Helen Hills is my new role mode and may become yours. I aspire to be half as active and savvy as she is when/if I reach 80. I should mention savvy before active, because smart thinking must come first, as Helen shows us in Still Riding at 80.
Whether you're 20 or 80, there's entertainment, inspiration and advice to be found in this book. Helen tells us right up front she is not a horse expert or a professional in the horse business. She is, as she says ,"one of you." But she's learned a thing or two in her life with horses, and is no greenhorn in writing, either. This is her fifth book dealing with aging gracefully and getting the most out of life. It's her first specifically addressing riding.
When Hills began to ponder if she was getting too old to ride, she did a lot of research and talked with other "elder" riders. She eschews the word elderly, which has a very different connotation, she says. Twenty of these elders are profiled in the book. From these wise folks comes a compendium of common sense and learned ways to compensate for the problems of aging. As Bette Davis once quipped, "Getting old is not for sissies." There are the inevitable worn joints, aches and pains and diminished speed and balance.
But there are ways to compensate. Hills has a riding buddy who saddles either her smooth-gaited Norwegian Fjord or her Quarter Horse for trail riding. She uses a mounting block. She rides in a helmet and safety vest. Hills suggests a number of ways to increase one's comfort in the saddle, such as padded riding pants, dimpled gloves for arthritic hands, half chaps and elastic knee braces. She even has tips to deal with the forgetfulness that comes with advancing years.
As useful and interesting as Hill's nuts-and-bolts information is, what makes the book even more special is the way she expresses her passion for having horses in her life--a bond we all share. Consider this exerpt:
"Let us count the ways we love, enjoy and play with our horses, considering one by one the pleasures they provide and also thinking about which we may soon have to relinquish, which we might help last a bit longer, and which indeed will stay with us the rest of our lives."
Hills lives in Massachusetts, as do the 20 elder horsepeople she interviewed. Dan and Carol Rice, who are both 77, ride and drive Morgans and compete in carriage events. In the winter, when the trails near their house are covered with snow, Dan often packs them down by tromping around on snowshoes or pulling a weighted toboggan behind him. He completed a 100-mile competitive trail ride at 70.
Alyse Aubin, 73, trail rides three times a week for several hours with a group called the Leatherbutts--men and women in their late 60s, one in the 80s. Marcy Gamester, 72, has logged 11,000 miles as a competitive trail rider and more than 4,000 miles pleasure riding--500 in 2009. She is one of the top ten long-distance riders on the East Coast.
The stories of these 20 people--a small sampling of the elders still involved in horses--should convince you that you could have a few (or many) more years in the saddle.
"We don't have to rush to make decisions," says Hills. "Things are apt to work out for the best in their own time. Regardless of how our own last ride happens, we will have to hope that by then we have the wisdom to accept our aging, to adapt to circumstances we may not like, and to appreciate how horses have enriched our lives--and will continue to do so in our remembrance of them. Accept, Adapt, Appreciate."
That's good advice for any age.
Still Riding at 80, written by Helen Hills (published by Haley's of Athol, Massachusetts, ISBN:978-1-884540-49-3) is available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com and in many bookstores. Order directly from Haley's by calling (800) 215-8805.Price: $17.95