Challenges & Rewards for Older Riders

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Bert Blikslager and his Century Club ride. The combined age of rider and horse is at 100 years old! (Rebekah Van Goor photo)

By Nancy Stone

My husband’s kiss on my cheek, my morning alarm clock, gently wakes me from the warm depths of our down comforter.  My stiff joints and achy muscles complain as I get out of bed and stretch.  The kitchen is warm and cozy, but the hall thermostat says 28 degrees out, another cold winter morning, and I decide to cancel my plans to ride.  I dislike the freezing rain and gray days of North Carolina winters.  Instead of driving to the barn and fumbling to bridle my horse with frozen fingers, I make myself a cup of hot tea and start to write this article.   As an older rider, age 58, with a long “to do list” of responsibilities, it is sometimes easy to let the weather and my aching body prevent me from driving to the barn to ride my horse.                     

George Baker and Captain. This photo was taken in the late 80’s, the author’s grandfather, in his 70’s, with one of his favorite horses, a 17-hand Tennessee Walker. George passed along his passion for horses to troubled youth, providing them with them healthy connections and life skills.

There are challenges to being a senior rider.  One of the most obvious is our aging bodies that lack the flexibility, muscular strength, and the sheer imperviousness to pain of our youth.  In the horse world, riders often joke that we take better care of our horse’s physical health than we do ourselves.  And while it is true, that when I was younger, I could neglect my physical health without obvious side effects, and I usually bounced back on the horse after bouncing off, as a senior rider, I can no longer afford to be so cavalier about my body and bouncing ability.  Senior riders may also carry their mental stresses with them to the barn, the worries about finances, health, young adult children living at home, caring for aging parents, or worries about planning their own retirement.  Stress can translate into negative physical tension, which can cause actual pain in the body.  I have experienced this negative tension of body and mind that is the adversary of good riding.  Senior riders, like myself, may sometimes feel conflicted between the desire to fulfill a childhood dream and the reality of whether there are the resources of time and money to devote to their dream.

Janice Ramsey and Winter’s Phantom, age 16.  At age 60, Janice’s passion is to spend time with her 3 horses. When she is not at the barn, she likes painting and gardening.

I believe it is vital for senior riders to put themselves on the backs of safe horses and in the hands of good instructors.  I know too many stories of amateurs determined to stick it out with the wrong horse partner.  I had an epiphany regarding my personal safety years ago riding a talented and difficult horse.  The horse reared and our heads collided; thankfully, I had my helmet on.  However, as I lay dazed in the arena dirt, picturing my two young daughters in the house with their babysitter, I realized with clarity that I could not afford to be injured.  Now when I see other women my age struggling to sit big movers and hanging on the reins or fearful to take their horse out of the arena for a hack, I am thankful for my 15 hand, 20-year-old Lusitano.  I know that if I were to be injured, it would be a long road to recovery that I don’t want to take if I can avoid it.  There is not a perfectly safe horse, but there are safer horses and environments.  There are horses with easier gaits to sit and horses that want to get along rather than challenge you.    You might think you want that brand new, sparkly, long-legged dressage horse, but in fact, that shorter, calm, slightly tarnished older model might be a better fit to ride down centerline. 

Laura Winter and Rian owned by Jennifer Aronson (Laura leases him 2 days a week).  Almost 58 years old, Laura started riding at age 50.  Her passion is to ride and spend time with horses.  She loves the process of building a connection and feels time on the ground is just as meaningful as time in the saddle.  Under the guidance of her instructor, Kris Barrett, she has persevered to keep riding despite health setbacks and the retirement of her beloved horse Sammy.

