“What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and three men in a dressage class all have in common?” asks Ivan Todosijczuk. “They’re all figments of our imagination.” Ivan and fellow riders Stephen Hill and Locke Boros came up with this quip a few years ago during a lesson after a couple of women took a second glance while walking past the arena at Edmonton’s Whitemud Equine Learning Centre.
Although the joke doesn’t quite ring true (everyone knows Santa Claus is real) there is something at the heart of it. To give the gawkers credit, the scene would be considered unusual at a lot of barns. The three equestrians were, well … men, riding English, and of what Stephen calls “a certain vintage.”
The three took up the sport in their late 50s at Whitemud, a landmark stable located in the heart of the city. They were brought together when Locke, retired from his job, was looking for a daytime lesson to join. Staff suggested an appropriate fit might be with Stephen and Ivan. And the ‘Three Amigos,’ as Ivan dubbed their little crew, was born. For about two years, they rode regularly on Mondays. And while different schedules and objectives mean the three mount up together only occasionally now, they all still ride, embracing the physical and mental benefits of the sport that obviously aren’t the reserve of the young.
A “Good Obsession”
Ivan, now 62, was the first of the three to start at Whitemud. Having loved horses since he was a child growing up in the Ukraine, he always wanted to ride, but life happened, as it usually does. Always a physical person, Ivan cycled competitively for many years until 2006 when a “significant injury” involving nerve damage threw him for a loop. In 2010, Ivan on the advice of his wife Maria, a long-time equestrian, decided to take up riding. However, unable to sit comfortably anywhere at the best of times due to his injury, Ivan was reticent to get in a saddle.
He credits his first instructor, Linda Tennyson, Whitemud’s lesson coordinator, with being able to work with his physical issues.
“I just realized horseback riding was a lot easier on my body than the cycling had ever been. Certainly, riding didn’t cause [the] physical discomfort I was afraid it would,” said Ivan, a communications professional who still gets his competitive buzz through inline skating (and is usually ranked in the top 15 in his age group in North America).
“Why is it that I can ride? Because my weight is in my feet. I tend to do more of a two-point unless my horse is only walking, then I’m seated. And, actually, it feels like a massage. I think the advantage I have is all the sports I’ve done require an incredible amount of leg strength, core strength and balance, and so I can stand in a set of stirrups all day long. It doesn’t bother me. And the more I ride, the more I learn to position myself in the saddle a little better to take pressure off.”
He and Maria own a horse, an 18-year-old Morgan named Echo, and Ivan rides assorted horses in both jumping and flatwork lessons. He also participates in Whitemud’s musical ride team and, with Echo, volunteers with the centre’s therapeutic riding program, Little Bits. Further afield, he and Maria have enjoyed other parts of Canada, France and Mexico on horseback.
“I can become obsessive to some degree, but talk about your good obsession!”
Like Ivan, Locke, 68, had hoped to find his way to horses his entire life. Just as Locke was finishing grade one, his grandfather died, so he and his father spent the summer tending the family farm. A highlight for the youngster was getting to ride the Percheron, Lizzie, to check on the cattle. “I just sat on the back, holding onto the mane and I just loved it,” Locke recalled.
Fast forward to 2011. A 63-year-old Locke was driving into his job as the Edmonton Journal’s printing plant operations manager when he noticed a sign outside Whitemud for adult learn-to-ride lessons. He enquired, but classes were full, so the idea went on the back burner. The following November Locke saw the sign again. “And I decided on the way home I would stop in. I signed up for lessons and it’s become a passion of mine since then.”
Locke rides about four or five times a week in flatwork and jumping lessons and on his own. He also volunteers helping new riders and with Little Bits. Plus, he’s one of only two men (Ivan being the other) on the musical ride team.
Riding also provides Locke with an important outlet. His wife Jill, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014, is struggling with the disease and Locke is responsible for much of her care. Although hesitant to say it, for fear of sounding selfish, Locke calls the barn a “respite.” He said, “It gives me an hour, an hour and a half. I focus on what’s at hand and that’s me and the horse.”
Unlike his compatriots, Stephen, 65, never yearned for equine involvement. Nevertheless, with wife Jennifer and daughter Katherine both avid equestrians, he spent many years watching lessons and being a horse-show dad – picking up poop, hauling tack boxes, etc. “Or I’d be sent off to Tim Hortons or Subway to get lunch,” he laughed. “Honestly, I was, I won’t say afraid, but I was very, very uncomfortable around horses because they’re such big animals and I wasn’t familiar with them at all. I had zero comfort or experience other than kind of vicariously through my wife and daughter.”
Having retired from his full-time provincial government, middle-management job in 2010, Stephen wanted to try a new activity.
Enter the Whitemud sign again. “And this is going to sound hokey, I was literally driving by Whitemud Equine Centre one day and they had a sign out saying daytime – which was key for me – daytime adult learn-to-ride. And I thought, well that’s a sign, figuratively and literally, that maybe I should try it.”
He’s ridden off and on ever since. “There’s no way you could say I have a passion for it, but I do enjoy it,” said Stephen, once a team sport kind of guy who now does yoga two or three times a week in addition to a lesson.
“I’ve come to like horses, become comfortable around them,” said Stephen, who usually has one lesson and a hack each week. While he enjoys the barn’s social atmosphere at Whitemud, Stephen admits he really enjoys riding solo. “Just being in the saddle, tooling around and practicing some of the things I’ve worked on in my lessons. It’s just so pleasurable.”
A Risky Proposition
But aren’t the late-blooming equestrians worried about getting hurt? The physical and mental benefits outweigh most risks, they say.
“I mean, I don’t bounce like I did when I was 40,” said Locke, a self-described speed lover who jumps up to two-feet high and has fallen off four times. “But I’m not concerned about it.” Calling the horse’s motion therapeutic, he said riding has eased arthritis in his lower back.
“I’m probably in the best physical shape I’ve been in since I was in my 40s,” he added. “It’s a pretty damn good cardio workout every time you get on the back of a horse.
“I don’t think you’re ever too old. It’s a wonderful pastime for someone who wants to stay physical.”
More than likely it’s connecting with the horses that compels the men most of all. As Whitemud is a busy lesson barn, they don’t necessarily always get to ride their favourites. If given the choice, Stephen takes Zena, a chestnut Warmblood that was donated to the program by the private barn where his wife rides. Locke enjoys Remy, a large 25-year-old grey Percheron-Thoroughbred cross and Max, a Thoroughbred with “attitude,” is at the top of Ivan’s list.
“There’s an emotional, psychological union that you can’t get with a piece of machinery, whether it’s a bicycle, a car or inline skates, skis. Those are inanimate things. There’s just something about these animals that’s extraordinary,” said Ivan.
The men encourage anyone who is interested in riding to get involved, no matter what their age.
Stephen gives Whitemud credit for “meeting the needs of people who otherwise might never try riding.” The centre did a good job bringing together the Three Amigos. Although disbanded, the trio still shares a strong bond, says Locke. “We may not ride that often together, but we certainly enjoy one another’s company. And it’s kind of neat to have had three guys riding together.”
“We may not ride that often together, but we certainly enjoy one another’s company. And it’s kind of neat to have had three guys riding together.”