Aging isn’t all bad. The old saying about older and wiser is actually true, and the wiser you are, the more you can set yourself up to enjoy the later years of your life.
For those of us older-and-wiser types who love horses, that means continuing to ride. We’re fortunate in that the benefits of our favored activity–companionship, exercise, fresh air and sunshine, a feeling of accomplishment–are on every expert’s list of stay-young prescriptions. So, in that sense, staying in the saddle is just good for you in general.
But it’s also true that riding presents challenges that can become barriers if you don’t take steps to deal with them as you age. In this article, we’re going to help you face those challenges. First, we’ll define the overall goals most common for riders “of a certain age.” Then, we’ll present various strategies that will help you achieve those goals. Bottom line? We want you to be able to keep on doing what you love–that is, riding and enjoying the horse life–throughout middle age and beyond.
Changing Wants, Needs
What we want out of our horse lives shifts subtly, but significantly, as we age through our middle years. Specifically, we need riding to be:
- Fun. Whereas this may’ve been a given when we were younger, now we must make sure riding remains enjoyable, rather than stressful or overwhelming.
- Safe. Here’s where that wisdom of age comes into play, because we’re now much less likely to take unnecessary risks than we once were. If you have children, you may’ve noticed a more conservative approach emerging when you became a parent for the first time. For those in the grandparent stage of life, avoiding injuries that may now take longer to heal is more important than ever.
- Comfortable. We want our time in the saddle to be pain free, and we’d prefer to suffer as little soreness afterward as possible.
- Doable. Though we may be approaching retirement (or already there), we’ve still got a lot on our plates, including family commitments. We need horse activities to fit smoothly into our weekly schedules, and we may also need special accommodations in order to be physically able to ride.
- Rewarding. Here, we’re talking the satisfaction of achievement. The competitive aims we had when younger may no longer be relevant, but we feel an ongoing need to keep challenging ourselves and advancing in our horsemanship.
All the above are what we’re after as midlife-and-after riders; what follows are some strategies to help you achieve these goals.
Six Defy-Your-Age Strategie
#1 Be Fit, Strong, Flexible
To address: Safety, comfort, doability
This is the biggie in terms of defying your age. As the experts will tell you, there is a fountain of youth…it’s called move your body. When we were young, being strong and flexible enough to ride a horse was a given; that level of physicality is still attainable at midlife, but we must work for it–although not as hard as you might think.
“What we’re talking about here is ‘serviceable fitness,’ sort of analogous to serviceable soundness in horses,” explains Katie Phalen, a longtime riding instructor in Clarksville, Md. “You need just a basic level of physical fitness for balance and effectiveness in the saddle, and to keep yourself safe.”
So what must you do to achieve this basic level? A bottom-line ideal is 30 minutes of aerobic activity (enough to cause you to break a sweat) on most days, plus 10 to 15 minutes of strength and flexibility work on two or three days per week.
If you can’t manage 30 minutes daily, start with five or 10 minutes and work up as you begin to notice results and develop a habit. Contrary to what experts used to tell us, all physical activity of any duration counts, so any amount you do will start moving you toward your goal.
Walking briskly is excellent aerobic exercise; if the weather precludes walking, use a stationary bike or climb the stairs in your home for an equivalent period. Your goal over time is to get your resting heart rate down to about 60 beats per minute (or, for easy measurement, 15 beats in 15 seconds). This will improve your endurance, as a slower pulse means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to get the job done. (If you’ve not exercised before, do ask for your doctor’s OK before initiating a program.)
So, getting the heart beating is one part, and for the others–strength and flexibility work
The key, of course, is to modify routines so they’ll work for you and you can remain faithful to them. When you do, you’ll be amazed at how much more youthful and active–and ready to ride–you’ll feel. And those age-related aches and pains? Greatly reduced–or gone.
“What’s made a huge difference for me is returning to yoga,” says Debbie Moors, a Berthoud, Colo., pleasure rider who’s successfully managing old injuries in her knees and foot arches, plus new tenderness from bursitis in a shoulder and tendonitis in an elbow. “A 20-minute practice early in the morning means I’m not hobbling as I was before. I’m able to go out to the barn and be active.”
