What’s Too Old?


Thoughts for my fellow silver saddle riders.

By Sally O’Dwyer

Can you feel me? I am a 63-year-old, and sometimes I worry that the time is approaching when I will no longer be able to ride.  I can go into a panic looking at the dressage training pyramid, thinking that I will age out before I reach my goals. Whenever I run into a roadblock, am sidelined, or discover another hole in my training, I feel the sands of time running out. My inner critic floods my brain with senior-life crisis talk, telling me that I’m a laughable old codger with gray hair and old bones.

Yes, no need to tell me that these thoughts aren’t helpful.  So, I have been reflecting and doing a bit of self-therapy on myself…Here is what I am working on! 

We older riders can chose to:

  1. Pout, wring our hands, freak out, cry, watch the clock, catastrophize, lose confidence in ourselves, and worry.
  2. Embrace who we are, live in the moment, and know that we can choose how we age.  
  3. Fail to acknowledge we are indeed older riders, ignoring our bodies and abilities, which can cause us to make bad decisions and maybe put us in harm’s way.

I’m going to go with “B.” 

Get perspective:

There is no time machine, so we need to accept who we are.  Any shrink worth their salt will tell you that living in denial or fear of the future is not really living. The truth is no one, young or old, knows where they will be 10 or 20 years from now. 

Age Discrimination is illegal so stop violating the LAW!  Legally, we must love our senior selves. 

Older riders are breaking all kinds of barriers. Mary Hanna, of the Australian Dressage team, at the tender age of 66, was the oldest participant in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We have amateurs and professionals riding in their 70s and 80s.  And don’t forget the Queen, who rode in her 90s.

We are in excellent company:

Hilda Guerney  1943
Debbie McDonald  1954
Jan Ebeling  1958
Monica Thodorescu  1963
Steffen Peters  1964
Carl Hester 1967
Anky Van Grunsven  1968
Ingrid Klimke1968
Isabel Werth  born in 1969
Juan Manuel Monoz Diaz  1969
Dorothee Schnieder 1969
Edward Gal  1970

The US is experiencing an unprecedented boom in the population ages 65 and older.   The number of people reaching 100 years in age is way up.

According to the latest statistics on equestrians, 41% of riders are over 40 years old, and the biggest jump in percentages are those who are 60 and older. Many of the top riders and trainers in the world are seniors!  These riders are out there in the limelight, dominating, and living big dressage lives. 

Dressage riders age well.

  • We are usually better off financially. We may have some cash accumulated that we can use to pay for our passion.
  • We have freedom to focus on riding. Because we have finished our formal education, the kids have flown the coop, and we aren’t consumed with busy careers. 
  • We are like fine wine, aged to perfection. We better understand ourselves, are more attuned, objective, wise, experienced, and patient. We have already gone through our young and dumb years.  Now that we have been there and done that, we have a better handle on who we are.  And, for us, the little things don’t matter as much.
  • We CAN learn new tricks.  Maturity increases the ability to learn in many ways—we are more objective, have highly developed analytical, inductive, intuitive, and critical thinking skills. The more we learn, the better our brain’s function because learning strengthens the pathways in the brain.  We are less likely to rush to judgment and we are better problem solvers than younger people. Studies show the older folks are usually less negative and overall, more content.
  • Dressage is a great discipline for us.  We embrace its intricacies, theory, and while stamina and fitness are needed, brute strength is not required. Be glad we are not football players or gymnasts, where you are finished (usually) by 30.

Anticipatory anxiety is the fear of the future. Don’t fail to thrive in the now. We can take charge by working on being our best.  (Photo of Beth Geier and Matador.  She earned her silver medal at age 70)

Here are some suggestions:

Practice safety.  Along with the fact that we don’t bounce like we used to, we don’t heal as fast as we used to.  We are stiffer, not as quick, or athletic as our younger colleagues.  Our balance is not as good as it once was. This may cause us to be more fearful than we would like.  Our abilities decline slowly over the years, which means we might not realize it.

