My riding career almost ended before it began. There I was, 50 years old and close to 100 pounds overweight, trying to mount a horse for the first time. I couldn't do it! I had a threestep mounting block, and it still took me about 10 minutes to haul myself on. Talk about embarrassing.
Today, at 55 and a trim 145 pounds on my 5-foot, 7-inch frame, I find mounting a breeze. My joint problems are gone, my blood pressure is down, my congestion has cleared, and my skin looks better. Best of all, I have more energy than many women half my age. My secret? Not a miracle diet, or surgery, or a draconian exercise program,although I did learn to eat properly and work out. No, the key to my success has been motivation: a burning desire to change my life and make my dream--riding and showing--a reality.
Sharing my story isn't easy (just look at that "before" picture below). But if I can help even one reader to do what I've done, it'll have been worth it. I was an overstressed, out-of-shape size 24. I became a fit, athletic size 6/8, who rides and shows horses. It wasn't easy, but it was worth it.
If you're overweight, take a page from my notebook. I've kept the pounds off for five years and am happier than I've ever been. If I did it, you can, too. Read on.
Overweight & Overwhelmed
I'd always wanted to ride, but my mother thought it was too dangerous, too expensive and "not appropriate for a young lady." Although I did well in school and participated in things like Girl Scouts and church activities, I wasn't physically active. I was a "chubbette."
After college, I landed a job with Johnson & Johnson, the health care company, becoming a senior finance professional. By then I was yo-yo dieting, with my weight gradually creeping up. I married and had a daughter, then never lost all the pregnancy weight.
When my systems-engineer husband and I were living in central New Jersey in the early 1990s, our daughter Alison began taking riding lessons. That would've been the logical time for me to get started, too, but I was just too heavy. My job was high-pressure, requiring frequent travel to Asia Pacific. I was trying to be both a super mom and super employee, and neglecting my own needs. Eating was how I soothed myself.
How bad did it get? I weighed from 230 to 240 pounds for much of my adult life. It's not as if I didn't attempt to slim down, either. Over the years, I tried everything--group programs, diet drinks, pure protein plans a la Atkins, low fat/high carb regimens, even fads like the vinegar-and-seaweed diet. I also often skipped breakfast and/or lunch. All of these enabled me to lose at least some weight, sometimes. But over the long term, none of them kept the weight off.
Before: More than 80 pounds overweight for much of her life, Sandy says sharing her tale is a little embarrassing.
After an early menopause that began in my early 40s, I began gaining weight at the rate of 10 to 15 pounds per year. By the time I turned 50 in 2000, I was pushing 300 pounds. Health problems loomed--high blood pressure, aching joints, constant colds and the flu. A surgeon told me I'd need knee replacement surgery if I didn't lose weight.
I also read a quote at the time that frightened me: "Don't dig your grave with your own knife and fork." That's exactly what I was doing. I thought about two 50-something people I know who work hard to stay fit." Why do I think I don't have to do that, too?," I asked myself.
As a finance person, I knew there was no such thing as a get-rich-quick scheme. (You get rich by working hard and building assets over time.) I also realized--as most people do deep inside--that losing weight was going to require the same long-term commitment and steady work.
And now I was ready to do it. My motivation was bigger than a class reunion or a friend's wedding or a certain size dress I longed to wear. I wanted to build a better life, a more balanced life. One that would finally include horses...for me.
Just Do It!
I began simply by switching to healthy foods and watching my portions. I focused on fruits and vegetables; good, lean protein; and low- or nonfat dairy. I ate some potato, but no processed starches and very little bread.
I quit eating junk food altogether. To this day, if it comes in cellophane, I don't eat it. Desserts have become a special occasion treat.
I discovered a few "tricks" along the way that really helped me. I don't keep desserts or other sugary, high-fat treats in the house. In restaurants I "re-portion" my meal before eating it, and always take about half of it home. (For more tricks and an example of what I now eat to maintain my weight, see "How I Eat" in the January 2006 Horse & Rider). I began to lose weight...slowly.