Of course, the other part of the fitness equation is healthful eating, which is simply consuming an appropriate number of nutrient-rich calories for your level of activity. Nothing new here–just eat real food in moderate amounts, and skip the junk.
Specifically, put your emphasis on vegetables, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, and lean meats, while voiding empty carbohydrates such as white bread and sweets (including that barn area staple, soda).
When you get in shape to ride, you earn overall life-enhancing bonus points, too. Increased endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance pay huge dividends as you age by building up your heart and protecting you from the injuries (notably hip fractures) that can quickly lead to frailty and declining health.
#2. Rethink Your Horizons
To address: Fun, safety, doability, achievement
The riding-achievement goals you once had likely no longer suit you, and that’s natural. So change them.
“I was gutsy and competitive in my 20s and 30s,” says Sue Pearson Atkinson, a pleasure rider in Shingle Springs, Calif. “In my 40s and 50s–and now in my 60s–I want riding to be fun and safe, period. Plus, I’ve discovered that the older I get, the more interested I am in the relationship/partnership with my horse. I love the challenge of learning more about this.”
Indeed, acquiring natural horsemanship skills is a favored new goal for midlife riders, and educational opportunities for this abound in magazines (such as this one), books and DVDs (check out HorseBooksEtc.com) and at clinics (look online and inquire at local retail outlets for what’s happening in your area).
Trail riding is another popular midlife activity, either informally with friends or as part of the low-pressure competitive opportunities offered by a growing crop of groups, including the American Competitive Trail Horse Association (actha.com).
An important part of setting and meeting new goals is working with a pro. An instructor who understands everything you’re dealing with (from physical limitations and time constraints to prior experience and fear issues) can help you decide where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. This keeps your riding sessions productive and enjoyable.
“Get a good coach who can encourage, challenge, and inspire you,” says Paula Zdenek, whose Whispering Hope Equine Training Center in Placerville, California, deals with many midlife clients. “He or she can help you focus on what you’re capable of, and improve that to its fullest extent.”
“This will require commitment on your part,” Zdenek adds. “Consistency is important, so schedule your lessons on your calendar and make them a priority the way you would any other appointment.”
#3. Ride the Right Horse
To address: Fun, safety, comfort, doability, achievement
Note that this particular strategy addresses every one of our midlife goals–that’s how important riding the right horse is. You can’t have fun if your horse intimidates you, or be safe if he’s hard to control, or be comfortable if he bucks you off, and…you get the idea.
“I can’t ride the same horse I did in my 20s and 30s,” observes Mary Watts, a pleasure rider and trail enthusiast from Wagener, S.C. “I want any horse I ride now to be safer, smarter, slower, and sounder.”
This requirement can be tough, however, if the horse you have and love now turns out not to be the one you need at this point in your life. If so, “you need the wisdom to sell or switch horses,” insists Shelly Mix, a barrel-racing enthusiast from Harrisburg, Pa. “A reliable horse at this stage of life means no fights, whether on the ground or in the saddle.”
If you do find yourself seeking a new horse, don’t discriminate against one with a little age; for your purposes, older can be better, anyway.
“We more mature riders appreciate the stability and wisdom an older horse offers,” says Steve Price, a New York City horseman who’s been riding for almost 60 years. “Though nothing in life is certain, entering into a partnership with a horse that’s seen and done it all is as close as you can come to an insurance policy.”
Alternatives to buying if you do need a new mount are share-leasing a friend’s horse, or riding lesson horses at a barn that has them.
#4. Get in (the Right) Gear
To address: Safety, comfort, doability
Items that may prove helpful to midlife riders:
- Extra-cushioning saddle pad. It will reduce jarring to your lower back, plus help your horse stay comfortable under you.
- Tush cushion. This extra pad for the seat of your saddle can provide an even more comfortable, cushioned ride.
- Helmet. Aging is hard enough on your gray matter; protect it from injury in the event of a mishap or fall.
