Senior dressage riders share their strategies for success
By Penny Hawes and Anne Gribbons
Reprinted from the March 2018 USDF Connection
When the pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem famously said, “This is what forty looks like,” she had no way of knowing that the age bar would continue to rise steadily over the next several decades. Today, nearly 45 years after the Ms. magazine founder’s pronouncement, 70 is the new 60 or even the new 50—and dressage riders are among those most eager to keep going for as long as they can.
When the USDF introduced its Vintage Cup awards in 1986 for riders aged 50 and older, there weren’t a lot of 70s, either on the test sheets or in the saddle. Nowadays, there are so many members earning gold medals and other awards at advanced ages that the USDF has stopped touting “oldest-ever member” success stories because the records just keep getting broken.
While many dressage enthusiasts stay in the saddle long into their retirement years, injuries and infirmities force others to hang up their spurs. USDF Connection wondered whether there are any common threads to the success stories. We talked to seven active senior riders—four amateurs and three famous pros—to find out.
Success Strategy #1: Staying Active
Dressage riders obviously enjoy physical activity, but nearly all the seniors we interviewed exercise out of the saddle, as well.
Former USDF Region 8 director Fern Feldman, of Cheshire, CT, doesn’t need to attend USDF conventions any more, but when she did she was a fixture in the hotel gym, getting in early-morning workouts before the long days of meetings. Feldman, 75, an adult amateur who earned her USDF gold medal in 2012 at the age of 69, still rides nearly every day. She is also a skier and a runner who has competed in 5Ks and a few half-marathons.
Amateur riders Michelle King and John Boyle both embrace Pilates. King, 65, of Purcellville, VA, a US Equestrian “r” dressage technical delegate and the Region 1 USDF Technical Delegates Committee representative, was walking and doing water aerobics to supplement her saddle time—but her instructor, Virginia-based dressage pro and former USDF Region 1 director Alison Head, said that King was “just getting stronger in my crookedness.”
King added Pilates to her fitness regimen and now does two or three sessions a week. “Pilates is the dressage of exercises. It’s very precise and requires specific use of muscles and movement. It totally benefits your riding and really parallels dressage.”
“It’s really incredible—good for stretching, and great for your core,” says Boyle, 71, of Landrum, SC. He, too, works with a Pilates instructor two or three times a week.
A former eventer and hunter/jumper rider, Boyle credits his fitness to an active lifestyle. “We live out in the country, so the dogs get walked, the horses get ridden. Pretty much working on the farm, riding, or getting out walking the dogs—those are things I like.”
Amateur rider Deryn Stewart, of Ponca City, OK, became one of those “oldest-ever USDF members” when in 2016 she earned her USDF gold medal at the age of 73. A self-described strong rider, Stewart says of her fitness routine: “I like walking, but riding is my thing. I don’t really do anything else.”
If you’re of Vintage Cup awards age, make sure you’re healthy and fit enough to continue to ride. See “Take Good Care: Health Advice for Senior Riders” on the facing page for a gerontologist’s advice.
Success Strategy #2: Embracing Dressage
Their passion for horses and riding—whether lifelong, acquired in midlife, or rediscovered after years out of the saddle—spurs older dressage enthusiasts to keep going. Some find their later years more conducive to riding and horse ownership, with more time to spare and more disposable income, and they’re loath to give up their long-awaited dream.
Feldman was one who had to bide her time. She took weekly walk-trot lessons at age 11 but didn’t sit on a horse again until she was 45. At that point she’d lost interest in the idea of jumping and gravitated to dressage, she says.
Another who never let go of the dream was King, who “grew up loving animals in a family that did not” and rode Western at summer camp and a local stable as a child. She didn’t put a foot in the stirrup again until the summer before college, when she was able to take lessons in order to satisfy the school’s phys-ed requirement. Regular riding still eluded her, however, until after finishing law school she met some equestrians who rode in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. King took some lessons, went on a trail ride, and “a few years later I bought my first horse and never looked back.” Now retired, she rides four or five times a week.
Boyle didn’t ride as a child, but watching the steeplechasers at the Tryon (NC) Block House Races captured his imagination. He took some riding lessons, and “the bug bit.” After eventing for a spell he found he loved riding jumpers, but the fun came at a price.