Senior riders also need to take care of their bodies.  An old horseman once told me a story about dealing with pain:  there was an old golfer who played a round with a young man.  The young man complained the entire time about his aching back.  At the end, they sat down and changed their shoes. When the old man pulled off his golf shoe, a small rock fell out.  The young man was dumbfounded that the old man had walked on it the entire time and never noticed.  The old man said, “Son, if I paid attention to every ache and pain in my body, I would never get out of bed in the morning.”  And some mornings, that feels true to me.  However, if I want to keep riding and be a good rider, I cannot afford to ignore my body.  We need physical activities and therapies off the horse that support what we ask of our bodies on the horse.    An instructor advised me to see a chiropractor years ago when I was struggling with sciatic nerve pain.  The effect was evident in my riding as I had difficulty getting and maintaining the right lead canter.  After months of regular adjustments, years of crookedness and pain were resolved, and I became a happier and more effective rider.   I started doing Pilates in my 50’s, which has also helped my riding; I am able to sit trot for longer intervals at a time and ride the longer and more difficult canter tours in upper-level tests.  I strengthened my core, gained postural alignment and balance, and increased my flexibility.  Massage and bodywork therapy are not just luxuries; they can really help the senior body by targeting specific areas of muscle and fascia that need release.  I recently discovered sports stretching, which feels amazing.  My body feels longer and lighter after a session.  And finally, it is important to have other activities off the horse that are not stressful on your joints and help with cardiovascular fitness, like swimming and walking.  These are just some of the activities and therapies that can help you as a rider and help your body recover from riding.                                                   

Adrienne Wisenberg and her (late) mare Shantal Rox. Adrienne was 55 when she got to show Grand Prix before Shantal Rox died in 2019. Adrienne credits her diet and fitness program with her weight loss and success as a Grand Prix rider.  (High Time Photography)
Karen Hahn and Ribbons and Roses. At age 60, Karen describes herself as attached to her horse Rose.  Horses are her passion and her life. Her goal is to her earn her USDF Bronze with the help of her trainer, Courtney Vesel. (Geri Messinger photo)

Whether you are continuing to ride into your senior years or are just starting on the journey, there are many physical and mental benefits to riding.  The physical activity itself helps keep our bodies in shape and all our parts working longer.  Riding can help you maintain joint mobility and develop core strength.  Learning a new skill or continuing to become more proficient in one keeps our minds engaged and sharp.  I learn new exercises, memorize dressage tests, and continue my education through books and videos.  Riding is not just a physical sport; it is also a mental workout.  A particularly good lesson is one in which my instructor engages my brain so completely that I become unaware of all the outside distractions, so when I walk back to the barn with my horse I am refreshed and mentally wiped clean.  Spending time at the barn is also a relief from the daily stresses of my life.  It is there I enjoy the camaraderie of fellow equestrians, providing me social interactions and the warmth of belonging to a community.

Bonita Finan and Magic. Bonita turned 60 this year and Magic is a 10-year-old Andalusian. Bonita is a dressage rider and avid trail rider; Bonita and Magic explore the Florida trails and find beauty and peace along the way.

If you are a senior dressage rider and decide to venture down centerline, USDF has awards to help motivate you at every level.  Although, I confess, I forgot to declare my eligibility (turning 50 years old) for the Adequan®/USDF Vintage Cup Awards and missed out on years of potential recognition.  At age 57 and riding Intermediate I, I finally declared my vintage status and proudly printed out my 2020 Vintage Cup Award, in 23rd place.  Soon, I will be eligible for the USDF Master’s Challenge Awards and I am putting a reminder on my 60th birthday to declare my status! 

However, this gray cold winter morning, the benefits of riding, and the anticipation of riding down centerline again, is overshadowed by the current aches of my body and the weather.  So, I lingered inside with an extra cup of hot tea to work on this article.  As I wrote, I was reminded that when I go to the barn today, I will inhale the smells and sounds of horses contentedly munching on hay.  My horse will hear my voice and poke his head out to greet me as I walk down the barn aisle.  I will chat with friends while we groom our horses.  And after riding, my body will feel good from the exercise and fresh air, my brain will be refreshed, and I will feel emotionally balanced. 

May you fulfill your childhood dream and start riding, or keep on riding well into your senior years, keeping your body and mind young doing something you love.  See you at the barn!

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