Handwalking is beneficial for riders of all ages and their horses.
The adages that contrast experience vs. youth apply to horsemen as they do to life in general—”You’re not getting older, you’re getting better”; “ATge doesn’t matter unless it matters to you”; “50 is the new 30″—but they also contain a whiff of desperation, as if we have to convince ourselves we’re not slowing down.
We like this one better: “Work smarter, not harder.” Accept that you develop physical limitations as you get older while you access a lifetime of knowledge and apply leverage to tasks instead of strength so you can keep working in the barn and riding long after your civilian friends have given up golf and tennis.
There’s a dilemma here. Riding and barn chores help keep you fit. But you have to do more than just ride to stay fit if you want to be competitive and injury-free as you move through your 50s and beyond.
Horse Journal contacted a couple dozen riders who are enjoying their horses and competing well past middle age about what helps keep them in the saddle. We also looked back at our 15 years of product surveys for items we’ve learned help get the job done when the mind is more willing than the body.
Fitness. The dominant theme from our Silver Panel was the importance of maintaining fitness, particularly if you ride only one horse a day, including a healthy weight. Cross training can be as important for the rider as for the horse, especially to prevent muscular imbalance.
Physical activities that go beyond riding, stall cleaning and working out at the gym included Pilates, yoga and Alexander Technique.
Pilates works well for riders because it strengthens core muscles (the abs), which in turn protects the spine and back and increases flexibility. Pilates can be learned by watching a DVD or taking lessons. We recommend working with an instructor at first to learn the techniques and ways to modify the exercises to suit your own needs.
Lessons at a Pilates studio can start at $20 for group classes and run $60 or more for individual instruction. There are several excellent DVDs/books written specifically for riders available at tack shops and online. Once you learn the techniques, you can combine daily walks with 10 to 30 minutes of Pilates on a DVD and stop losing ground to your younger riding friends.
Horse Selection. Anyone who’s gone horse shopping more than once in their riding lifetime has been tempted to buy a horse that doesn’t match their abilities. It can be a horse with the right price but not the right training or temperament. It can be a flashy mover with more gait than you can sit.
Face it. If you’re over the age of 50, your seat probably won’t become any better than it is right now. Buy a horse you can ride today, not a horse you hope to be able to ride someday. Even if you gain more knowledge, you likely won’t become more able to sit a big mover. You’ll either kill the quality of your horse’s stride by hanging on his mouth or frustrate him by clutching with your legs and hands and build to inevitable explosions. Also take into account when you started riding yourself. If you began riding in your mid-20s, you probably never acquired the basic looseness that a rider naturally has who starts riding as a child.
Stirrups. Professional riders and those who ride several horses a day sort out the importance of stirrup length, but amateur riders and those who only ride one horse often use stirrups that are too long. The reason may be that the slow, inevitable stretching of stirrup leather isn’t noticed, or a stubborn insistence to do what they’ve always done, or a poorly fitted saddle that make it difficult to shorten stirrups.
Thus the toe points down and the rider loses ankle flexibility. A flexible ankle is our most-effective resource to absorb impact when the horse’s foot strikes the ground. If you don’t absorb that shock in your ankle, you will in your back. A flexible ankle also aids stability in the saddle, and you can reduce tension in your hips and knees.
In addition to stirrup length, your choice of stirrups can help. We don’t recommend stirrups with an angled “offset” base, because that forces the ankle down into a rigid fixed position—it looks good, but it’s a chiropractor’s dream. The better-quality hinged stirrups (see below) help ankles flex if the leather is at the correct length.
A properly fitted saddle will help keep you in place better.
Saddle Fit. We mean saddle fit for the rider here, rather than the horse. Too often riders will compromise on their own comfort if the saddle works for their horse, but they do both themselves and their horse a disservice because they won’t be able to sit as well.
Three areas that can particularly affect the older rider, who can’t compensate easily due to reduced flexibility, are whether the saddle is level, whether the size is large enough, and whether there’s enough room on the flap for the rider’s upper leg.
The saddle, no matter the style, needs to be level—with the cantle at least the same height as the pommel but preferably higher—or else the rider is placed in a chair position and can’t get “out of the tack” when jumping and posting. If the saddle is too small, or the flap is too vertical or short, it has the effect of shoving the rider’s seat back on the cantle. Since the cantle rebounds with the horse’s stride, this forces the rider to bounce.
Newer generations of dressage saddles are particularly nice for older riders because the deeper seats and larger thigh blocks now in fashion help hold the rider in place. But these saddles also have less margin for error, and a saddle that’s not quite right for the rider will be better if it’s too big than too small.
Products. At Horse Journal, we’ve noticed innovative designs and materials have made many familiar plain-Jane products much easier to use and should be considered by horsemen who have trouble lifting and holding things as easily as they once did. Unfortunately, innovation comes with a price, but it can be money well spent.
For example, the Ultimate Hoof Pick (June 2008, www.ultimatehoofpick.com, 303-666-6364) costs a whopping $17, while a simple pick costs 75¢. The molded rubber grip makes it easy to hold, and we haven’t found anything better for digging out packed-in mud and snow, whether the hand holding it belongs to a teen or an arthritic senior. In the same vein, brushes now often come with ergonomic handles (January 2005).
We’ve done several articles on stirrups over the last decade, and we’ve yet to find a economy-priced hinged stirrup that works as well as the expensive versions (over $150) at taking strain off a rider’s back and knees, including Sprenger, MDC and Royal Riders (November 2005). In that article, we did find that Stubben’s offset stirrup (# 1101, offset at the top, not the bottom, and only $44, www.stubbennorthamerica.com, 800-550-1110) did help riders who have a stiff pelvis.
Older riders should consider any options with a zipper or Velcro. If you’re straining to pull on boots without zippers, you can hurt your back, just as you can with pull-on bells boots for your horse. Use Velcro bells there instead of pull-ons, if you can.
Tight tall riding boots themselves can exacerbate circulation problems in your legs. Thus half-chaps with zippers or Velcro are generally healthier for older legs.
If you prefer pull-on riding boots, at least consider spending extra for the Cavallo/Sprenger boot pulls with extra-long angled arms that really take the strain off your shoulders and back. (June 2000, www.gemtack.com, $18).
In the barn, look for products with lighter materials. For example, lifting a Gore-Tex turnout sheet from your horse is a lot easier on your back than a mud-soaked canvas rug. Stall mats (August 2008) mean you need to do a lot less stall cleaning, as does using pellets instead of chips or straw for bedding (November 2008). One stable idea that came from our Silver Panel is to upgrade the lighting in your barn, and most barns are too dingy anyway.
Bottom Line. Don’t stop riding but consider your choices more thoughtfully. The horse you buy at 50 or 55 may not be the best choice when you horse shop at 65. Pay attention to your weight and fitness level. Make sure your saddle fits you and your horse and that your stirrup length allows your ankles to draw the impact of the horse’s stride away from the rest of your body. Watch for products that compensate for weaknesses or prevent strain on your back and joints.
Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman, who is 61 and shows FEI dressage.