Boyle suffered a few “life-altering accidents,” including a broken femur and what he describes as a blown-out carotid artery. Seven years ago, “My wife looked at me and said I had two life choices, and both begin with D: divorce or dressage.” So “the jumper and I had to learn to become a dressage horse and rider.” He quips: “Someone once told me that the object of riding is to keep one leg on each side of the horse. That’s much easier to do in dressage than jumpers.”
The only one of our adult amateurs to have ridden all her life is Stewart, who as a child growing up in Canada rode Western and barrel-raced. “When we moved down here [to Oklahoma], I was 21 and still running barrels and riding reining horses. Then I rode hunter/jumpers, and then dressage started in this part of the country. I’m a charter member of the Oklahoma Dressage Society. There wasn’t even dressage here when I moved here, so I’ve seen how it has evolved.”
Success Strategy #3: Keeping the Brain Engaged
Forget the stereotype of the bored retiree who watches TV all day. Our dressage-riding seniors use their minds as well as their bodies. All say they’re avid readers, for starters.
After she retired, King earned her US Equestrian technical delegate’s license. In her work as a TD, she says, she’s found herself putting her legal and mediation training to good use.
“There’s a huge mental aspect to being a TD,” King says. “The rule book is not the epitome of simplicity.”
Many equestrians enjoy giving back to the horses and the sport they love through volunteering, and midlife and beyond can be optimal times for doing so. As a former USDF regional director, Feldman is no stranger to volunteering. Even though she’s no longer on the USDF Executive Board, she remains an active volunteer, lately focusing much of her energy on Olympian Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids programs.
The sport of dressage itself, Boyle has found, provides considerable mental training. “Memorizing the tests is easier when you understand the logic—what you’re doing and why, and the progression of each test. The challenges of remembering are mostly nerves before you step in the ring.”
And, of course, there are the mental-health benefits most horse lovers know and love. “When you ride it clears your mind, just like going to an analyst,” says Stewart. “You’re thinking only of the horse, and that’s very healthy.”
Boyle concurs. “As you get older, life presents its own pressures and responsibilities, but riding is a great stress reliever. It’s nice going into the barn in the evening and hearing the horses munching on their hay. It’s nice to spend a little time grooming them or whatever you want, whether that’s picking manure out of the pasture, grooming, or going for a little walk. It’s enjoyable to be with them. They’re incredible animals.”
Success Strategy #4: Choosing the Right Horse
You don’t bounce the way you used to, and your joints and muscles may not take so kindly any more to riding a huge mover. Be realistic about any physical limitations, and find a mount that makes you look forward to your saddle time, not intimidated or fearful, older riders advise.
“My biggest piece of advice,” says Stewart, “is to get the right horse. That is so important. It doesn’t have to be an expensive horse; it doesn’t have to be a big horse; but the temperament can’t clash. If it does, don’t be afraid to move on.”
(Not that Stewart herself is looking to “trade down,” mind you: “I think my riding’s done nothing but improve and that I’m a better rider now than I ever was. I’m still a strong rider, and I still like a horse with a lot of challenges. Now I’m working with a horse who’s the biggest challenge of any horse I’ve ever had, but I just love it.”)
Boyle’s first dressage horse, Suzetta K, is a “great mare” who was his daughter’s jumper before she married. He’s also excited about his new horse, Superman, purchased last August: “We’re formulating a new partnership, and my goal is to earn the USDF bronze medal by the end of the year.”
Feldman says that having “appropriate and wonderful horses” has played a big part in her riding journey. A sport-pony enthusiast who owns two Connemaras, the petite Feldman joins in encouraging other riders to find mounts that fit them, both physically and in temperament.
Success Strategy #5: Setting Goals and Continuing to Learn
The senior riders we talked to put a new spin on the old saw about riding off into the sunset. They intend to stay in the saddle for as long as they can, and they want to continue learning and improving their dressage skills.
King believes that it’s important to do exercises outside of riding that “directly translate into keeping your body strong and supple to ride. Try to keep riding regularly, and set goals that are realistic to your situation. Make them incremental goals, and make them achievable. If I can achieve a square halt, I’m happy.”
These “vintage” equestrians agree that the physical and mental challenges of dressage have helped them remain fit, active, and engaged. There’s truth to the famous quote “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,” Boyle says.
“It’s been a great adventure and a great life.”
