Friday, Apr. 12, 2024

The Best Way To Stay Riding Is To Stay Riding

These “mature” amateur riders agree that being physically active is the best antidote to feeling your age.

It should come as no surprise that dedicated riders seem less plagued by the nagging maladies that often accumulate over the years in the general population. Not only do they maintain general physical fitness through work on and off their well-selected mounts, but also their preferred exercise—riding—is renowned for its therapeutic benefits.
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These “mature” amateur riders agree that being physically active is the best antidote to feeling your age.

It should come as no surprise that dedicated riders seem less plagued by the nagging maladies that often accumulate over the years in the general population. Not only do they maintain general physical fitness through work on and off their well-selected mounts, but also their preferred exercise—riding—is renowned for its therapeutic benefits.

“No other activity or piece of equipment gives input to your pelvis in all three planes, meaning front to back, side to side and rotary movement. This kind of movement helps promote balance, coordination, strength and stability,” explained Kimberly Kones-Abramsohn, an occupational therapist and Director of Rehabilitation Services for Rocking Horse Rehab, a pediatric rehabilitation center in West Orange, N.J., that specializes in equine assisted therapies. “Nothing but the human gait mimics the three-dimensional movement you get when riding a horse. When you’re riding, you’re working every part of your body the way it’s supposed to be worked.”

Kones-Abramsohn, herself a hunter rider since childhood, found a way to combine her own passions when she learned about hippotherapy while in graduate school.

She touted the mental benefits of riding in addition to the physical ones, particularly as applied to older adults.

“Over 60, people can begin to have issues with things like brittle bones, balance and reflexes. And while they’re all factors that need to be taken into account [for safety reasons when riding], at the same time riding helps all of these issues,” she said. “When riding a horse, you’re weight bearing, following directions, sequencing, attending, you’re focused but at the same time relaxed and tranquil. It improves visual and special skills and general mental abilities. You’re working every part of your brain and every part of your body.”

She explained the importance of knowing your own body, including its strengths, weaknesses and general proportions, to help find the right horse and discipline.

“Riding should not hurt. Beyond the general soreness you feel after starting any new exercise, if you feel sore, something’s wrong, whether it’s your position, tack or something you’re doing on the horse,” she said. “It should be a pleasant experience.”

While many riders may have the urge to get back in the tack as soon as possible after an injury, Kones-Abramsohn cautions against that mindset.

“You have to be very careful with injuries because, while riding does help many injuries, it can hurt as well if you’re not properly healed. You can get into a situation where you’re setting up a repetitive injury,” she said. “It’s important to go slowly, listen to your body and know what horse you’re getting on. You may need to adjust your tack differently after an injury as well.”

Symbiosis

A reciprocal relationship seems to exist between a person’s physical fitness and general health and their time in the saddle. You keep yourself in better shape, as a whole, and your riding reflects that; you spend more quality time riding, you feel better as a whole.

Champion amateur-owner hunter rider and U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge Betty Oare, 66, of Warrenton, Va., exemplifies that mindset.

“Especially at my age, or as other people want to do this longer, the most important thing is to stay physically fit. It may be a little harder as you get older, since your muscles aren’t quite as strong and your bones get weaker as you age. It doesn’t mean spend 50 hours at the gym, but just keep moving,” she said. “If you enjoy [riding] and love it, I think that’s part of it.”

Even if someone is unable to ride during the week because of kids or work, Oare recommended finding some form of exercise to do at home.

“So when you do get a chance to show on the weekend, it’s not as hard,” she said. “I’m no expert, but it’s what I know I have to do, and I’m older than most. When all else fails, go dancing!

“I don’t go to the gym; I’d rather ride. I find it a lot more fun, but I do have a treadmill. On days like today, where I couldn’t ride one of my horses because it had a shoe off, I’m going to get on the treadmill,” she continued.

After two accidents—one in the schooling ring in 2003, the other two years later in Wellington, Fla., when her horse knocked a jump onto her after a fall—Oare was sidelined with broken bones.

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“I came in there fairly fit, and my leg healed [with the help of a plate and eight screws], and they turned me loose quicker than they thought they would,” she said. “Each time, I didn’t cheat and did exactly what the doctor said. If you do have an accident, you need to take the time to let it heal and rehab it.”

With her more recent injury, Oare broke her leg the third week in March and was back showing at Upperville (Va.) the first week in June, though she dropped down to the 3-foot adult amateurs for six weeks.

“The first time, when I broke my shoulder and ankle, it was the third week in August. That doctor was really into sports medicine and physical therapy, and I was back on a horse in seven weeks,” she recalled.

 “I rode at Washington that year, and I think my horse was champion—someone else was keeping my horse fit for me!”

Despite taking the occasional Advil, Oare still feels good riding and doesn’t note much in the way of age- or injury-related effects.

“I don’t even pretend that I want a leg up now, though! I use a little ladder. My legs are short as it is, and I don’t think I need to be twisting the one I broke around like that,” she said laughing.

