Starting to Ride Again
Many women in their 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s, who loved riding in their teens and twenties, toy with the idea of taking up riding again. I know I did for ten years before circumstances made it possible for me to act on the desire to get back into riding.
There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it’s as simple as you’ve reached a point in your career where you can afford to take up riding and your children are grown up enough that they can take care of themselves for a few hours after school. Often the kids reach an age when they want to take riding lessons and Mom decides that she’ll take lessons too so everyone can ride as a family.
Another reason to take up riding is emotional therapy. Often women face grief or loss from divorce or the death of a parent or partner. For some reason, horses have an amazing healing power for humans. Having to discipline oneself to keep the lesson, or to care for a horse that’s depending on you, helps to pull people out of the pit of depression. Then there is the very real connection and partnership that can develop between horse and rider that can fill voids in a human’s life and psyche.
A final reason older women take up riding again is the self-confidence it brings. You remember how it felt to ride, the confidence and the challenge, and you want to recapture that feeling before it’s too late. You may no longer be able to do those things as well as you did as a teen, but you can conquer your fears and doubts, get up on a horse, and be a competent rider… something most people can’t say. Many older riders say riding isn’t just fun, it’s freedom.
I must confess, I started and stopped riding several times. And I’ve started again for all of the above reasons at one time or another. In my late twenties, it was dealing with a painful divorce. In my fifties, it was dealing with the loss of my parents. Each time it has been the love of a special horse that has helped me get my life back in perspective.
My Story Isn’t Unusual
I am proud to admit that I am an old horseman’s daughter. My dad, Ray Mullaney, spent the last 20 years of his life as a thoroughbred trainer. But his love affair with horses started back when he was 5 years old and fell in love with spotted pony named Necco (after the candy) who belonged to a family friend who owned a dairy farm. He progressed to show jumping and finally to the racetrack. My dad started teaching me to ride at 18 months old, much to my mother’s chagrin. (He did the same with my son, 30 years later.)
Eventually college, marriage and a career got in the way of my riding. I was just “too busy”. Then my beloved grandmother died and the next year my marriage fell apart. My Dad’s answer to my grief was to find me a beautiful palamino three-quarter Arabian named Glory Be. It was exactly the right thing for me at the time. My mare was a real challenge to ride. I got back into taking lessons. And we bred her to a full Arabian and I had her colt, Ara Be for 31 years. That horse is the reason I got back into riding again in my fifties. And why I own a farm in rural Maine together with my husband, Don.
When I re-married, my husband and I started our own business, which took all our days, nights and weekends to make a go of it. In the meantime, my son was spending as much time as he could learning to ride and riding the trails with his Grandad. He helped Dad with the thoroughbreds. He even helped him break and train one who went on to be a very good allowance horse. (My son didn’t tell me that he got thrown and rolled on as part of that adventure until he was in his 30's and wrote a poem about the experience.)
My Dad always said he was going to leave me the farm. The only condition was that I let Ara Be live out his days in the only home he’d ever known. I agreed. I loved the old boy like a member of the family. He was a big old pet who gave me big slushy kisses for treats. When my Dad developed Alzheimers and had to go to a nursing home, we started leasing out the barn. The only condition for the cheap rent was that the tenants would care for Ara Be. I was lucky to get a young lady to take a half lease on him to keep him exercised.
In 2001 both my parents died within 7 weeks of one another. My mother’s death was a complete shock, leaving the family, especially my son, devastated. We both would find ourselves out in the barn with Ara Be, grooming him, caring for him, talking to him, crying on his strong old shoulders. He was our link to Dad. And I made up my mind, that I was going to get myself in shape and I was going to ride again. After all, my Dad was still riding well into his seventies.
It took a while to get myself organized. The tenants left and poor old Ara Be, who’d always had lots of company, was lonely. I started looking for a companion horse to keep him company. And also I wanted a second horse so that my son and I would be able to ride the trails again together.
What Holds Women Back?
There are basically three things that keep women who want to take up riding again from actually following through.
The first is the cost. Usually a lesson at a small stable with a qualified instructor will cost between $35 and $60. You may be able to reduce that to something you can afford by agreeing to do chores. If you can sling a muck rake, push a wheel barrow, lug water buckets, chances are pretty good there’s a farm somewhere that needs your help. And as a mature person, you will be looked upon as more dependable than the local neighborhood teenager (not to malign the many responsible teenagers who keep our riding stables in operation).
The second reason is the fear of making a fool of yourself. Face it. If you want to ride, you will make a fool of yourself. So what! Accept it. But when you learn anything requiring physical coordination… tennis, golf, ballroom dancing… at some point you’re going to do something stupid or clumsy and embarrass yourself. It’s a small price to pay for the rewards. Besides there’s nothing better at relieving stress than learning to laugh at yourself.
The third reason is the fear of falling off and breaking something. This is another one you just have to deal with. Chances are pretty good you will come off the horse at least once. There’s no such thing as a safe horse. They can stumble, loose their footing and go down. Obviously, you want to be riding a reliable, sure-footed “school horse” when you start. Let your instructor be your guide in what horse is right for you in the beginning. And don’t rush out to buy or lease a horse until you get your skills and balance back in shape.
In my first year back riding, I came off three times. The first time was during a lesson and my husband was videotaping. I landed right at his feet, breaking through the fence. But I landed on my feet and the fence broke my momentum. He questioned my sanity when I got right back on the horse. (The barn cat ran between the horse’s feet and spooked him. It was my first time on that horse.) All three times I more or less landed on my feet or rolled away out of trouble… thanks to my Dad’s training, instinct just took over.
Fear of falling is natural. It is an inherent risk. It’s just like snow skiing. And the first lesson the ski instructor teaches you is how to fall and get up. You learn how to take a controlled fall. If you decide to take up riding, make sure your instructor drills you on how to bail off a horse if you need to! That way you control how and when you come off, not just take a random fall. (It’s why more jockeys aren’t killed or paralyzed. They are trained how to bail off at 35 m.p.h.)
How To Get Started.
First you need to get in shape. Try joining your local YWCA and take some Yoga classes or T’ai Chi. These disciplines emphasize flexibility and balance, the two critical skills for riding. Then you might want to spend some time in the weight room to gain some added strength. You are going to use muscles when you ride you haven’t used in years. You need to be mentally prepared for the pain.
Now start visiting small stables and farms that offer riding instruction. A good way to minimize the humiliation of your first lessons is by limiting the size of your audience. You have no need to become a competitive rider. So why sign up at a big show barn? Make sure the teacher understands that you are interested in pleasure riding and will plan your lessons accordingly.
When you’ve found a place where you feel comfortable, where you like the instructor, feel she/he communicates well with you, and where you find a horse you feel confident on… just get started. Two lessons a week is ideal, if you can work out the time and finances. Spend as much time around the farm as you can, watching and listening. You’ll get back in the swing of things in no time. You’ll be surprised how fast things you used to know come back to you once you’re in the environment.
Good Luck! You’re on your way.