It’s been more than a decade since I ended my illustrious junior career, going out in glory by finally jumping cleanly around a 3’6” course. For those that knew me during the early days of my riding, they know what an accomplishment that was. The start of my show career had truly been something to behold. I had a particular flare for performance, preferring to put on spectacular aerial show where I landed firmly in the dirt, to actually jumping the fences in the ring. With my 30th birthday looming, that’s not a tradition I’d like to relive as I attempt to get back in the saddle. I just don’t think I’ll bounce the way I used to.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been on a horse since then, but the desire to start riding again on a regular basis has stayed strong. There’s just something about horses that gets in your blood and you can’t seem to get rid of it no matter how old you get. While at nearly 30 I’m hardly the oldest rider to get back into the sport, it’s still a challenge, both mentally and physically, something that became painfully clear this past weekend. To those that have done it at an older age, if I weren’t still so sore from my recent ride, I’d bow down to you. You are an inspiration to all of us rusty stirrup riders.
My first ride back was a little on the rocky side. As I geared up to get on, the butterflies in my stomach danced faster and my heart beat harder. I’d conveniently blocked out how much courage it takes to put your foot in that stirrup. It wasn’t the horse that concerned me. I’ve known Luc, a 10-year-old Canadian Warmblood gelding, since the day he was born. While somewhat of a character, he’s usually more whoa than go, and with my sister, his owner, on the ground beside him, I knew he’d stand patiently while I fumbled around in my attempt to get on. No, what had me spooked was the thing sitting beside him.
Sure, it looked harmless enough, but I knew better. Coloured a cheerful shade of neon orange, those two small steps looked more like mountains to me. I didn’t always have this completely irrational fear of mounting blocks, that’s something that’s developed with age. Back when I was riding regularly I had no trouble at all marching up those steps and gracefully getting on. I could even mount from the ground when the occasion called for it. Nowadays it was a completely different story.
The fear all stems from my last failed attempt to get back in the saddle. I’d put one foot in the stirrup, pushed off with the other, and the mounting block had collapsed beneath me. I was left clinging to the side of Luc, my foot still stuck in the stirrup. I was hanging there unable to pull myself up and unwilling to let go. Finally I gave up on my pride, wrestled my foot free, and landed in the dirt. Does it count as falling off if you never really made it all the way on to begin with?
This time I was much more cautious. I gingerly climbed each step, taking several deeps breaths and telling those obnoxious butterflies to shut it. I gently put my foot in the stirrup, pushed off and hoped for the best. Success! I instantly felt at peace once I was settled in the saddle, like it hadn’t been years since I’d been there. A surge of confidence raced through me and I was sure that the rest of my first ride back would be a breeze. If only I had known getting on was going to be the easy part.
Gathering up my reins I urged Luc toward the rail. I kicked, I clucked, I squeezed until I practically turned purple with the effort. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I resorted to begging, pleading, promising him an entire bag of carrots if he would just take one measly little step forward. Instead, he turned around and tried to bite my toe. That’s Luc for you. I did mention he was character.
Finally I got him to set out at a sedate walk. I could hear the instructors from my past telling me to put my heels down, look up and sit up straight. Too bad my body had other ideas. That’s the problem with getting back into riding after a break. My mind remembers what needs to get done, but no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to make my body obey. My toes were pointed like a ballerina, my eyes were fixated on Luc’s rather unruly mane, and my back felt about as supportive as a pipe cleaner. At least we were going forward now.
After spending most of my 20-minute ride at what was probably the slowest walk any horse had ever managed, I decided to try a little trot. I should have worn a better sports bra. It was bone jarringly jostling and after less than five minutes I just couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t dare attempt a canter.
For the first four hours after my ride I was preening like a peacock, telling everyone I was hardly sore at all. Of course all I’d really done was walk. Then my body started to protest, creaking and groaning with age. By that night I was walking a little funny and getting reacquainted with muscles long forgotten. It looks like I have a long way to go before I’m back to where I was, but I plan to enjoy the ride, every slow step of the way.