IN THE SADDLE...
at a certain age
The Older Rider Series part 1
by Felicity Wischer
The resurgence of older riders either
returning to the sport or starting their riding
career is on the increase
as these riders balance the benefits
of an active lifestyle doing something
they love against the aches and pains
that age seems to bring.
How do they manage?
Maturity and ageing is not something that is usually celebrated and welcomed in the twenty first century. Just look around your day-to-day life – how many ‘oldies’ do you see advertising a soft drink or a luxury sports car? Pick up any saddlery catalogue and there aren’t too many wrinkles or too much grey hair peeping out from the latest riding helmets!
And yet there are a remarkable amount of ‘riders of a certain age’ - fifty and above - who are out enjoying their equine activities and companions. Statistically, it is difficult to put an accurate figure on how many there are but in Victoria, southern NSW and South Australia alone there are currently around 260 Adult Riding Clubs registered with approximately 7000 members.
Naturally not all adult riders are over fifty and the clubs do not have a breakdown of members ages, but take a look at the next adult riding club competition you attend and you may well be surprised!
If you also factor in pleasure riders and professional riders the numbers of mature riders are significant, as is the breadth of age and levels of experience with everyone who enjoys riding or other equestrian activities.
Older riders fall into several categories.
Firstly, there are those who rode as children and young teens/adults.
Secondly, those who have never ridden but have taken up riding at a later stage in their life.
Thirdly, those like endurance rider Dianne Luker, 56 (right) from Bathurst, NSW, who have always ridden and it is as natural to them as breathing. “I haven’t really found a serious challenge due to my age yet and I don’t feel any different to when I was in my twenties,” says Dianne.
Lastly, there are the older professional riders whose careers and sport last far longer than many of their counterparts in other professional sports.
Horses and riding is one sport and activity where men and women can compete alongside and against one another at an elite level, well beyond the expected timeframe of other athletes.
Some famous professional older riders who need no introduction are the Australian eventing legends Stuart Tinney and Andrew Hoy, 53 and 59 respectively, and are showing no signs of slowing down. In the dressage arena you will find the ageless Mary Hanna and Heath Ryan strutting their stuff at the highest level. Mary is now in her 64th year and was the oldest athlete on the Australian team in Rio in 2016 at age 61.
She eclipsed Bill Roycroft’s record as Australia’s oldest Olympic equestrian when he competed at the 1976 Games.
Heath Ryan is turning 60 this year and has been a keen eventing competitor, having reached the lofty heights of winning the Australian Eventing Championships three times in his career, as well as representing Australia in dressage at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Barry Roycroft, triple Olympian now aged 74, competed in a local C&D showjumping competition just two years ago at the age of 72.
The older rider’s motivation and willingness to work hard and to learn more than makes up for any possible physical shortcomings.
In other words, older riders ride because they want to ride – not because it is something that their parents or peers expect them to do. Indeed, there are older riders who ride despite their peers and families or partners.
Some have said that there is resistance and a lack of understanding from others as to what it is they find in their riding and horse activities. And let’s face it – there are times when the older rider must wonder what on earth they are doing! Yet despite all this they soldier on regardless. Concerns by others over the amount of time and money spent on horses, as well as the physical risks, are the most commonly cited reasons, which can put negative pressure on riders enjoying their hobby.
Life experience prior to getting back on the horse has no doubt taught the older rider a lot of great attributes, which they will need to call upon on their horse journey - tenacity, diligence, resourcefulness, patience, time management, financial management, goal setting and good old mental and emotional stickability and maybe that elusive quality ‘wisdom’.
Cyclist, Chris Carmichael, wrote in an article about older cyclists that, “Your potential declines, but your ability to maximise your potential doesn’t.” He also stated that, “Wisdom cancels out some of the advantages of youth.” This is also true for horse riders.
Tony Nemaric is turning 66 soon and started riding again two and a half years ago after a thirty-odd year break while he was raising a family and was heavily involved in his daughters’ sport. Now a keen competitor, he has regular lessons and is a member of two riding clubs on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
“I used to be a very competitive person when I was younger and playing football and other sport but now, whilst I enjoy competing, it is more about the experience and the interaction with others. To me, horses and riding are more about the celebration of life, and what a joy and privilege it is to be able to spend time riding. Horses are a great leveller – there are more kicks in the backside than pats on the back when you choose to be a rider - much more so than any other sport.”
WHAT ISSUES DO OLDER RIDERS FACE?
Being an older rider brings with it some unique challenges and indeed many benefits. They may have physical limitations that their younger counterparts do not. These don’t all necessarily need to have been acquired through horses and riding; nonetheless their limitations can have a negative impact on the riding experience from both a physical and emotional level.
The dodgy knee or hip may not be too much of a hindrance in our day-to-day lives but many are surprised to find the difficulties they can cause when riding.