Oare said she was genetically fortunate to have parents who lived to a healthy old age. Her father continued to foxhunt until he was nearly 80. She also stressed the importance of finding the right horse as another “part of the puzzle.”

“I still love to foxhunt—it’s the only time I get to go fast,” she said. “I just try to get myself on a good horse. You’re always taking chances because there are holes in the ground and solid fences, but I love it!”

Making The Proper Adjustments

Walter Reynolds, 66, of Upperco, Md., was, until last year, competing his now 13-year-old Thoroughbred, Stonehenge, at the advanced level. He decided to stop competing in favor of foxhunting when the competition schedule required at that level became incompatible with maintaining his career as a landscape architect.

“My horse had taken me places I never expected to go. I’d already done more than I expected to do, so it wasn’t that hard a decision,” said Reynolds, who noted that at 62, he was the oldest person ever to complete cross-country at the Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.).

 The only real physical concessions Reynolds had to make over his decades of competition were laser vision correction following a rainy outing at Over The Walls (Mass.) that left him riding virtually blind behind obscured glasses and a tweak to his foot position in the stirrup after breaking his ankle.

Despite a rigorous physical therapy regime tailored to get him back on his competition schedule, Reynolds had lost some flexibility in his ankle following a random hacking accident.

“I lost my stirrup over a drop fence at Stuart [N.Y.], and I couldn’t get my damn foot back in the stirrup for three more jumps! I lost it again dropping into the water at Over The Walls—the same time where I couldn’t see—so I started riding with that foot [all the way home] in the stirrup.”

While he found his own fitness to be important to his riding career, Reynolds never had to specifically address it.

“By the time you get your horse ready for a three-star, you’ve gotten yourself pretty physically fit too,” he said. “My wife and I do all our own farm work and riding, so you’re not just showing up on the weekend to compete.”

Despite his successes, Reynolds is pragmatic about the realities of eventing at the pinnacle of the sport with an AARP card in your back pocket and a job to hold down.

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“I’m not so sure people my age should be eventing at the advanced level; the courses have gotten so incredibly technical. My reaction time is not the same as a 25-year-old’s, and I’m not really so sure that at 66 I should be doing Fair Hill again,” he reasoned. “Everybody now is competing in order to qualify. We used to do it because it was fun, and we just went out and did it. The sport is not what it used to be, and after 30-plus years of doing it, it’s time to do some other things.”

Reynolds has been happy to turn his riding focus more exclusively to foxhunting, a pursuit he and his wife have enjoyed for 10 years. They now ride out with Elkridge-Harford Hunt (Md.), where Linda joins the non-jumping second field, and Walter and Stonehenge have a blast getting their cross-country fix in the front.

Never Give Up

Janne Rumbough, 63, of Palm Beach, Fla., and East Hampton, N.Y., has done “everything on a horse except for polo,” though she’s currently most well known as an FEI-level dressage rider and breeder out of her MTICA (More Than I Can Afford) farm. She also sits on the Advisory Board of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation. She, too, said fitness is a huge component of riding.

“For me to stay in the same shape and compete at the level I want to, every five years I have to ride one extra horse than I did the five years before,” she said, also crediting stretching and some Pilates and yoga exercises with helping keep her in riding form.

Rumbough needs to stay in top shape, as she keeps busy riding up to five horses, some of them still rather feisty, in various stages of training.

“I still ride the young whipper-snappers. I lent my Grand Prix horse to a friend, and I’m hoping to make another Grand Prix horse,” she said. “I have a 4-year-old that, damn it, can really buck. But if they don’t do it as a 4-year-old, you don’t really have a horse. They have to have spirit.”

Originally from Denmark, she first trained with Gunner Andersen, and she stated simply, “I’m never going to give up.”

She said that people shouldn’t be intimidated to compete if that’s what they enjoy and to be proud of being an amateur.

“Being an amateur rider is not a matter of talent. We just have to pay our own way!” she said laughing. “You just have to keep going, never give up and have a positive attitude.”

Rumbough also stressed the importance of finding the right horse.

“A lot of people overmount themselves. You need to get on a horse that suits you, where you feel safe and have a wonderful time,” she said. “Never buy a horse to grow into. Buy one that you can get on right now and be so happy to have a horse. People get into their 40s and 50s when they can finally afford a horse and find this huge-moving Dutch Warmblood that you have all these ideas about what you’re going to do with and then you never get on it.

“Find a horse that you really get along with. It doesn’t matter what breed, as long as it suits you,” she continued. “I got a Quarter Horse in the early days of dressage in Florida in the ’70s and had a wonderful time. I taught him to do third level dressage, and we also did western halter classes! You buy a horse for you. I buy my horses for me.”

Rumbough admitted to waking up with the occasional stiff body part, but she stretches every morning and tries to eat well.

“But the best is when I get to the barn—I forget everything, as it is my passion and the horses are so wonderful,” she said. “The best thing you can do as an old person is get out and ride!

“I just hope the judges won’t give me lower scores now because they know how old I am,” she joked. “Look at that old bird, they’ll say!”

Stacey Reap

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