The desire to be fully present with and for her children was the catalyst for Darby Bonomi, PhD to close her psychology practice of over 20 years and embark on a new path. Now, as her kids are older and more independent, Darby has combined her passion for horses and the equestrian sports with her background in psychology to become a performance consultant to equestrians and their families.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in San Francisco. When I was 10, my family acquired a ranch outside of Healdsburg, CA which later became my family’s Chalk Hill Winery. The property initially came with a rather motley herd of horses and ponies. I had absolutely no experience with horses but I was immediately hooked. As far as I was concerned, the barn was heaven. It was a place to find solitude and peace, and the relationships with the horses buoyed me during complicated family times. In those early years, I begged the ranch manager to teach me everything he knew about horses. I eventually convinced my parents to pay for real lessons and I learned to jump.
After several years of cobbling together a training program, my parents realized I was serious about the horses and wanted to compete. I moved to a sophisticated show barn and worked with trainers Lu and Butch Thomas in Woodside. I had a group of pretty tough mounts—I ended up on the ground a lot. Butch and Lu helped me sell those horses and acquire the best horse ever, Novelty, who was a real lifesaver for me. I mean that. I was a tough, determined girl, but I also had lost a lot of confidence. I was a defensive rider. I definitely did not trust that any horse was going to take care of me. Novelty taught me to trust again. He never stopped at a fence. Thanks to him, I learned to really ride and we enjoyed a lot of success in the junior hunters and equitation.
I started riding late but I was ambitious. In my last junior year, I wanted to ride Indoors, the national finals. I qualified and was set to go. Indoors wasn’t in my trainers’ plans, however, so I switched to another barn, Sutton Place—with Linda and Champ Hough. This was a wonderful move for me; I went from a large training barn to a small individualized program. I’ll never forget Linda’s first words of advice after watching me: “You’re good. Just ride.” Looking back, I credit Linda with the basis of some of my current practices. Her message was: be in the present with your horse; let go of the mental process and just ride.
I was very lucky to get a lot of experience riding in different venues and in great competition. The Houghs put me on some of their own horses and also had me ride my horses in the professional classes at shows. I had a blast and learned so much. I ended up getting good placings Indoors along with being 23rd in the Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden in 1980 on my horse K-Doc. I went 13th out of 250-something and I was the last rider to be cut from the flat phase. I laid down the ride of my life. It was a great finale to my junior career. Even though I didn’t come away with the win, I gave my all, I rode beautifully and, best of all, I really enjoyed every moment.
The next couple of years, I rode as an amateur and contemplated whether I wanted to become a professional. The Houghs were very encouraging, giving me rides and tons of support, but other factors weighed in. Studies at UC Berkeley were tough to manage with serious riding. In addition, horses were (and are!) expensive and I didn’t want to continue relying on my parents for that much support. They were in the middle of a divorce and I wanted to separate myself from their situation. Selling the horses was one of the hardest decisions for me. They had been my great friends during my adolescence—sources of trust and comfort. Losing them left a big hole in my life, one that took me decades to fill!
After I left riding, I threw myself into my education and work. I was pre-med, but after my personal experience in psychotherapy, I knew that I had a calling to help people psychologically. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1985 with a major in psychology and a minor in biology. I went on to get my doctorate at California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley (1991) and started my private practice that same year. While practicing, I went on to obtain psychoanalytic training and completed my postdoctoral degree at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute (now The SF Center for Psychoanalysis) in 1999.
For almost 20 years, I maintained a private clinical practice. I worked mainly with adults and teens in long-term psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I supervised psychology interns and psychiatric residents at many Bay Area hospitals and was on the faculty at the SF Psychoanalytic Institute. My goal at the time was to become a leader in the psychoanalytic community and a mentor to young women, especially working moms. I’m eternally thankful for all that I learned from my patients and my students during those years, and particularly grateful for being allowed into peoples’ lives in such an intimate way. It was an honor to be part of their growth and transformation.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After I had my first child, my perspective on life and what was important changed significantly. All of a sudden, I realized that being a clinician wasn’t everything for me. By the time I had my third child, I knew I wanted and needed to be home full time—at least for a few years. My experience shepherding patients and students had shown me that I wanted and needed to be fully present as a mom. I also knew that I personally needed that quality time with them.
When I stopped practicing, I had a hunch that when I did return to work, it would be in a different, more mentoring role. Rather than treating mental illness, I wanted to focus on fostering psychological health. When my youngest went to school, I started back very part time. I worked with parents privately, taught parenting classes, and consulted at preschools and treatment centers. My goal was to help parents, teachers, and administrators understand subtle psychological dynamics so that they could be more effective in their roles.
