Climbing back in the saddle after a long hiatus? Finally starting those riding lessons you’ve been dreaming of since you were a kid? Welcome to a new mini-series by Penny Hawes for midlife riders!
Welcome to The Ride of Your (Mid)Life! If you’ve ever been dismayed to find that all the new breeches are low rise, wondered when trainers started getting so much younger, or snagged a bottle of horse liniment to take home and use on your own aching muscles, you’re in the right place.
According to a 2013 demographic study by the USDF, a whopping 96% of members are female, and 87% are over the age of 35! As a relatively large (and underserved) segment of the riding population, it’s time we “women of a certain age” find our voice, and I’m here to help us do just that.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about things like the physical, mental, spiritual, financial, and temporal aspects of being a midlife rider and/or horse owner.
Many women start riding after having a family/spouse/career, or jump back into the horse world now that they have a little time and money (never thought your kids would graduate college and move out, did you?)
Midlife can be the perfect time to revisit those childhood dreams of riding… until you get on a horse for the first time in 20 years and you’re afraid to go faster than a walk, or your muscles hurt so much the next day you can’t climb into your car without wincing.
Don’t give up my friend: help is at hand (and for those aching muscles, the hand of a good massage therapist is a great place to start).
Let’s Get Physical
Not only is it the title of a catchy song by Olivia Newton John, it’s an invitation to think about the physical changes we’ve experienced since we rode in our teens. (Admit it though, now you’re going to be humming that song the rest of the day, aren’t you? And it was released in 1981 — I figured I’d save you the time of looking it up.)
When we were younger, we did silly things like jump our horses bareback with a halter and lead rope, lie on their backs out in the pasture to read a book, and gallop across fields and up hills with our friends just because we could.
Now, the thought of jumping bareback makes us slightly queasy, and we wonder if our advanced health directive is up to date before we canter, much less gallop up a hill.
That’s understandable — we have a lot on our plates. We have jobs and families and loads of dirty laundry that depend on us. It’s hard enough to find the time to ride, but the risks of paying a physical price (on top of the temporal one), can be mitigated somewhat with a little planning. Even if you are riding regularly, the following section has some great ways to evaluate and improve your fitness and balance.
Evaluate, Educate, Exercise
The best way to start getting physically fit for riding is to evaluate your current state of fitness, or lack thereof. As with any exercise program, always check with your doctor to be sure you’re healthy enough to start working out and riding, especially if you have osteoporosis or another serious condition.
Since riding requires a unique combination of flexibility, core strength and balance, being fit for sports like running or tennis may not translate into being fit for horseback riding. For instance, few sports stretch your inner thigh muscles like riding — which you’ll discover when you try to walk upstairs the day after your first ride in a while.
There are literally hundreds of websites offering various ways to evaluate your core strength, but it might pay to visit your local gym or call a personal trainer to discuss your plans. Trying to see if your body is in alignment while you’re attempting to hold a plank position for 90 seconds is not for amateurs.
Flexibility and balance are a little easier to test on your own — you know if you can’t bend over to tie your shoes or stand on your tip-toes to reach something off the top shelf. However, if you’re speaking with a personal trainer about core strength anyway, go ahead and have her evaluate you thoroughly for riding fitness.
Once you’ve been vetted for soundness, it’s time to learn a little more about how to become riding fit. There are great exercise and fitness books and videos created specifically for riders covering everything from Tai Chi, yoga and Pilates, to aerobics and strength training. Speak to your trainer and riding friends, then head to your nearest book store or tack shop for videos and books on rider fitness. If you prefer exercise classes, check with your local gym and see if they’re willing to incorporate some rider-friendly moves into classes. Gather up some riding buddies, and the gym may even be willing to start a rider’s fitness class.
Now that you know your fitness level and you have a plan to improve it, it’s time to fit exercise into your daily routine.
300 minutes a week? Are you kidding??
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, you should get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, but they recommend you “ramp up your exercise to 300 minutes a week” for greater health benefits.
Crunched for time? Try breaking up your exercise into 10 or 15 minute blocks. This will make it a little easier to fit the workout into your busy schedule. On hold on the phone for what feels like an hour? Do a few squats or stretches and make use of what would otherwise be wasted time.
As your flexibility, strength, and overall fitness improve, you’ll begin to notice that your horse is having an easier time understanding your aids, and you’re having an easier time climbing in and out of your car and walking up stairs.
It might not be as easy to mount a 16-hand horse as it was when we were 13 (thank goodness for extra-tall mounting blocks), but with care and planning, there’s no reason we can’t climb into the saddle and become the riders we’ve always wanted to be.
Next week, we’ll talk about psyching ourselves out, denial, fear, and other exciting parts of the mental game of riding. Until then – go out and enjoy the ride of your (mid) life!
Penny Hawes is a midlife horsewoman who really did gallop up hills with friends and read books while lying on her horse’s back (although she was too chicken to jump bareback with a halter and lead rope). Since those days, she’s taught riding in the US and UK, competed in various disciplines including eventing, dressage, and side-saddle, and volunteered at more dressage shows than she can remember. She lives, rides, and writes in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and various quadrupeds. You can read more from Penny at www.thehorseylife.com/horsenation.