s main focus has shifted to helping people within our niche community. She’s especially excited about her work with equestrians who want to boost their success by removing mental blocks and helping them figure out how to ride their best.

Knowing this led Darby to ask herself what if she replicated the casual atmosphere of the barn aisle and started a conversation with riders in a group setting where they naturally feel safe? Would this be the trick to helping them let their hair down and talk openly about what they’re struggling with?

As if the entire equestrian community let out a collective sigh at once, we answered with a resounding “yes.”

And so Conversations In The Barn Aisle came to be.

It’s a new program Darby is using to help riders of all levels let go of what’s holding them back and move into greatness. Sessions are limited to groups of eight and riders chat with Darby and the other riders on the phone over the course of a month.

This type of approach also gives Darby a chance to lead a conversation with a group of riders over video chat in a structured, yet casual conversation. She always comes with a plan, so if no one speaks up she is prepared to get them started.

The conversations are open to any topics, and Darby is there to listen and give out advice or assistance as needed. This not only allows the participants to walk away with a stronger bond to their community, but also employ the tools she gives them to make the most of their rides.

Who needs this?

Athletes are competitive by nature and push themselves past their limits every day. They get frustrated, can become obsessed with perfectionism and judge themselves accordingly.

But when frustrations turn into obstacles that prevent them from reaching the next level, those daily frustrations manifest into something much bigger.

It’s a cycle we know all too well. As a group, equestrians have a special blend of grit we use as motivation to perform at our best, no matter what we may be feeling.

Photo by Alden Corrigan

Like many headstrong, ambitious and passionate people, we’re not exactly good at asking for help. We tend to bottle our emotions and choose not to talk about what’s bothering us.

What’s even more interesting, but unsurprising, about equestrians is that even when we’re physically or mentally beaten down, we still choose to get back in the saddle and do it all again.

Darby understands the mental and emotional stress a rider is under because she’s a rider herself and is involved in the equestrian community, frequently showing on the hunter/jumper circuit in California.

She gets that equestrians may not be good at asking for help, but she can see what’s really bothering us in how we act or focus. Most commonly, we spill our deepest anxieties in the barn aisle while in the company of others that make us feel safe — our barn family.

What appears to be a casual conversation between stall doors while sitting on a bag of shavings is actually an equestrian asking for help to overcome something — big or small — in their world.

What she witnesses in the barn aisle is a type of camaraderie that can only develop over time, through shared experiences as trust grows stronger. But what she also sees are riders who are actively looking to one another for help, but are unable to offer a tangible solution to a problem that’s bound to get worse if not addressed.

It’s how things have been in the world of an equestrian athlete for some time, but if Darby has her way, it’s not how the conversations will play out any longer.

Photo by Deb Dawson

How does Darby do it?

Picture this: you’re gearing up to head out to the barn — your favorite time of day. Upon arrival, you get your horse ready and prepare to tack up. But the arena is a little crowded, so you give it a few minutes and watch. Your eyes find a fellow rider who’s competing at your same level and seems to be clicking with her horse better than you.

Am I forming a strong enough bond? I’ve got to try harder.

After a few riders leave the arena, you get on and begin your ride. Going through the pattern you memorized while sitting at your desk earlier, you don’t execute a queue as well as you’d hoped.

I should have done that better.

Whispering, “Sorry bud, that was me,” to your horse, you move through the pattern. Another queue is missed, and now you’re a little flustered.

I hope no one is watching.

The thought of people watching while you practice is nerve-wracking. You’re consumed with feeling like you’ve hit a plateau and will be forever stuck at a lower level. It’s not your horse’s fault — he’s got a lot to give.

Is it me? Am I holding him back?

After walking a bit, you get off, untack your horse and begin grooming. Your friend is there too and you begin talking.

You share your “mistakes” during your conversation, but they didn’t see the ride and don’t understand why you’re picking yourself apart.

Feeling frustrated, you chalk it up as another bad ride and move on with the day. But the next ride is pretty similar and what started as a few nit-picky frustrations are now full blown anxieties.

Photo courtesy of Darby Bonomi

What’s the goal?

The whole point of Darby’s Conversations is to prevent you from getting to this point. By giving you an audience who not only understands what you’re talking about, but also knows how to help you, it allows you to overcome some serious internal frustrations and move on.

Because even if barn time is your favorite time of the day, it’s easy for you to get caught up in a feeling of being stuck and not performing at your best. Getting in your own head, comparing yourself to others and harshly judging yourself — it’s all part of a vicious cycle in which we can find ourselves.

The idea that it’s “all part of it” is exactly why Darby created a setting where riders like you can vent to a group who can relate and gives you solutions on how to overcome the thoughts and feelings that keep you stuck. Conversations In The Barn Aisle is doing more than creating a safe space for riders to talk — it’s starting the conversation about mental health in the horse world.

Darby’s been untangling what’s really going on in people’s minds and freeing them from the baggage they bring to the saddle for years. It’s her goal to help riders get back to feeling the emotions they initially felt from the beginning of their riding journey — excitement, love and admiration for a sport.

When you’re ready to transform your time at the barn into an experience you always love, you can learn more about Conversations in the Barn Aisle, Darby Bonomi, PhD, and how these conversations can improve your performance, help you gain confidence and so much more.

Megan Cahak is a creative copywriter and owner of a copywriting company specializing in supporting small business growth online and in real life. She’s a woman on a mission to make readers laugh and put her 18 years of equine knowledge to work by writing contagious content that boosts business growth. Conveniently, her equine clients also give her an easy excuse to horse around as much as possible. When she’s not riding, you’ll find her writing, chasing kids, boating, or spending time with her family. If you have questions about equestrian marketing or advertising, reach out to Entrigue at

Photo courtesy of Entrigue Consulting.