Street-to-Stable Column Two Point by Darby Bonomi, PhD - Being a Supportive Parent


I am pleased to share my experience and expertise with our community in a regular feature column for Issues common to our sport are addressed from my perspective as a psychologist, equestrian and horse show parent.

Recently, I heard someone remark that a particular junior rider had ‘wonderfully supportive’ parents. The comment made me pause and think—what does it mean to be ‘a supportive parent’ in the horse world? Sometimes this phrase is used to mean that parents are financially generous. Those gifts are one kind of support, yet there are other essential aspects of parental support that often go unacknowledged.

Sometimes saying ‘no’ is the most supportive thing you can do.

Want to talk? Let’s figure out a time.

Consultation with Darby -

I know as a parent of teens that I am often cast as ‘unsupportive’ when I say ‘no’ to something or set a boundary that my child disagrees with. I know—even when I’m being railed upon—that my ‘no’ is actually very supportive of their well-being. Being able to say ‘no’ requires a certain fortitude and determination—and a keen grasp on the long term.

In my professional and personal experience, I have found that one of the hardest things for parents to do is say ‘no.’

As parents, it’s imperative that we are guided by overall principles—what is overarching goal of our parenting? And do we check back in with that goal occasionally to make sure we’re on the right track? What I see when kids (not just riders) get really serious about their sport is that parents also become wholly committed. Sometimes the overarching parenting goals get sidelined for more short term goals (such as winning a particular event.) We parents get carried away by success sometimes and need reminders to recalibrate.

Generally, I think most parents will say that their goal is to raise resilient, self sufficient, happy kids who go on to lead a life of purpose and meaning. (No small task, let me tell you.)

So, if you’re with me, let’s think about each piece.

Resilience: being resilient means you can rebound from hardship. You can fall, pick yourself up and go at it again. Sports are great at teaching resilience because we all know one day you’re batting 1.000 and the next day you’re striking out. One day you win your hunters; the next day you can't find the single oxer. Or your horse went lame. Resilience, in my view, is the single most important characteristic behind long term success. One of the reasons I love riding as a sport is that it fosters resilience. We riders fall off and get right back on the horse. That’s our cardinal rule. Every equestrian I know is proud of her toughness and determination.

As parents, how do we foster our child’s natural resilience? It’s hard, but we parents have to resist the urge to fix everything. We all hate to see our kids upset (me too), but sometimes upset, struggle, and frustration IS the work that must be done. Those feelings are appropriate and motivating. Sometimes it’s supportive to say ‘yes, you can have that new horse, or attend that show or go to that party.’ But sometimes it’s more supportive to say, ‘no you have to work with the horse you have, or you’re not ready for that particular show or you can’t go to that party.’

Self sufficiency—this trait develops out of resilience. Promoting self sufficiency, figuring things out for your self, taking on responsibility—these can occur at any level of development. A toy is out of your toddler’s grasp? Allow him to reach for it. See his joy in being able to grab it himself! A division is too tough for your daughter? Let her figure out how to get there; allow her to brainstorm with her trainer about next steps and strategies. Maybe she’ll learn something that she never even imagined.

Purpose and meaning—we all need to have a purpose in life, a reason for being here and doing what we do. It needs to be something larger than ourselves, something that makes our existence meaningful for ourselves and the world around us. Purpose and meaning are something that each of us must define individually. It may sound strange to say, but I encourage you to ask: what’s the meaning of my riding?

Why do all this internal work?  Thoughtfully supportive parenting will provide the groundwork for happiness in and out of the ring. We all know that blue ribbons don’t bring happiness. We’ve seen too many unhappy riders carrying around tricolors. Happiness comes out of a sense of accomplishment and mastery; it’s a feeling that you matter and are effective in the world. Most of all, happiness, like accomplishment, is something you earn over time; it can’t be given to you—or taken away—by anyone else.


Schedule your initial COMPLIMENTARY CONSULTATION with Darby