Something that I didn’t mention earlier is that I wrote my doctoral dissertation (at age 26) on the midlife transition of a famous psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. I wrote about midlife while I was in my 20s, so it was all very academic. Melanie Klein, who was a contemporary of Anna Freud, had a complicated early adulthood; she dreamed of being a doctor but instead married “well” and had three children to help “support” her family. After years of depression and struggle, she left her husband in her late 30s, underwent psychoanalytic training, and became a fixture in the psychoanalytic community worldwide. She did not write her first psychoanalytic paper until her late 40s and wasn’t in her prime until her 50s and 60s. Looking back, it’s interesting that I, as a young woman, had an interest in middle adulthood. I must have known at some level that the freedom for great creativity often comes later in life, especially for women. Of course, this is part of what I find now in myself and many of my clients who are my age!
What is your next act?
My next act, in my view, is my best one yet. I have now transitioned into being a consultant and performance coach to competitive equestrians and their families. I launched my newest business, Leg Up Performance Coaching in 2018 at the age of 55. I have combined my lifelong love of horses and the equestrian sports with many years of clinical and consulting work to provide tools and perspective for riders to navigate the complex equestrian world. My overall goal is to elevate the horse community—to educate, inform, and empower riders and owners with the information and tools to help them reclaim the joy in their sport—all of which results in improved performance and greater well-being in and out of the show ring.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was hard to take the plunge but not as hard as sitting on the sidelines. I have felt for a long time that I have a lot to offer to parents, riders, and our whole community. I started writing blogs, helping people casually, and then decided I needed to make it real.
How did you prepare?
I talked with lots of people in the equestrian world about my idea and got good feedback. I also worked with story coach Katherine Kennedy for a year, crafting the idea, my story, and my plan. Designer Katie Monkhouse was able to take my thoughts and mold them into a website that looks and feels like me. I continue to get help in developing my programs, branding, and marketing from Ashley Matchett Woods. I’m a firm believer in getting help from trusted resources!
How supportive were your family and friends?
Everyone has been super supportive, saying that my new role is a perfect fit for my talents, experience, and passions. I am truly grateful for everyone’s encouragement and help.
What challenges are you encountering?
The biggest challenge is myself! Like many women, I can be self-critical and perfectionistic. I have to remind myself that I don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time—it’s a process. When I counsel myself the way I would a client, I’m kinder and much more effective.
I also have to say that it’s very hard balancing the needs of teens (I have three), elderly and ailing parents, and my own life. I know that currently many people talk about the sandwich generation and that is very real. I have to be very deliberate about my work time; good boundaries are essential if I’m going to thrive—both professionally and personally.
Practically, the marketing part is hard for me. I’m not great at sales, and I’m a social media dinosaur. But I’m learning every day. And I have had terrific people helping me along the way.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have been reminded that I wrestle with fear and self-doubt every day, but that can’t stop me from moving forward. It’s similar to wrestling with fear as one approaches a jumping round—utilize that anxiety rather than be paralyzed by it. My perspective on fear is: embrace it, use it, and take a step forward. I have developed a program on fear since it’s the number one issue among my clients—both in and out of the saddle.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Well, I wish I had put the horses back into my life sooner; perhaps I would have transitioned into this field years ago. It’s been on my radar for ten or more years but there were always other things that came first and reasons in my mind why it wasn’t the right time to start something new.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife or thinking about getting into your field?
Stop thinking about what could go wrong and take the plunge. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s what you don’t try that you will regret—not what you do try.
If you’re thinking about entering my field, or making a midlife transition, come talk to me! I’m happy to talk about my experience and path and be helpful in any way.
Also, as I mentioned before—get help! There are so many women who make career and life transitions and so much support out there. There is no need to go it alone.
What resources do you recommend?
I am happy to be a resource for those entering my field, the field of psychology, or transitioning in midlife.
Favorite Coaching Books:
How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life by Dr. Bob Rotella
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck
Favorite Book about the power of the kinship of women:
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Nobody Told Me (Jan Black and Laura Owens)
What’s next for you?
I will be writing a regular column for the website Street to Stable and also publishing my blog regularly. I recently gave my talk “Fear No Fear” at Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center and have plans to give similar talks at other stables. I’m becoming involved in our national governing body and also plan to finish my training to become a USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) judge. I hope to become a spokesperson and advocate for owners and riders on a national level. My goal is to help make this sport more accessible, more accountable, and more visible to the general public.