When I tell you I have shoes and a pair of sweatpants older than some of the competitors in my classes, it’s not an exaggeration.
“How can that be?” you may ask.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation breaks up the hunters and jumpers by ages for juniors and adults; for example, children’s hunters have 14 and under; amateur-owner hunters have 36 and over, and the adult hunters have three age groups. Even the jumpers at the big shows are divided by age (and may I just say, all you Winter Equestrian Festival adult jumpers 50 and over, aka the aptly named “masters,” you are my frigging heroes).
But I compete in equitation. And I am 44. If you just raised your eyebrows and shook your head (or SMH as my teenage daughter says), you are not alone. Riding friends have looked at me quizzically (pityingly?) when I have told them I like to do the adult eq. Women my age in other disciplines have actually laughed out loud at the mention. (One asked me gently if I was having a midlife crisis.) Upon learning my age, one teenager recently gasped, “Wow! You don’t look that old!”
For those of you not in the hunter/jumper world, the reason people are so shocked at my choice is because in equestrian sport, adulthood starts at 18. And while there are age subdivisions in the hunters and jumpers, that is not the case with most of the equitation divisions and medals.
In other words, while I was giving birth to my now teenage daughter, my 18-year-old competitors were just getting out of diapers. While I was getting married, these young women were literally just coming into the world. While I was graduating high school, some of these riders’ parents were graduating with me.
A judge once told my trainer that, essentially, I was too old to successfully compete against the younger adult equitation riders. It seemed to me such an odd thing to say, not because I expect anyone in the horse industry to sugar-coat their opinions, but because we’re currently living in an unprecedented time in this country where people of all genders, ethnicities, body types and sexual orientations are accepted, and differences of perspective and opinion are celebrated. And yet age has not enjoyed the same kind of inclusion, the same kind of welcome that other identifying characteristics have. It’s almost as if we are telling each other, “Great news! You can be anything you want! Except old. That one’s still not OK.”
This isn’t to say that equestrians put riders out to pasture to maintain some kind of “Logan’s Run” equilibrium (for those of you under the age of 35, it was a popular movie in the 1970s). After all, this is the only Olympic sport that celebrates men and women competing against each other, regardless of age; it’s the same sport in which riders well into their 50s compete at the highest level and win world championships; the sport where I’ve seen women well into their 80s not only compete but wipe the floor with competitors 30 years younger in the hunters.
But you don’t see those older folks in the adult equitation. Adult eq has long been considered a young person’s game. Most people equate hunter seat equitation with being pretty and graceful on a horse. That’s really only half true.
Do you know the first sentence of the EQ105 section under the “Position” paragraph in the equitation section of the USEF Rule Book? “Rider should have a workmanlike appearance, seat and hands light and supple, conveying the impression of complete control should any emergency arise.”
There’s nothing about elegance or beauty of the rider and certainly nothing about age. I was always taught that equitation is about having the maximum effectiveness in your ride with the appearance of the least amount of effort. And that kind of effectiveness is best demonstrated each year in the Big Eq finals, when junior riders vie for the coveted championship trophies in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Medal, the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search—East and West, and the ASPCA Maclay. In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful in this sport than watching the Top 10 riders in these finals navigate extremely technical courses in an invisible conversation with their horses. Anyone who rides knows how hard they are working, but they give the appearance of just sitting quietly as they gently steer their mounts from obstacle to obstacle.
So why equitation? Why choose the only division based on the rider and not the horse?
Maybe it’s because, for a number of reasons, I never got to live out my Big Eq fantasies as a junior. Maybe it’s because the older I get, I don’t want to go fast, as you have to do in the jumpers, but I’m not always excited by the unchanging courses of the hunters. Maybe it’s because when someone tells me I can’t do something, it only makes me more determined to do it.
But really, I think it’s because I continue to strive for that one round, that invisible conversation which, when done well, is poetry in motion, that round that makes you believe you and your horse can read each other’s thoughts, that minute and a half where everything is beautiful and appears effortless.
Will I ever achieve that round? Maybe, maybe not. There are so many blessings of youth that I will never see again: a straight back; a bladder that doesn’t quit after two laps of sitting trot; a sense of invincibility that only dulls with age; energy that allows you to ride four horses a day without getting tired; excitement about taking a selfie after a ride in full sunlight, no filter.
And yet my age has given me several secret weapons that I never had at 18:
• Self-worth that is not defined by my ribbons or my Instagram followers (all five of mine are very loyal acolytes, thank you).
• A sense of gratitude that I am healthy enough, strong enough and have the resources to be able to do this sport at all, because I won’t have those assets forever.
• A unicorn of a horse whom I bought and paid for myself after years of not having enough money even to pay for lessons.
Someday, the governing bodies in the sport may separate the adults into age groups that level the playing field. Already, the National Horse show has divided the Taylor Harris Adult Medal finals into two groups—“18 to 24” and “25 & over”—though the idea that a 25-year-old is considered a member of the “older” group is an exception that proves the rule. If more older adults joined the equitation ranks, the medals might enjoy the same number of different age groups that the hunters do.
But until then, I’ll keep pulling my helmet over my gray hair, fastening my gloves over my sun-spotted hands, and rubbing sunscreen over all the fine lines of my face. And as I stand at the in-gate ready to go, I’ll remind myself that there is no age limit on having that beautiful, invisible conversation between a girl and her horse.
Nora Zimmett, of Atlanta, is an amateur rider, wife and mother of a junior rider. When not with her horses, Nora pursues a career in television, where is she is the president of News and Original Series for a major cable network. She loves coffee, her barn community of amateur women riders and coffee. And also coffee.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Nov. 21 & 28, 2022, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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