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The Aging Rider

Aging Rider: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass. By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse Training Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

At present, I am not as riding fit as I would like, or as I should be, to be backing a youngster. Riding fit not only refers to the physical condition of the rider, but also the mental condition.

With age has come the wisdom not to put myself at obvious risk. As a trainer, I don t get anxious about riding, I don t have a paranoia attack, but if I am not focused, I don t ride. As I continue to attempt to teach, there are other ways to work an equine. I may find myself without a job, but that is another risk that I am willing to assume. Mentally, at any age, riders should have the education to make judgment calls for their riding skills, both physically and mentally, on a daily basis.

 I don t like the unrealistic goal setting that is too often done with students of all age groups, that can lead to early riding stress, riding emotional breakdown and accident. There is a psychosomatic link in riding and more attention should be paid to this mind/body connection and how it can improve or hinder our performance. What are some of these mental considerations and how do they affect the aging rider?

From the mental edge, the mental factor, to mental focus, I have heard it all, but it all breaks down to several simple factors. What is going on in your life at present, how are you dealing with the situation and how is it affecting your riding? Call it stress, call it anxiety, call it what you want, but we live in a dynamic environment and although I would personally like to find a plateau of peace in my life and never leave it, such is not the case. Stuff happens, and it seems to happen on a regular basis to steal my peace, put me under pressure and at times, steal away the focus I need to be on top of an equine/client situation.

You don t start mounting a youngster with your mind on something else. Stress is such a blanket term, it doesn t pin point the specific problems for the individual. Only you can take a closer look at what is going on, express your concerns, if you can, to the people around you who could offer quality advice and then develop possible solutions or at least options. Although some may seem simplistic, the results are amazing if you put them into practice.

As I have gotten older I have noticed that impatient people now make me nervous. Why do you allow other people and the clock to put you under pressure? I m all for working with an agenda and being organized, but I also like to be flexible and have alternative plans at my disposal. Having a plan B at your disposal works wonders for lowering the stress level at plan A! It is also wonderful as adults, when we finally learn a simple solution, that many of our own savvy parents knew, which is how to say no.

 I am responsible for the well being of an elderly gentleman who is an adopted member of my extended family. He is laid back and easy going about life. What really amazed me about him, when I first got to know him, was that he would think about something that was put to him, find out what his comfort level was about it and if he didn t want to do it, he said no, without any second thoughts. He has talked to me over the years about balance and I have argued that I thought I was balanced, but I have come to find out that I said yes to far too many things and then there was little or no time left for me. I ended up rushing around and getting tense and unhappy. I would get over tired and I could have a short fuse. I will admit that I have had my share of bad experiences, while working a horse, due to the fact that I was moving way to fast and because of it, not paying attention inwardly to myself or outwardly to what the equine was really trying to convey to me. I have made bad impressions, on some clients, during these times.

Taking time for yourself, being just a little selfish instead of selfless, helps develop a better attitude and positive mindset. Feeling good about yourself is a wonderful attitude to have if you are riding or training. Here again, a positive mind set seems to help the body function to its best potential. We all operate at different levels and here again, don t compare yourself to what some other individual is doing. What is your comfort level and what do you need to operate at your best?

I suppose this is as good a place as any to talk about the fear factor and I am not referring to a television show. Fear is an individual consideration and like stress it is a blanket term. For the aging rider fear becomes a problem when mentally you become cognizant of the reality of injury, pain and its ramifications. You may or may not even have an injury, but you are thinking about the what ifs. What if you get hurt? Who will take care of the to do list, all the stuff going on in your life? The stress level rises just thinking about it. It can become a vicious circle. When we were young we didn t even think about it, at least most of my friends and I never gave it a thought. To recover from injury and face the possibility of a repeat injury is paralytic for some riders and is the contributing factor to the stats on repeat accident. Some individuals do seem to live life on the edge and they must be the reason for the popularity of present television shows depicting fear triggers. I can t compare any of this to our sport.

