Back in the Saddle
Many people returning to riding are surprised to find that while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak and their fitness levels are appallingly poor.
By: John Haime & Alison King |
A practical guide for mature adults returning to riding in middle age – or taking it up for the first time.
You’ve decided you want to ride: perhaps for the first time, or after years out of the saddle. You may have watched your kids having lessons and got the bug from being around the barn, or you just feel it’s time to get back to it.
Many returning riders are surprised to find that while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak and their fitness levels are appallingly poor. Others have physical issues such as chronic back pain, or have had knee or hip replacements. Some complain of a lack of courage, being older and wiser and more aware of their mortality (and brittle bones) than when they were 20-somethings.
Horse Sport asked some industry experts for ways to deal with the physical and mental aspects of returning to riding, and we get some first-hand accounts from those who have bravely re-entered the sport they love.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS
How to face your fears, build confidence and get the most from the experience.
Before you get started on this new (or repeat) endeavour, ask yourself: What is my plan? What is it I actually want to accomplish based on how much time I’m able to commit and how adventurous I’m feeling? A plan outlining your goals and some steps detailing how you’ll accomplish them can give you a feeling of security and purpose. Write down three goals you’d like achieve in the first year and how you will accomplish them. Include observations from your training/showing during the year.
Choosing your partner
You are only half of this riding equation, so spend some time deciding what kind of a partner you want that will help you satisfy your riding needs. Talk to coaches to get the right fit, whether it is a school horse on which you will be taking lessons, or a horse you are planning to purchase. A partnership that provides trust and security will give you confidence and be a big factor in your enjoyment of the sport.
Address your fears
From the tangible fear of falling off and getting hurt, to fear of failure, there is a lengthy list that can take the enjoyment out of your riding.
The fear of getting hurt in equestrian sport is real and something you’ll need to meet head-on. You’ve already partially addressed it by finding the right partner. You can also diffuse fear and build confidence by working on your technical abilities with a compatible coach. Learn emergency dismounts so you’re ready for any situation. Even safety equipment can give you some peace of mind; body protectors and safety stirrups won’t prevent a fall, but will make you feel safer.
Then of course there are the dreaded “what ifs.” We create fear in our minds by projecting that something negative may happen, and that makes us anxious in the moment, telling ourselves things like “I can’t do this.” For example, you take lessons, work hard on your skills, and enter your first show. You arrive at the ring, everyone is watching, and the voice inside you starts acting up …
“What if I look silly in front of everyone?”
“What if I fall off?”
“What if the jumps are too big?”
“What if I let down my coach, who has worked hard to help me?”
This creates anxious feelings that can be a real distraction, sometimes even overwhelming. It is important for you to remember that although you believe these things might happen, they almost never do.
If you have negative riding experiences from the past, these little gremlins can also create feelings of fear. Support your confidence by putting emphasis on all of the positive experiences from the past and leave the negative ones where they belong – behind you!
Your goal is to stay in the moment. When you find yourself drifting forward or back in time, focus on a key task in the present and snap yourself back. If you are about to enter the show ring, focus on a key, positive task at hand: “I want to create a great early rhythm approaching the first jump.” While the future is where your goals are, the mind must stay focused in the present moment on key tasks to reach those goals.
You will be challenged often while ‘getting back on the horse’ and it will be humbling, but by having a clear plan and purpose, the right partner, and addressing your fears head on, you’ll be prepared, confident, and might really surprise yourself!
THE PHYSICAL ASPECTS
As we age, our past injuries and compensations can hinder our effectiveness and enjoyment as a rider.
Riders are tough, and rehab is rare in the culture of this sport in Canada. As we progress through life, both returning and new riders can be plagued by joint replacements, arthritis, back pain, old fractures, and so on.
Let’s consider a rider having had a hip replacement, for example, hindering normal movement and muscle activation around the joint. If the rider’s ability to hike that hip is affected, then instead of getting that leg down on the horse and securely into the stirrup, their weight will be shifted and tipped to the opposite side and they’ll be unable to balance the horse, or themselves, properly.