Other older riders discover previously unknown injuries and physical issues when they do return to the saddle. Many carry-on-regardless with the help of a good dose of determination, anti-inflammatories and additional physical therapies. Some even have kept riding despite serious illnesses, such as breast cancer.
Jennie Johnston, (from Mardi, NSW) aged 58, was determined to keep riding and spending time with her horse during her chemotherapy and treatment. She says that she loves “…the connection and understanding with the horse….the camaraderie with other riders…and the feeling of disconnection from ‘real’ life and its problems.”
Unfortunately, there are others who need to stop riding due to physical issues but they can still enjoy being around horses and may endeavour to find another aspect of horsemanship they can pursue – carriage driving, volunteering for organisations such as Riding For The Disabled (RDA), equine facilitated learning programs - to name but a few.
In order to keep riding and to stay as in-shape and healthy as possible there are many ‘off horse’ activities that some older riders pursue - such as yoga, pilates, strength and conditioning training, physiotherapy etc.
“Yoga has become more and more part of my life. I find the exercise and philosophies surrounding yoga practice meshes so well with horses and training. I used to run, but can no longer manage it,” says Trish Braithwaite from Queensland.
Elizabeth Wischer of Equi-lates, a business that focuses on pilates specifically for riders, explains “Pilates is, essentially, the strengthening routine to realign postural changes. To do so correctly, you need to be able to keep your torso strong and still, while being able to move and use other areas of your body (such as your legs and arms). This sounds familiar to horse riding doesn’t it? We need to be able to keep our torso and posture strong, aligned and effective whilst absorbing the movement of the horse. To put it simply, all Pilates exercises are important for the horse rider to know. It is an extremely popular routine for more senior individuals and rehabilitation clientele. Senior rider or beginner, it’s an important platform to establish.”
Confidence or lack of confidence is certainly a recurrent theme when speaking to older riders. The ups and downs of life (nothing to do with horses) can shake someone’s confidence and anything that takes them out of their comfort zone - like riding - can see long suppressed emotions bubble to the surface.
The older rider who has ridden as a child/teen/young adult is often shocked to find they are not quite the rider they used to be once they return to the saddle.
It can take some time to adjust their emotional expectations to their current reality and if the two are miles apart it puts a dint in their confidence or, as one dear lady exclaimed, “I was shocked at how nervous I felt and it was hard to reconcile that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was physically making me sick with nerves.”
“I don’t bounce like I used to…” is a common refrain from older riders; Our bones are more fragile, flexibility is reduced and reaction times are not as they once were in our youth. “I am well aware that I am becoming less agile…..and after a fairly major injury from a horse accident it affects my mindset.”
After a fall and injury from a horse there are some whose confidence has been so knocked around that anything the horse does that is slightly unpredictable can trigger their fear. Everyone deals with fear in different ways. Some like to work through it themselves, others seek help from a trainer or coach who is sympathetic to their confidence issues. There are multiple facebook pages, group and forums where help and support can also be found.
Confidence can also be lost when a rider changes horses for whatever reason. Perhaps their much loved and trusty horse has to retire, or sadly goes over the rainbow bridge. The task of finding the next horse can be daunting. A whole new relationship has to be developed with the new horse. It is at this time when it is crucial to make the right decision when choosing your next equine companion. It is vital, no matter what your age.
Assessing Capabilities and a Suitable Horse
Take the time to assess things like your time constraints, physical capabilities, any health issues you may be dealing with and most of all what it is you are actually wanting to do and gain from spending time with your horse. Look for a horse that has done everything you want to do. In other words, if you want to enjoy being a trail rider the dressage horse that has never been out of the arena, or a young Thoroughbred off-the-track may not be your best option!
Spend your time and money on finding the dream horse. In the end the extra money you may need to pay for your ideal horse is worth the hours of fun and safety you will have.
Bad knees and arthritic hips do not fair too well on very wide horses and, unless you are tall and willowy, a very big horse is also not the best choice for the older rider. There are many breeds and types of horses out there to choose from so it is worth finding the right one for you. If you are feeling safe, you will be having fun. If you are having fun you will have the added bonus of feeling like you are accomplishing something and everything builds from there.
Older riders who have never ridden are equally surprised to find out how difficult and mentally and physically challenging riding can be.
No matter whether you are returning to riding, just starting out or have ridden all your life, the key to be able to keep riding and enjoying yourself as the years roll by are to enjoy the mental acumen and wisdom that comes from your life experiences and apply that to your riding/horse experiences; accept the fact that you may not be the gung-ho, athletic rider you were in your youth; get in shape or stay in shape for your riding, which will help with all the aches and pains and also your mental and emotional health; once you get going try not to stop – it is always harder to start up again if you keep stopping and starting; seek help if you need it along the way with regular lessons from a sympathetic coach; ride with people who are at the same stage and level as you are and understand the issues you are dealing with re- confidence, agility etc; but most of all enjoy yourself and your journey with your horse!
This is the first in our series on older riders so, until the next issue, good luck and happy, safe riding.
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