- Crop and/or spurs. Though you may not have needed them before, these tools may be handy in midlife and beyond, depending on your horse. “Learn how to use them to compensate for loss of strength in your seat and legs,” suggests Patty Brumley of Portland, Ore., whose students include older riders.
- Broad-spectrum sunscreen. Aging skin is especially vulnerable to damage from the sun, so make sure the product you use protects against all UV rays and will stay on when you’re active.
Beyond that, “never be too proud to use a mounting ‘assist,’” advises Bonnie Davis, whose Two Horse Enterprises (twohorseenterprises.com) offers products and educational materials for trail riders of all ages. “Rocks, stumps, trailer fenders, mounting blocks, a rise of ground–your horse should stand quietly next to any of these. This is especially important for those of us with bionic parts–I’ve had a knee replaced, and I always use a mounting block or whatever’s available.”
#5. Share the Love
To address: Fun, doability, achievement
If possible, get involved with like-minded friends. “Surround yourself with people who share your riding goals,” says Paula Zdenek. “They’ll be your support system, challenging and inspiring you. Someone will always want to be doing something with the horses, and will invite you along. It’s much more fun this way.”
If you’re lucky enough to have something like the Maryland-based Old People’s Riding Club (oldpeoplesridingclub. org) in your area, check it out. Such groups are set up to provide the sort of educational opportunities, activities, and support desired by midlife (and older) riders.
If appropriate, include your own family in your horse activities, as well. “I’m hoping to involve my girls more at the barn come this spring,” says Debbie Moors. “Making it a family activity allows it to be much easier to find the time.”
Sharing your love of riding is another area where the effort involved will benefit not just your horse life, but also your health in general. Why? Research shows that people who involve themselves with others are less likely to suffer stress or develop dementia. Nice bonus!
#6. Lighten Up!
To address: Fun, doability, achievement
Keep things in perspective, and maintain a positive attitude at all times.
“I work with so many midlifers who engage in negative self-talk,” comments Zdenek. “They say, ‘I’m too old for this,’ or ‘I’m too short/too fat,’ or ‘My joints ache too much.’ They seem to have it in the back of their minds that riding, for them, is a pipe dream that will never really work. And that shows in their riding. I always counter, ‘Concentrate on what you can do. Keep a sense of humor. Enjoy yourself, and your horse, in all the moments you have together.’”
And to that we say, Amen.
Readers Offer Keep-Riding Tips
A sampling of advice and encouragement from Horse & Rider readers of a certain age who are still riding-and loving it.
Accept (Then Deal With) Reality
I’ve had to accept the inevitable fact that I’m not as young as I once was and, therefore, can’t or shouldn’t take the chances I once did. “When you’re young and you fall off a horse, you may break something. When you’re my age and you fall off, you splatter,” said Roy Rogers, and he was right.
Staying in shape for riding is critical; it makes riding possible plus diffuses the muscle aches between rides. Stretching, core-building, and cardio workouts-all are important.
I’ve seen riders in their 70s and 80s in the hunt world doing just fine–mostly men, admittedly, which may mean they have more testosterone or who knows what. But they’re so mentally and physically healthy and vital as a result!
As one 80-year-old I know says, “I ride because I want to live.” He also said one secret is never stop riding because you can’t easily get back to it once you’re past a certain age. His own mentor hunted and jumped into his early 90s!
Beyond a can-do attitude, I think yoga and weight training are essential, for balance and strength.
Good boots, a great helmet, and not too much horse are also assets. Many midlife women have more horse than they need, in my opinion.
Finding cronies to ride with is important. I don’t want to share trails with young hot-rodders anymore; I just want to putt along. Finding age-friendly group activities is also good–a walk/trot drill team, perhaps?
Also, older riders often need accommodations for things like hip/knee pain/replacement. I knew a gentleman in his late 60s with a knee replacement who desperately wanted to fulfill a lifelong desire to master riding. We came up with compensations in mounting (from the off-side, with a mounting block), stirrup length (longer than normally suggested). I also knew a woman whose doctor pulled the reins after a severe osteoporosis diagnosis–she was out of the saddle, but not out of the scene. She’d come to the barn and help groom or whatever, just to keep smelling the sweet smell of horse poop.
