Never a Last Ride; Older Adults Riding Horses
“C Bar Joker was an Appaloosa raised by a teenage boy. When he joined the army, the horse ended up at the stable where Sharon took riding lessons. He missed the boy so much he kinda soured on people and would not go along with anything. Sharon leased him, and later on, brought him home.” Mary’s voice is gently buoyant talking about daughter Sharon’s first horse. “He was smart, 24 hours after moving in, he figured out this was a better deal and sweetened up a whole lot.” Mary was happy to support her horse-crazy teenager and would occasionally get on and ride. When Sharon bought her OTTB (Off the Track Thoroughbred) Sammy in 1991, Mary said, “I’m tired of walking behind you on foot so get out there and find me a horse.” The search began and ended with a sixteen-year-old Arabian mare.
“Cosha was my first horse. She had two gaits, a fast walk and a jerky trot. She let me know in her way that she was happier being a mamma than a riding horse. We had Cosha for eighteen years and eight months.” Mary bonds with horses and this kinship keeps her in the saddle. She speaks affectionately about each horse’s character quirks. Sharon has a nine-acre farm in Washington State. This is home for her three-day eventer, Mom’s new Quarter Horse Munoz and Cosha’s grand-filly, Amat Victoria Curam (Tory), born in July 2015. Mary divides the year between her two daughters, with six-month stays in Washington and New York. She does barn chores every day with a trail ride in the afternoon.
At 57 Mary, an able-bodied person, started riding at a time in life when people begin to be affected by the natural changes in the body due to age. Mary says, “Riding is fun, I love the view from the back of a horse. I see kids with disabilities riding as therapy. This sort of chance ought to be offered to frail adults. They’d do great to get outdoors and get moving like that.” Mary is 83 with the goal to continue riding until 92.
Mary’s story is not exceptional. Women in their 50s, 60s and 70s are reviving an interest from their childhoods or fulfilling a lifelong desire. Jackie Cochran, a rider with the blog, Barnmice, commented on the challenge. “All these older women are BRAVE, otherwise, they would never even try to ride a horse.” There are fears that accompany any rider at any time in their riding career. The mind has an influence on cultivating the confidence a rider needs to do well and progress in their skill. It may create scenarios around one of the strongest fears humans can have; failure in front of others. Will I be able to control the horse? Will I fall? Will I be able to afford this? Will I look bad? Part of learning to ride is pushing through comfort zones and the ability to move past tension, apprehension and self-doubt. Self-esteem is a key ingredient to personal success in horseback riding.
In her blog post, “Middle-Aged and Older Women Who Start Riding”, Cochran wrote, “Once in the saddle, it is harder, much harder, for us to get our aging bodies into a proper position and it is even harder to stay in it!…We have to relearn how to move our hips, and we have to teach our bodies…to stay in balance on a constantly moving platform.”
Riding is a unique form of physical exercise. At any age, it requires balance and flexibility. The best riders have a light centered seat, responsive to the horse’s movements. As with any sport, it takes time and practice to build muscle strength and stamina. A stiff body, tight joints and muscles create an uncomfortable experience for horse and rider. Dr. Frances Kistner, an expert on Human Gait and Ergonomics, says a typical woman over 50 will be tight in her body. “The more sedentary the lifestyle, the shorter the muscles are going to be. There is soreness in the groin and inner thighs because they are being stretched by the width of the horse. The muscles are functioning in a new way.”
A horse’s hindquarter at a walk replicates the same movement in a human pelvis at the walk. If the rider is relaxed but active with the movement, it will strengthen the back and trunk. Physically fit riders will have a better experience. Movement-based activities that are slow, such as tai chi and yoga, are recommended as they require more control and focus on strength. Regular exercise with a hula-hoop will strengthen the arms, abdomen, hips and legs. It tones and improves joint flexibility and balance. Kistner says, “The key thing is relaxing and getting into your seat. Someone who is really tight, all the muscles are very tense, it’s harder to relax and get that motion and the horse will feel it.” Horses are sensitive to the rider’s actions, voice, and mood. Former riders will have muscle memory. New riders have a physical and psychological challenge. The spirit may be willing but the body may resist and the mind generates fears.
Kistner cautioned that, “women who have vertigo, take medications for hypotension or that cause a drop in blood pressure, should be cautious about riding. Persons with osteoporosis or osteopenia should consult with their doctor. Anything more than a walk causes a pounding. A trot, unless posting, causes a lot of compression in the spine.” New riders might borrow some tips from eventers. Some wear a mouth guard to protect their teeth, and a vest filled with gel, or one that inflates with air when a rider is ejected from the saddle to cushion a fall.
Along with their inherent beauty and grace, comes the instinct of a prey animal most comfortable in the protection of a herd. Horses have a complex social order that includes a leader, lookouts and everything in between. When in doubt a horse will spontaneously flee. If threatened, it can buck, bolt or rear up to protect itself. Sharon and Mary are conscious of fall risk while riding, but serious accidents can also happen on the ground when something scares the horse. This reaction is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sharon said, “Just like when you check that I Accept box blindly on-line, Mom accepts that falls happen around horses. It’s part of the deal.” Riders have to understand and cope with these moments that may occur.
The US Dressage Foundation offers the Century Club. The rider and horse’s age combined equal 100. Leanne Tousey (72) and Sage (30), Team 256, completed their dressage test on August 14, 2016 to become part of this prestigious group now at 279 teams. Tousey’s childhood dream was realized when at 72, she began lessons with Kristann Copper at Anchorage Farms in Conifer, Colorado. Copper teaches dressage and says, “Finesse is more important than strength.” Several of her students are over the age of sixty. Copper and Sage entered the Century Club a year earlier as Team 249.
Tousey describes herself as very fit and active. However, riding took a little getting used to. “The first few times I rode, I could hardly walk after 45 minutes in the saddle.” It took several months before she got on and off without body aches. “Sitting up straight needed all my concentration since I had become lazy about my posture as I have aged. And, clearly, my center of gravity has changed and to find that position of balance is still a challenge.” Tousey has insight into animal behavior from her thirty years training and showing Miniature Schnauzers. She understands the confidence factor it requires to ask and expect results, as well as how to correct performance. Copper said, “Nowadays there are senior citizens who are very fit and supple, perhaps even more so than middle-aged riders.”
Why do they do it? The overwhelming motivation for women deciding to ride is the challenge and joys of being with horses. The riders speak with clarity on the horses’ spirit and generosity for keeping them in the saddle. They are bonded companions. Horses bring women outdoors and out on the trail. A supportive friend or family member often contributes to the enjoyment. A dedicated instructor who understands their limitations is essential. In the end, it is a woman’s decision to ride.
A comment from Ezduzit, Chronicle of the Horse forum, “I was 60 when I really started to ride, I am now 70 and despite a myriad of health problems, cardiac and diabetes, I ride several times a week. I love my barn time, the exercise and the one-ness I have with my boy. When I am on my horse, I am ageless, young and healthy again. I never want to give that up and hope I am never aware of when my last ride is.”
Cochran, J (2013 July 28), Middle-Aged and Older Women Who Start Riding. Retrieved from http://www.barnmice.com/profiles/blog/list
Cochran, J (2017, February 24). Women Who Start Riding at 50 or 60 Personal message retrieved from https://www.chronofhorse.com/forum.
Ezduzit (2017, February 24). Women Who Start Riding at 50 or 60. Message posted in https://www.chronofhorse.com/forum.
U.S. Dressage Foundation, The Century Club News (2017 January) Issue 21 pp. 25, 32 http://www.dressagefoundation.org/grants-and-programs/century-club/about.html