Penny Hawes is a writer, rider, and chronic volunteer from Virginia. You can catch her blogging at thehorseylife.com/DF.
USDF Connection editorial advisor Anne Gribbons is an FEI 5* dressage judge; a former US national dressage technical advisor; and an international competitor, trainer, and coach. She is a popular Chronicle of the Horse columnist, and selected columns were compiled into her 2014 book, Collective Remarks. Gribbons, of Chuluota, FL, will serve as the head of the ground jury at this year’s FEI World Equestrian Games dressage competition in Tryon, NC.
Elite Senior Rider Profile: Christilot Hanson Boylen
As told to Anne Gribbons
I started riding when I was about 10. I rode in my first Olympics at age 17 (with special permission) in Tokyo in 1964, and went on with very few breaks until now, so that’s 53 competitive years.
I’ve ridden in six Olympic Games and the 1980 alternate Olympics, and in four Pan American Games, including three individual gold medals. I rode about 12 “made” Grand Prix horses and have produced about 15 more, as well as a number of small-tour horses.
I have been extremely blessed my whole life with a good, strong athletic body, which I take pains to maintain. Except for a recent bout with breast cancer, I have had no major issues. I am aware that it could have been otherwise! I was blessed with a mother who was a dancer, and I spent many years helping her in classes. This background was a huge asset in learning dressage, and over the years I have tried to do 15 to 20 minutes of stretching and strengthening of the core every morning before I ride. As I get older, I really feel the need to do this daily. I try to eat well, take a vitamin supplement, and swear by a magnesium supplement daily.
Now that I am older, I must pace myself; I can’t ride eight horses a day any more, nor do I want to. And I stay away from the larger, bulkier horses that are physically too much for me. Height in a horse is not a problem, but wideness and heaviness are not for me.
In some ways, my life is easier now. I have cut down on the number of horses, but I still find tremendous satisfaction in teaching my pupils, and I really enjoy my riding and training of the few horses entrusted to me. One of the pleasures in my life is also having some seriously talented riders who can absorb and carry on the training methods I was taught.
Equestrianism is a way of life. The pursuit of excellence has allowed me to see and meet some of the finest people I would ever hope to meet, in many countries around the world. And the horses! What a gift to be able to say you work with these magnificent animals!
Would I do it over again? In a heartbeat!
Canadian Christilot Hanson Boylen, 70, studied under dressage masters including Willi Schultheis, Georg Theodorescu, Albert Stecken, and Udo Lange. On such mounts as Gaspano, Biraldo, Walldorf, and Bonheur, she won major international titles in Europe and North America in addition to her Olympic and Pan Am Games achievements. Now based in Wellington, FL, she is a well-known trainer who coached Canadians Belinda Trussell and Megan Lane at the 2015 Pan Am Games and the 2016 Olympics.
Elite Senior Rider Profile: Michael Poulin
As told to Anne Gribbons
I started riding when I was 10 with a teacher who was a student of James Fillis. I worked many years with Franz Rochowansky from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. I’ve been competing in dressage for around 62 years. I love the horses and the pressure of competing.
I was a ballet dancer and a karate instructor for many years, but my body won’t let me do those things any more. Today my body doesn’t want to keep up with my mind; that’s the only thing that makes me slower.
I don’t do anything special to stay fit. I watch what I eat and do lots of stretching. I don’t take any special nutritional supplements other than the medications I need for my health.
There are advantages to being an older rider and trainer: lots of wisdom and understanding, greater respect for the horse, and having to take more time to do it more correctly than I did when I was young. I try to train at the speed of the horse’s acceptance and not at the speed of competition.
My horses have been my greatest teachers. I’m the most happy when I’m with a horse.
What would make me stop riding is death.
Michael Poulin, 72, was a member of the bronze-medal-winning 1992 US Olympic dressage team, riding Graf George, a horse he trained. He has developed numerous other horses to the Grand Prix level, including Watch Me, Lighten Up Jack, and Duke of Earl. Among his best-known students are fellow 1992 Olympian Carol Lavell and his own daughters, Gwen and Kate. In 2012 Poulin was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame; Graf George was inducted in 2000. With his wife, Sharon, Poulin owns and operates The Dressage Center in DeLeon Springs, FL.
Listen to an interview with senior rider Janne Rumbough on episode 73. Listen to it here.