When we injure ourselves, or have jobs that cause habitual postures, our body learns to compensate to keep us going, but not always in the best functional manner. Particular muscles and joints can become overused/misused for a stability system that has been compromised. This creates a dysfunctional pattern, especially in older riders, whereby we’re “hanging on for dear life” through the wrong structures in our body. This motor control dysfunction is manifested in common equitation pitfalls such as rounded shoulders, shallow heels, closed hips, and dependent hands.
‘Wake Up’ Warm-up
The best warm-up is to explore your normal range of motion, especially through the hips and core, and ‘wake up’ your muscles by moving your joints through normal range. Below are a series of movement/mobility exercises that can be used to warm up and check for symmetry, pain, tension, and the range of motion you are able to access. If you have pain, trouble balancing your horse, nagging position issues, etc, then this is a good place to start to begin to identify dysfunctional movement and stability.
Begin by simply standing with your eyes closed, feet shoulder-width apart. Become cognizant of where your weight falls in your feet. Is it symmetrical side-to-side? Do you put more weight on the front of your feet or the back? Do you feel more pressure through one hip or the other? Where you are comfortable standing in space can tell an experienced therapist a lot about what might be tight/weak/overused/etc. If you lean to one side, front or back, this changes the muscle tension in that leg/hip and across your back, and affects your ability to balance yourself and your horse.
1. Wall Cogs (20 reps each)
Standing with your back to a wall, maintain three points of contact throughout the exercise: head, mid-back and glutes.
Part A: Round/flex through your entire back, pushing your low back to the wall and tucking your bottom. Roll your arms forward and inward to help, and let your chin come up to keep your head on the wall. You should feel a stretch through your lower back.
Part B: Keep the same three points on the wall, tuck your chin, and extend your back off the wall, anteriorly tilting your pelvis, rotating your arms out and your palms to face forward. You should feel a stretch through your mid-back.
2. Pelvic/Hip Mobility
Our pelvis directly interacts with our horse’s back and if we are limited in pelvic range of motion, then our ability to balance and keep our leg on our horse suffers.
Do these in front of a mirror or a partner. They can all be used to warm up (5 sets each of deliberate, controlled movement), but the movements where you feel limited should be practiced until they match the other side.
a) Hike: Stand with your arms at your sides. Bend your left knee and hike your right hip up towards your armpit. Repeat other side.
b) Shift: Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, let your hips fall/shift directly sideways. You can counterbalance by letting your opposite arm hang. Repeat right and left.
c) Full body rotation: With feet shoulder-width apart but relaxed so they can arch and fall as needed to enable body movement, rotate everything one direction from neck, through back and hips. Note how far you can see over each shoulder and what feels tight.
d) Tilt: Picture your pelvis as a bucket. Anterior tilt: tip the water forward out of the bucket (you’ll feel your lower back arch), without moving through the mid-back and shoulders. Posterior tilt: tip the bucket backwards and flatten your lower spine
These exercises are an excellent “check-in” and warm-up to optimize your effectiveness and enjoyment in the saddle. However, nothing replaces an individual assessment and treatment by an experienced therapist, as everyone’s injury history and compensations are unique.
TALES FROM THE FRONT LINE
New riders who took the plunge, and ‘re-riders’ who just couldn’t stay away
Lives: Brandon, MB
Stable: 4B Equestrian, Brandon, MB
I started taking riding lessons around 10, stopped riding when I went to university, and started again at the age of 30.
The first few rides were incredibly strange. I could picture the way I used to feel and how I achieved the goals I was after, and my muscles had some memory, but my mind did not. It took quite a few rides to achieve the feeling of being connected to the horse. Although I was sore (in a good way), I didn’t feel that I was efficient in the use of my muscles. I know I looked like a complete disaster during this time, but kept going and did lots of work without stirrups.
It was much harder than I thought it would be. It took a couple of months of riding to feel again like I had at a younger age. So much of the work was mental, and I hadn’t expected that at all. I started taking lessons again seriously and recently purchased Loki, an eight-year-old Czech Warmblood gelding who is a joy to ride. As an adult rider, my focus is really on just improving for myself and for my own goals.
The physical demands as a re-rider seem bigger, but I’ve been very lucky to work with a personal trainer in the past who kept me fit and I think actually I may be in better shape now than when I rode as a teenager. I’m very cognizant that if I expect fitness from my horse, I must offer the same. Mentally, I feel that I am more focussed than I was at a younger age. I also get a great benefit from riding with younger people, and I think that helps push me further as a rider.