Two months into my diet, I was feeling so good I began to exercise. I used an old-fashioned Nordictrack machine I had in the house collecting dust, plus walking. At first, 10 minutes of either was the most I could do. But I improved over time, and a few months into my new exercise program I splurged on an elliptical machine. (I knew I'd never want to use a gym--not my style--so the home equipment was a good investment for me.) I aimed at getting aerobic exercise six or seven days a week.
I also saw a physical therapist, who added to my regimen basic weight-training moves for all major muscle groups. Using inexpensive free weights at home, I "pumped iron" for about 10 minutes on most days of the week. (For my maintenance workout program, see "How I Exercise," also in the January 2006 Horse & Rider).
Now, Add Horses
The weight kept coming off. After I'd shed 60 pounds, I mustered the courage to call my daughter's trainer, Karen Lesko Molnar of Allentown, N.J., and told her I wanted to learn to ride. She was flabbergasted. She knew me only as an obese, super-busy career mom. I told her I'd already lost a chunk of weight, was going to lose more, and that riding was my motivation, with showing to be my reward.
I began on the Appaloosa gelding Ha Bar Bandito, or "QT." He's an experienced teenager who'd been shown in Appaloosa youth competition by a previous owner. He's a sturdy mount, and I knew he was the lesson horse Karen uses with her heavier students. QT taught me the basics.
Abour a year later, after I'd gotten down to around 170 pounds, Karen put me up on Bo Skip Jo, her 25-year-old palomino Quarter Horse. "BJ," as we call him, has been a cherished part of Karen's family since he was six. When I was finally allowed to ride him, I knew for sure I was getting thin!
On QT and then BJ, I began showing in open compettion in the Central Jersey Horseman's Association (CJHA). My events are showmanship, Western equitation and pleasure, pattern classes and trail. I wasn't and still am not a world-beater, but I have great fun and enjoy the learning process. Plus, I do have big goals (more on that in a moment).
Once I was riding, I knew I would someday reach and maintain my ideal weight, even though the long-term failure rate of most weight-loss programs is about 95 percent. Horses have given me the sustainability needed to keep going. In order to ride at all, I had to lose a certain amount of weight. Then in order to be the type of rider I longed to be in the show ring, I had to continue losing and keep it off, which I did and am.
Another terrific thing about horses as a weight-loss aid is the way they reinforce the positive mental attitude you need to be successful. So much of riding and training horses is mind over matter and staying positive, and the same is true of dieting. As I learned to be a more effective rider, I was also learning to be a more effective dieter. Ultimately, I realized my earlier approaches to dieting were far too food-focused. I needed to balance my life and use other thing, including horses, to calm me down and give me a sense of fulfillment.
Putting an overweight person on a diet emphasizing food is like giving a suicidal person a shotgun--eventually there's going to be a disaster. You need a much more global approach.
Keeping it Going
Today, I can still hardly believe I'm using the 16-inch-seat show saddle I bought for my daughter at the 1998 All American Quarter Horse Congress. Someday I plan to show in breed competition and beyond that, who knows? Something like the Select Quarter Horse World Show for over-50 riders might even be in my future.
Right now I'm still riding Karen's horses, and I don't know if or when I'll actually have a horse of my own. For the moment, instead of buying a horse, I've celebrated my return to health by making a sizable donation to the Rutgers Equine Science Center. It's my way of saying thank you to the fabulous four-legged creatures that have helped make my new life possible.
My husband and I recently moved to a community in Crosswicks, N.J., where many residents have horses on small acreage. I may catch-ride some of my neighbor's horses. I also handle the point system for the CJHA, and the community of horse people I knOw through CJHA and Rutgers Equine Science Center makes for a wonderful supportive network.
Sometimes people ask if I wished I'd discovered the path to fitness when I was much younger. "Think how different your life would have been," they say. But in truth I consider myself fortunate to have had the experiences I did, and to have been heavy for so long. It taught me to have compassion for people who are struggling with difficult issues.
And, who knows? Without having been heavy, I might never have turned to horses. I'm happy with things just the way they are!
This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine. Pick up the January 2007 and November 2008 issues for updates from Sandy and more than 75 tips on riding your way to fitness.