My return to riding last summer after a more than 10-year hiatus was humbling to say the least.
Back in the glory days of youth, I’d done everything from eventing to barrel racing to developing an ability to stay on a bucking horse that earned me the nickname “Velcro Butt.”
Returning to the saddle at age 46, I got winded trotting a few laps around the ring. “I thought I was in good shape,” I moaned one day. “Yeah, but you’re not in riding shape,” my instructor replied. “There’s a difference.”
Don’t even get me going on my 46-year-old hip joints. They were angry at me for a good two months before they gave in and accepted saddle time.
My return to riding had been a long time coming. You know how it goes: The weather gets nice, you see some people riding, you get the bug. I’d had the bug for a while but kept talking myself out of acting on it. I had convinced myself that I had to be at the right time in life, without a young child, to devote time to riding. I also knew I’d never ride the same way as I’d done as a young person and discouraged myself before I even put a foot in the stirrup.
Then I met Ann Czaja. Ann sat next to me at the monthly wine club in my quaint New England town, and we soon realized we had a lot in common: chocolate, wine, writing and horses. Ann, a master chocolatier for Lindt Chocolate, had grown up in Virginia but really started riding as an adult when she lived in Switzerland and worked for Lindt. Back in the U.S., she’d found a local barn, half-leased a horse and gone all in, until two things happened. Her horse died, and then her trainer relocated rather abruptly and announced her departure on a group text. Not surprisingly, this put Ann off riding for a bit.
That night at the wine club, she challenged me: “We should ride together,” she said. “It’s time.”
I wasn’t sold, but the idea germinated. Last winter, we went to visit the barn where I used to ride. Over the spring, we batted around the idea some more, until finally last summer, we jumped back in.
Did I mention that getting back into riding as an adult is humbling in the “check your ego before you enter the barn” kind of way? It’s worth mentioning again.
That first day that I showed up, a tween girl greeted me in the barn and asked if I knew how to put on a saddle. Clearly, not believing my response, she proceeded to tack up the horse for me. Yep, I was off to a rocking start.
That day, the barn owner put me on Stewie, a been-there-done-that roan gelding, who I immediately decided had the bounciest trot I’d ever ridden. Turns out he didn’t, but my sense of balance and feeling for riding was rusty to say the least. By the time I was done, I looked like I’d run a marathon, and my hip flexors were crying.
But I was ready to do it again.
Riding in your 40s is a different experience than it is in the teen and early 20s eras—different body and often different motivations. I didn’t want to compete. I did want to spend time with my friend, in the barn, around horses, and get myself back into riding shape. It was more therapy now than anything else. A chance to remember why I liked riding in the first place before the constant parade of green horses (that resulted in more injuries than I could count) took away what made riding fun to begin with. A chance to feel like the old me, albeit with a different tolerance for danger than I’d had several decades earlier.
I graduated from Stewie to Eaton, a creaky 20-something retired event horse, prone to inverting his neck and regularly tripping over his own legs. More than once, I wondered how he actually made it over a jump in his past life—but he no doubt could have wondered the same about me. Getting him together and in a frame was akin to a TRX workout, which was an intense experience at the start, but one that grew on me as I figured out how to get the best from him. Bonus: I realized it had the same benefits for my middle-aged, post C-section mom core.
Ann was mounted on Charlie, who had his own host of school horse habits and wore a cribbing strap we had to look up on YouTube to figure how to put back on. There were days we were both frustrated with our progress as Sarah, our fit and feisty 20-something instructor, stayed on us about our posture, my elbows inching out like a rugby player, or my overactive hands. But along the way, we found a sense of camaraderie in laughing at ourselves and learning not to take it so seriously. This was fun.
Winter in New Hampshire and riding can be a tough combination, and Ann and I decided to bow out until the weather warms up again. You can do that when you’re a middle-aged riding lady. In the meantime, we’re back to chocolate, wine and reality horse TV in the form of the LeMieux All Star Academy, which is a pretty good way to spend the winter.
But before my winter break, there was one day that I will never forget. One of the teenagers in the barn said hello to me, before saying, “Oh, you’re the beginner, who’s not the beginner.” Sweeter words have never been heard.
Lara Bricker joined the Chronicle after a 25-year career in journalism, where she specialized in crime writing, worked as a private investigator and wrote a true crime book. She grew up on a horse farm in Vermont where she rode in almost every discipline from local breed shows to barrel racing to hunters before she settled on eventing. She has a major in equine science and a minor in journalism form the University of New Hampshire.
She’s a longtime resident of Exeter, New Hampshire, where she lives with her three cats, teenage son and writes a local murder mystery book series.