Those of us who have reached middle age know that there are some great benefits at this time of life – we are more settled in our careers, secure financially, hopefully, our kids are becoming more independent. The years of study, of waking up at night caring for little tackers and feeling we have to do the hard yards at work have paid off, the mortgage is under control and there is a window of opportunity to pursue our own interests again. Of course, in middle age we do start to notice that our physical capability, agility and possibly our nerve is not what it used to be. One of the great things about horse riding is that one can not only participate even at an elite level, but one can continue to improve and achieve new challenges even when one is past one’s physical peak. If we want to enjoy our horses at this time of our lives the guidelines are the same as at any other time: know your strengths and weaknesses, capitalise on the strengths, minimise the effects of the weaknesses, and set meaningful achievable goals and work towards them in a systematic way. Enjoy the journey because no matter how diligent you are you cannot guarantee an outcome such as ‘I want to ride FEI dressage’. Your horse may break down or suffer an injury, so you must enjoy the training and the every day riding.
GOAL SETTING Be clear about what you want to do. It is rewarding to achieve the goals, so make them achievable. Chances are if you haven’t competed at an elite level by now it is not realistic to set the goal of going to the Olympics, but you may enjoy a goal of competing at the elite level, of FEI dressage or the World Cup jumping. Be aware that you will still need commitment and a special partner to achieve this. Be clear about how much time and money you wish to commit when you set your goals, and ensure that the resources can match the goal. If you really don’t have time to achieve elite levels set a different goal – the Medium tests at the state championships for example.
CHOOSING A PARTNER It is most important to choose a horse that is suitable for you and your goals. You have a little more financial stability; you have learned that a bargain isn’t always the best choice. Equestrian sports are not for the mentally frail, the thing that really sustains us through the boring bits and the frustrating bits, I think, is having a horse that you like. Having a relationship with the other member of this partnership is important. Your horse may be quirky, or lazy or timid, but you must like him. The key things are talent, temperament, trainability and soundness. He should have enough ability in your chosen field that it is not too difficult to train him. He must have a temperament to fit in with your lifestyle. If you work long hours and can’t ride six days a week there is no point having a toey young thoroughbred that needs large amounts of work. It won’t be fun, and you won’t feel like making the effort at the end of the day if it’s not fun. Maybe something older and more established in his training will give you the inspiration you need to saddle up at night. If you have always wanted to start a youngster and that is your goal, do so by all means, but choose a kind youngster and be smart enough to get help to take him out the first few times. Pay a professional to do the hard bits as prevention is much better than cure. I think that one of the benefits of middle age is being more realistic about one’s abilities, and having less need to prove ourselves, so capitalise on this maturity and be quick to get help and support. If you are 50 and want to ride FEI don’t start with a foal that is going to mature at 17hh, as it will take ten years to train him and you may run out of physical fitness before you get there. When you choose your partner do think if he will suit you still in a decade if that is your timeframe. Sometimes a horse that has some soundness problems that can be managed, e.g. with glucosamine, light work, or corrective shoeing, can be a rewarding partner. There may be other physical constraints, for example I have a problem with my hips (as a result of falling off when I was young) and I cannot ride a really wide horse.
GETTING HELP Get the right help. I find that regular help works best. Commit yourself to some regular lessons. If you are time poor, find an instructor who can come to you, or is nearby, someone who will encourage you with your own agenda, not theirs. An instructor who just has her eye on your lovely horse to ride herself (she believes that she would do a better job) will not help you as much as the less ambitious and genuine person who enjoys seeing you and your horse be the best combination you can be. So what if Neddy has the ability to go to the Olympics, if he is your horse enjoy what you want to do with him. Find help to care for him and keep him fit if you haven’t time to do it yourself. A pony club member may be pleased to exercise your friend or do his rugs when you are busy. Send him to a professional if your business trip is just before your competition. Or keep him with a professional so he is cared for properly when you are busy.
PHYSICAL DECLINE It is sad but true that we are slower, stiffer, weaker, etc. as we age. So be smart about this. If there is a specific problem, go and get it assessed by a sports medicine specialist or physio. Incorporate regular exercise into your program. Go to the gym; have a routine designed for you by a personal trainer. You will benefit immensely from the extra work you put in.
DRAW ON YOUR PAST EXPERIENCE By now we have all achieved a lot; we can use these experiences to form our new successes. We have done things before that are really hard, we learned to drive, finished our degree, taken on new roles. The things that have helped you before will help you in your new endeavours. Be optimistic, ask experts, analyse why you are having a problem, persist.