I feel that aging riders have matured in their walk to love life, actually develop a passion for it but respect their physical limitations and those limitations dictated by their responsibilities. Most of the aging riders I talk to have accepted fear and together we limit risk by handling and riding smart. One of my mentors once told me about the mental blackboard and using the eraser method when it comes to garbage rides on garbage days. Do you ever have garbage rides and garbage days? I can t print here what I really call them. They pop up in clusters for me several times a year. I have to kick myself on those days to give thanks for all my blessings and the fact that I am still standing and still riding. That in itself is an accomplishment. Then I take the mental eraser and I wipe all the garbage off the blackboard in my mind, give myself a clean slate to work with and ride the next time with a better outlook. I have been told, when I talk about this method with my students, that I am using a biofeedback approach. I just thought it was a good way of not being so hard on oneself. None of us are perfect.

I suppose I should mention something about instruction, since I call myself an instructor. I have to admit I am still very goal oriented and I put the horse first before all else. I don t work with many clients that are not of the same mindset, however, during the past decade there have been many changes in my focus, as well as with some of my long term clients. If you own a horse and ride just for the sheer experience of being able to still get on and ride, that is wonderful. You don t need to put yourself under added pressure to perform or prove anything if you truly don t want to. I temper my words with the welfare of the equine in mind, as well as the rider, hoping that you always ride within both your levels of fitness.

 I have met several aging riders who have horses that are not kept in fitness and would be classified as pasture statues. The riders are in varying stages of fitness. When these individuals ride, they meander. They meander around the ring, they meander around the facility grounds and they don t train, school or do anything that would resemble any type of program. They are happy, balanced individuals who love their horses. Is their something wrong with that?

Many of the aging riders I meet have aging parents, ill parents, grown children with problems, grandchildren at risk, all sorts of problems going on in and around their lives and they just want to unwind when they have the time to go to the barn and visit with their horse. Do I need to add to the stress in their life by adding another layer to it? As an instructor, my own problems dealing with an aging parent and the adopted senior are teaching me a new level of compassion. Sometimes you just have to put the goals on the back burner. If an aging rider feels they want to set a goal for this year and we work toward that goal only to have something come up that changes things, so be it. Excuse me, but my clients pay the bills!

Time management, how to organize your life to lower the stress level. I have written about routine and schedule before.  Several years ago another professional shared with me some of the problems going on at his facility. Having his staff and even his family all on the same page as to goal setting or prioritizing was the biggest problem. Goal setting was something as simple as getting the stalls mucked out by a specific time slot each day. In order to do that, all interruptions had to be handled professionally, which meant categorize as one of the following: 1. important, deal with immediately; 2. not important, then stop the distraction or otherwise avoid it; 3. reschedule it; 4. manage the phone use, best done with assistant or with answering machine. This may sound a bit harsh to some people, honestly, it is. If you want to run an efficient facility or even your own home and family, so as to free up the time to do what is really important, you have to handle the mundane parts of it as daily goals. Don t procrastinate about things either. If you find that you can t do it all yourself anymore, then get help. I think the same holds true if you are boarding and the time factor is becoming stressful.

I hear the complaints from my clients, that they don t have enough time to really spend riding. Why not see if you can get someone to bring your horse in from turn out, groom for you or have your horse ready for you when you are coming? You don t have to do it all the time, maybe just once a week. It will come at a cost, but if you can afford it, these extra perks will lower the stress level for you and allow you to have a more enjoyable and productive time with your horse. I have worked at barns, where during the summer months, when the teenagers were out of school, they were looking for ways to make extra money. I have seen the groom and tack up schedules at facilities listing who is supposed to get what horse ready, for what time, for what owner. If you have a major problem developing in your life, which you know is going to limit your riding time and you want your horse to be kept in fitness, then look into either hiring someone to ride or even letting your horse be used for lessons or half lease. For some people these options work well. For others they are not an option. Part of my work has always been to keep the top performance horses in shape when the owners have had problems develop or their own health issues have put limits on their riding time.