My coaches have been excellent at determining my current level and helping me work towards my goal of doing the 1.1m. I thought as I got older I would want a horse which was quieter and more “my speed” but I soon realized that the horses I wanted to ride now are the ones with more spirit and more challenge. Of course I’m concerned about being injured, because the repercussions are bigger now in terms of work, but I’m actually less fearful than I used to be.
Riding again has made me happier, more relaxed, fitter, and ultimately able to give more at work. I have forged friendships with fellow riders of all ages and bonds with coaches which will give me lifelong pleasure, all because of the common love of horses.
Lives: Mount Uniacke, NS
Stable: Pinehill Equestrian Centre, East Lawrencetown, NS
I started taking riding lessons when I was 32. I was on cloud 9 for my first few lessons – it was exhilarating! I couldn’t believe what a workout it was and I realized how out of shape I was for riding. When I was introduced to the cross-country jumping element of eventing, I was hooked for good. Currently I ride six days a week and compete with my six-year-old gelding, Triton.
In my experiences as a beginner adult rider and also from teaching beginner riders, there are differences when learning at an older age. Adults tend to be very technical and like to understand why we are being taught to do something a certain way. We often analyze a situation and maybe do some research before our next lesson and try and put it into practice. We also tend to be a bit more cautious compared to kids. Depending on fitness levels, adult riders may take a bit longer to develop balance and flexibility, but I’ve found doing yoga helps with this quite a bit.
Mentally, in my opinion, riding is the best therapy out there. I feel calm and relaxed around horses and when I ride, I’m completely focused and not distracted by other thoughts. I feel lucky to have found an activity that is both physical exercise and mental therapy all rolled into one.
Occupation: Communications Consultant
Lives: Oakville, ON
Stable: Equestrian Dreams, Campbellville, ON
Because I have allergies, my parents wouldn’t allow me to ride at first, but by the age of 14 they finally gave in. That quickly grew into part-boarding, then buying my own horse, as well as teaching lessons. I became involved in the sport’s administration as the president of our provincial equestrian association and served on the board of the Canadian Equestrian Federation (now Equestrian Canada).
Horses were a huge part of my life until my mid-20s. I was heading back to university, getting married and moving out of my home province and didn’t have the time and finances to spare. We bought a home, I launched my career, and we started a family. I honestly assumed horses were part of my past and didn’t consider they might have a place in my future.
Luckily, a few years ago my daughter decided she wanted to try a horsey day camp. It turns out that riding wasn’t her passion, but taking her to lessons re-ignited mine. I found a trainer and stable that suited my needs and started from the beginning all over again.
With 20 years and 50 added pounds since I last rode seriously, everything was a lot harder the second time around…everything. My brain knew what it wanted my body to do, but my muscles couldn’t respond correctly. My balance was atrocious and my cardio-vascular fitness was non-existent. I couldn’t even trot twice around the arena without running out of breath!
My advice to any adult getting back in the saddle again is to ride as often as possible and to take lessons regularly. I started part-boarding a horse who I fell in love with and eventually purchased. I also took up running to improve my cardio fitness and started mucking stalls part-time to work on my fitness and help cover my horsey expenses.
Core strength is still a huge weakness for me, as are back pain and tightness in my hips. I see a physiotherapist regularly and do exercises at home as well as a yoga class once a week to increase strength and flexibility.
Mentally, being a fearful, 40-something re-rider is tough. Part of the fear stems from a rational worry about getting hurt – as a mother and the owner of my own business, I have a pretty low risk tolerance. I think fear also stems from my desire to control everything. Learning to let go – both literally and mentally – is one of the biggest keys to moving up the levels with my horse.
Having the right trainer and horse is the other key to a successful return to the saddle. My gelding is the perfect example. He is an old soul – a calm, patient babysitter who really helps build my confidence.
Being a re-rider is harder than I ever imagined. I expected the physical and mental challenges; what surprised me was the guilt factor. I struggled a lot initially at spending so much time and money on something just for me that doesn’t really involve or benefit my husband and kids in any way. It took me a while to realize that they benefit from seeing me healthy and happy, setting goals and working hard to achieve them. Life is too short not to do something which brings you joy – and that is the reason I will never stop riding again.