Accept (Then Deal With) Reality
I've had to accept the inevitable fact that I'm not as young as I once was and, therefore, can't or shouldn't take the chances I once did. "When you're young and you fall off a horse, you may break something. When you're my age and you fall off, you splatter," said Roy Rogers, and he was right.
Staying in shape for riding is critical; it makes riding possible plus diffuses the muscle aches between rides. Stretching, core-building, and cardio workouts-all are important.
I've seen riders in their 70s and 80s in the hunt world doing just fine--mostly men, admittedly, which may mean they have more testosterone or who knows what. But they're so mentally and physically healthy and vital as a result.
As one 80-year-old I know says, "I ride because I want to live." He also said one secret is never stop riding because you can't easily get back to it once you're past a certain age. His own mentor hunted and jumped into his early 90s!
Beyond a can-do attitude, I think yoga and weight training are essential, for balance and strength.
Good boots, a great helmet, and not too much horse are also assets. Many midlife women have more horse than they need, in my opinion.
Finding cronies to ride with is important. I don't want to share trails with young hot-rodders anymore; I just want to putt along. Finding age-friendly group activities is also good--a walk/trot drill team, perhaps?
Also, older riders often need accommodations for things like hip/knee pain/replacement. I knew a gentleman in his late 60s with a knee replacement who desperately wanted to fulfill a lifelong desire to master riding. We came up with compensations in mounting (from the off-side, with a mounting block), stirrup length (longer than normally suggested). I also knew a woman whose doctor pulled the reins after a severe osteoporosis diagnosis--she was out of the saddle, but not out of the scene. She'd come to the barn and help groom or whatever, just to keep smelling the sweet smell of horse poop.
Now that 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50 and so on, I'm not sure what category I'm in anymore. But at age 58, I no longer choose to compete, so it's now much more about pure enjoyment.
Staying fit enough to be a safe, smart, sounder rider is my biggest challenge. As ever, there's not enough time to do everything--that is, balancing all the other priorities in my life--so I struggle with that. Still, I do believe in lessons, lessons, lessons! You're never too old to learn more. Having someone on the ground watching and guiding you is the best. I'll always welcome the feedback and improvements.
Beyond that, I hope to be riding with like-minded folks well into my 70s. That's the goal.
No--Skip the Lessons!
I find myself less interested in trying to improve or challenge myself nowadays. After decades of riding, I increasingly find the concept of taking a lesson far less appealing than, say, a relaxing trail ride with friends or just some solitary arena time with my horse. It's not that I don't think I can learn more--of course, we ALL can, at any age--I just don't fancy being constantly told what to do for a solid hour, especially with free time at such a premium.
I've reworked my riding goals. I was gutsy in my 20s and 30s, but now I'm into fun and safe. I still love jumping, for example, but instead of 3'6" fences, I do nothing over 2'6"--and at a more moderate, hunter pace, not whipping along like a jumper rider.
I've also opened my mind to learning more about Western riding, cart driving, natural horsemanship and teaching young children how to ride. I have a 70-year-old friend who still loves jumping, but for a different reason than she did in her early riding years. The height of the fence is no longer her focus; now her challenge is memorizing the course! These days some of the jumper classes require committing to memory a course of up to 14 fences. My friend stays with 2'6" fences and finds keeping mental track of the course her new goal. She feels she's exercising her mind, along with her body.
Be Committed and Consistent
Nothing good happens without a commitment--and consistent effort. Horseback riding is a sport, so treat yourself like an athlete in training. Don't take a lesson and then neglect to practice at home, or take a lesson and then skip three weeks. Just as consistent hands bring a consistent head-set, so consistent riding brings consistent--and more effective--horsemanship.
How to be consistent? Make guidelines for yourself and keep your appointment with your horse just as you would with your doctor--or with your hair stylist! Women won't cancel their hair appointments, so make your horse appointment just as important as those.
Then, too, remember that the quality of the time you spend riding is even more important than the quantity. It really doesn't take much. Twenty minutes of quality time in the saddle might be all you need, IF you do it consistently.
Get Help and Get in Shape
I need all the encouragement I can get just to get in the saddle these days. I love riding, but I've let the fear of being bucked off stop me from doing it as much as I'd like. I'd love to be able to find a good trainer to help keep that bull-headed animal of mine in line! I'd especially love to find a trainer who'd give reasonably priced group lessons for midlife trail riders.
Beyond that, I think it's critically important to stretch and exercise regularly--you don't want a muscle cramp out on the trail. It's also a good idea to lose the muffin top (those extra pounds that jut out above your belt!).
Be Strong, Limber
The biggest challenge for me is to stay limber and fit. I now have a semi-weekly (four or five times per week) habit of stretching, walking and doing some lifting with my arms. I find I can't move a hay bale around anymore if I don't. In my younger years, I could go out and ride or move a hay bale or a 50-pound sack without giving it a second thought. Now, at the very least, stretching almost every day is mandatory to make those things possible. Doing some minimal weight lifting helps a lot, too. And walking keeps me energized. I also do some yoga-ish exercises because I'm starting to have some lower-back issues. All this exercise helps me tremendously.
Know Your Limits
I'm a barrel racer, and riding at this stage of life, I find I want time off over the winter months to recoup and plan--set goals--for the following season. Beyond that, I rely on the wisdom to "quit while you're ahead," in reference to riding my horse, driving a car, deciding whether or not to go somewhere... anything that requires you to "be smart." I try to know my limitations and live within them.
For more great information on this topic, see "Keep Riding at Midlife--and Beyond" in the February 2010 issue of Horse & Rider.