Ride with a trainer that considers safety a top priority.  Your trainer must have your best interest in mind and be willing to step-in if they feel you may be in danger, either on or off the horse. Don’t let anyone push you to do more than you are comfortable with.  If your gut tells you that you’re about to attempt something risky, STOP.  It’s not worth it.

Stick with steady Eddies. There is no such thing as a bomb proof horse as they are flight animals, and they can bolt unexpectedly. Many injuries occur due to spooking and riding green horses.  A younger horse doesn’t have the experience that an older, more reliable horse has.  Avoid horses with training issues—leave that to younger, more qualified individuals.

Most equestrian injuries are fractures and concussions.  Studies show that caution and putting safety first make many accidents preventable, and wearing a helmet reduces the risk of brain injury by 50%.   A study called “Horse-related Incidents and Factors for Predicting Injuries to the Head” reported that age was significantly associated with head injury, and older riders more likely to suffer a head injury. Make sure your helmet is certifiedASTM F1163 or better and change it out at least every five years. Make sure it fits well and buckle it up, every time. Check your tack before mounting and try not to ride alone.

Stay healthy.  See yourself as the athlete you are and honor that. Join a gym, take some fitness classes because you deserve it.  They have great phone apps now that offer work outs and even fitness-based dance classes. Exercising is great for your brain. Stay active, maintain a healthy weight, and have decent cardio.  Set a goal to exercise regularly, focusing on maintaining a strong core and balance.  Practice healthy eating, watching sugar and alcohol intake.

Stefan Peter says that he hits the gym 5 days a week. Be like Stefan.

Challenge your brain—how about crosswords, wordle, reading, studying dressage (of course) and socializing?  USDF has a robust online education program at https://www.usdf.org/education/university/  Create your own dressage library and read—you can buy all the greats on thriftbooks.com for just a few dollars.  Speaking of great reads, you might like Fran Severn’s new book, “Riders of a Certain Age.”

Say “hi ho” to your silver and ride! Riding helps us physically, gets our heart rate going, and improves respiration and balance.  We must multitask and coordinate the movements of our bodies, which boosts concentration. – and all this can be done by people with hip and knee replacements, arthritis, surgeries and more! Ride regularly so you don’t lose your muscles and fitness.

Practice gratitude: Be thankful for every day we can ride, that we are living the best years of our lives, that we continue to learn, and that we can choose how we age.

Build community and make friends. Retirees are at risk of becoming isolated.  Take initiative and do what you can to build community because everybody benefits, not just you. Making friends and staying connected takes work—so do the work. Reach out, pick up the phone, organize barn get togethers, happy hours, and go to clinics and events. Watch other people’s lessons, go to the shows and be there to say, nice ride!

Please get involved in your local dressage association-(GMO). They need you.  You probably have just the experience, skills, gifts, talents, and time they need. Make friends with fellow equestrians of a certain age as well as the younger folk. When we share a passion, age really doesn’t matter. 

Give back.  See yourself as a senior states person for your sport.  Giving has great rewards. What can you do for your sport? Are you able to donate financially? Sponsor a class? Mentor a younger rider? Serve? How about becoming a TD or a judge?

Mary Stack at age 77—a member of the Century Club

Get recognized: Show the equestrian community what seniors are achieving.  The Dressage Foundation recognizes dressage riders and horses whose combined ages total 100 years or more. https://www.dressagefoundation.org/grants-and-programs/century-club/about.html

USDF offers the Master’s Challenge Awards. Theseawards recognize riders aged 60 and over, spanning each level, Training through Fourth and FEI. To apply, riders need to apply before the deadline, confirm their scores on USDFScores.com to see if they met the score requirements. For more info click here: https://www.usdf.org/online-services/applications/rider-performance-award.asp

We cannot how we will feel when we reach that day when we decide to stop riding.  Maybe that day will never come.  We must not project how we will feel about riding today onto our future selves. When I think back to when I was a kid, the days lasted forever, and we had all the time in the world. Now that we are older, living in our golden years, we appreciate more the time we spend in the barn.   This time is sacred, sweeter, and glorious than in my younger days.  Perhaps its right now that we are having the time of our lives.

Study cited:

Horse-related incidents and factors for predicting injuries to the head https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6109796/

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