Do you have the same sleep patterns you had 10 years ago? I don t think I need to remind the female readers that I have just gone through the worse year of my life dealing with the proverbial aging process. All change is difficult, but adjustments can be made. One of my past clients was having problems with sleep deprivation. Being able to compare the performance of this individual from one year to the next was interesting. During the time that this sleep problem developed, my client became anxious to the point of being paranoid and caused the horse to become erratic. A fall was resultant which added to the anxiety level and then the ownward spiral really started. It is interesting how we all make excuses or try to gloss over the problem until it stares us in the face. When sleep was addressed as the issue I heard the excuse, I wish I could get to bed earlier. Well, why not? Shut off the television, shut off the computer, close the best seller, don t eat a big meal late at night, stop tackling the to do list at 9:00 p.m. and start doing what you have heard and read about to help you sleep. This may be a little selfish, but remember that sometimes for the quality of your life you may have to be. Many married couples have to sleep in separate locations in order to sleep, just because of snoring, night sweats, restlessness or different work hours. Just look at the advertisements for new mattresses and sleep systems. Sleep is big business because so many Americans are not sleeping well. If I don t get enough rest sometime during a three day cycle of 72 hours, I know that I am not going to be able to mentally take the stress that will be thrown at me.

Physically, I am starting to hurt as well. It is always at these low points that someone or something upsets my physical and mental balance. We may humorously say we crashed, but in some respects both mentally and physically we do and we need to be aware that we can t continue to function that way. I feel, I think, I think, I feel. What am I talking about? Why is it we ride for years and accomplish the goal of getting on and feeling like we are one with the horse and then we reach a point, at least some of us do, when we get on and we can t feel a thing and our riding simply stinks? We still have the same body don t we? For many of us, we don t have the same body. We think we do, but if we listen, our body will tell us something else. Our confidence level may plummet with this problem and it can be a dangerous time to be taking chances. You need to develop a warm-up, a range of motion program, that will work for you so as to achieve that confident feel of oneness again.

As I have once stated, there is great strength in softness, but it had better be supported with a core of steel. This may mean some exercise programs off the horse. To ride smart means to ride fit for your performance level. It is amazing that when your body is better prepared for the performance, your mind becomes more positive as well. Personally, I recently experienced this when I rode after a two week break where I had been working with core and leg strength exercises. When I got back on I felt the difference, I had a much better leg contact, my back was strong and my confidence improved immediately. The down side to the aging body is that in order to keep this level of fitness, I have to keep working at it.

Do you like to ride? Are you riding because you want to? Sounds like a stupid question because it is assumed that the individual must love the sport to be pursuing it. I have worked with numerous clients over the years that loved horses but didn t really like to ride and had some serious problems with riding. What is wrong with being honest? Who is setting the goals in your situation? There is a big difference between a gentle nudge to afford someone motivation and forcing performance. I worked with a facility owner who actually got physically sick prior to her lessons with her new horse.  Her husband had progressed into eventing and being a member of the local hunt. She was trying to keep up with him. She had been a decent rider with her prior older, quiet and complacent mount. The new equine, was keen. I was the fifth trainer called in to work in this situation, and I wasn t the last. What was really interesting is that the woman had several physical conditions develop while I was at the facility and finally had minor surgery that laid her up for the summer/fall season so she couldn t ride.

I have been amazed at how many individuals have given me the litany of ills that keep them from riding, yet they own horses. It is as if they are under condemnation and need excuses. Some of these same individuals are now back to riding, because they found out it was all right to pursue riding at their level and not at someone else s. The playing field of life is level, and the sooner you learn this the better your later years will be.

I remember an older rider at one of my clinics telling me that she was a walk/trot rider now, this after years of being a top competitor. I ll admit I was in my 30s at the time and what she said didn t make much sense to me. It does now.

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