Easing Into the Saddle

In this excerpt from her book Riders of a Certain Age, journalist and horsewoman Fran Severn talks about what older horse lovers need to consider when making horses a part of their lives for the first time…or for the first time in a long time.

As riders, we expect our horses to be physically fit and able to do what we ask with power and ease. We shouldn’t ask any less of ourselves.

Whether we hop into the saddle for a casual outing or are serious competitors, all riders require certain physical abilities. We need to move fluidly with our horses, relax our joints, and use subtle signals to communicate. We need the balance and flexibility of a gymnast, the timing and coordination of a diver, and the stamina of a marathon runner. There is no other athletic pursuit that requires so many elements.

For younger riders, this is not a problem. The relative lack of mileage on their bodies leaves them able to maintain a demanding riding regimen and meet those physical needs with aplomb.

For the rest of us? While our years have graced us with wisdom and experience, we’ve also collected a host of physical issues that the youngsters who hop onto their 16.2 Warmbloods without a mounting block can’t imagine. Osteoarthritis, heart disease, tight ligaments, loose urinary muscles, and damage from old injuries and operations are just a few of the complaints.

There are also some age-related problems that are not as immediately recognizable. Muscle atrophy is one. We lose about one-half pound of muscle every year after age 25; we also grow shorter as our spines start to compress from general aging, not to mention damage from years of poor posture. The neuro-muscular connection slows, affecting reaction time, balance, and recall (aka those “senior moments). Bones start to lose density and do not rebuild as quickly if broken. We’ve lost flexibility, which can make following the movement of our horses a tense and uncomfortable experience. A strong, stable core is the most important thing for staying secure in the saddle and being able to give clear aids to your horse, but between physical changes thanks to menopause, weak muscles from childbirth, and inattention to proper exercise and eating habits, our abdominal muscles are often weak.

Photo by RD-Fotografie/Adobe

On the other hand, active seniors generally have lower blood pressure, better heart health, and fewer cases of diabetes. We benefit from the exercise, socialization, and the restorative effects of being outside. Riders have higher levels of serotonin, which regulates sleep, appetite, moods, and sex drive. Not to mention the tonic of maintaining a sense of independence and purpose at a time when society often seems to channel us to passive activity and dependent status.

Starting to ride at any age means a change in your physical routine. For younger women, the most they’ll complain about is the discovery of muscles they didn’t know they had. For us, however, age-related issues require a more thorough assessment of where we are and what we can do. You may have been a hell-bent-for-leather bareback riding daredevil when you were a kid, but your once-limber joints and flexible muscles are not as youthfully cooperative as they once were. You can’t pick up riding from where you stopped years ago.

Before you get into the saddle, either as a returning rider or a new one, you need to honestly assess your physical condition and identify the obvious and potential problems. A caveat here to suggest that you visit your primary care physician and give her a heads-up on your plans. Don’t be surprised if you get a lecture about how you are “too old for that kind of foolishness.” Your doctor has legitimate concerns. We are more fragile than her younger patients. In addition to the general changes in our bodies from age, after-effects from operations and illnesses can limit our abilities, and she must point them out.

As older adults, our “ideal” fitness can’t be pigeonholed. The groups that assess fitness and design programs for the general public are still trying to determine how far older adults can go physically. Their research focuses on biking, swimming, and aerobics. They haven’t begun to figure out what’s best for crazy ladies who climb onto the back of a 1,200-pound animal and trot around for fun.

Riders or not, we must consider the dangers of falling and minimize the risks. Developing our balance and core strength makes falling less likely. Physical therapists, senior centers, and online videos teach exercises and techniques to improve balance and proprioception. Our bodies and brains respond well to these exercises.

At some point, you can count on having an unplanned dismount. While falling is almost inevitable, you can reduce the likelihood of serious injury. Consider following the lead of event, endurance, and show jumping riders (not to mention rodeo riders) and wear a safety vest. The vests are practical protection for riders of all ages. They absorb the impact from a fall, providing some protection from broken bones, bruised ribs, and—depending on the model—cervical and neck injuries.

Other recommendations? No arguments. No, “I know how to fall.” No, “My horse is bombproof.” No, “It’s my head, and it’s my choice.” Wear the bloody helmet.

This excerpt from Riders of a Certain Age by Fran Severn is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here