Now that 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50 and so on, I’m not sure what category I’m in anymore. But at age 58, I no longer choose to compete, so it’s now much more about pure enjoyment.
Staying fit enough to be a safe, smart, sounder rider is my biggest challenge. As ever, there’s not enough time to do everything–that is, balancing all the other priorities in my life–so I struggle with that. Still, I do believe in lessons, lessons, lessons! You’re never too old to learn more. Having someone on the ground watching and guiding you is the best. I’ll always welcome the feedback and improvements.
Beyond that, I hope to be riding with like-minded folks well into my 70s. That’s the goal.
No–Skip the Lessons!
I find myself less interested in trying to improve or challenge myself nowadays. After decades of riding, I increasingly find the concept of taking a lesson far less appealing than, say, a relaxing trail ride with friends or just some solitary arena time with my horse. It’s not that I don’t think I can learn more–of course, we ALL can, at any age–I just don’t fancy being constantly told what to do for a solid hour, especially with free time at such a premium.
I’ve reworked my riding goals. I was gutsy in my 20s and 30s, but now I’m into fun and safe. I still love jumping, for example, but instead of 3’6″ fences, I do nothing over 2’6″–and at a more moderate, hunter pace, not whipping along like a jumper rider.
I’ve also opened my mind to learning more about Western riding, cart driving, natural horsemanship and teaching young children how to ride. I have a 70-year-old friend who still loves jumping, but for a different reason than she did in her early riding years. The height of the fence is no longer her focus; now her challenge is memorizing the course! These days some of the jumper classes require committing to memory a course of up to 14 fences. My friend stays with 2’6″ fences and finds keeping mental track of the course her new goal. She feels she’s exercising her mind, along with her body.
Be Committed and Consistent
Nothing good happens without a commitment–and consistent effort. Horseback riding is a sport, so treat yourself like an athlete in training. Don’t take a lesson and then neglect to practice at home, or take a lesson and then skip three weeks. Just as consistent hands bring a consistent head-set, so consistent riding brings consistent–and more effective–horsemanship.
How to be consistent? Make guidelines for yourself and keep your appointment with your horse just as you would with your doctor–or with your hair stylist! Women won’t cancel their hair appointments, so make your horse appointment just as important as those.
Then, too, remember that the quality of the time you spend riding is even more important than the quantity. It really doesn’t take much. Twenty minutes of quality time in the saddle might be all you need, IF you do it consistently.
Get Help and Get in Shape
I need all the encouragement I can get just to get in the saddle these days. I love riding, but I’ve let the fear of being bucked off stop me from doing it as much as I’d like. I’d love to be able to find a good trainer to help keep that bull-headed animal of mine in line! I’d especially love to find a trainer who’d give reasonably priced group lessons for midlife trail riders.
Beyond that, I think it’s critically important to stretch and exercise regularly–you don’t want a muscle cramp out on the trail. It’s also a good idea to lose the muffin top (those extra pounds that jut out above your belt!).
Be Strong, Limber
The biggest challenge for me is to stay limber and fit. I now have a semi-weekly (four or five times per week) habit of stretching, walking and doing some lifting with my arms. I find I can’t move a hay bale around anymore if I don’t. In my younger years, I could go out and ride or move a hay bale or a 50-pound sack without giving it a second thought. Now, at the very least, stretching almost every day is mandatory to make those things possible. Doing some minimal weight lifting helps a lot, too. And walking keeps me energized. I also do some yoga-ish exercises because I’m starting to have some lower-back issues. All this exercise helps me tremendously.
Know Your Limits
I’m a barrel racer, and riding at this stage of life, I find I want time off over the winter months to recoup and plan–set goals–for the following season. Beyond that, I rely on the wisdom to “quit while you’re ahead,” in reference to riding my horse, driving a car, deciding whether or not to go somewhere…anything that requires you to “be smart.” I try to know my limitations and live within them.