Citius, Altius, Sapientius: The Equestrian Connection

I  have never been an athlete. As a kid I played outside because that’s what kids did then, but I had zero talent or inclination for team sports. Tennis I kind of liked, but you needed a court for that plus transport to it. I hate, hate, hated PE, loathed the gym, and as far as I was concerned, exercising just to exercise was bo-RING.

But there was on thing I would do outside in any weather, and go to any lengths to get there. I would ride horses. My paternal grandfather put me up on a horse for the first time when I six months old, but I already had the horse-lover’s gene: a double dose from him and from my maternal grandmother.

The gene skipped a generation. My parents were baffled but willing to spring for riding lessons. I think my mother would have preferred that I take dance instead, but she gave me a choice, and I picked the horses.

I wasn’t a talented rider. I was dedicated, and as I got older and became less body-stupid, I turned out to have a keen sense of self-preservation and a moderate talent for picking the right thing to do when a horse went nutty. In college the elegant girls in their tall leather boots would sneer at the awkward scholarship student in her bargain-basement attire, but the riding instructors were putting me on the new horses and the difficult ones because I was sheer crap for equitation, I was lousy over fences, but I could stay on a horse unless he was seriously, and I mean seriously, determined to get rid of me.

When you’re a kid and a teenager you’re immortal. You’ll ride the craziest bucking bronco, and if you go off, mostly you’ll bounce. Like all martial artists, we learn to fall, and unless we’re extremely unlucky or extremely stupid, the worst we’ll get is a mess of bruises.

Most girls emerge from their preadolescent horse phase with a tropism toward another kind of difficult and unpredictable large animal: namely, boys. Many times these women come back to horses when their daughters hit the phase themselves, and stay in it after the daughters move on to boys. And so the cycle continues.

I was the kind of girl who kept up with horses even through the boy phase. I didn’t see why I couldn’t have it all–that was the age of the Cosmo Girl. I was still immortal, and I’d ride anything equine, if it would let me on its back.

Then came a phase that I’ve seen in others as well, though it isn’t talked about. I believe it has to do with the childbearing years. You’re no longer immortal. You don’t bounce as easily as you used to, but more than that, your mind starts developing fears.

You see those big fences and you think about wiping out instead of soaring over them. You ride the wild ones but when they start bucking, you start hyperventilating. You get scared. And if you don’t quit the horse thing, you start scaling ‘way down on it. You may walk away from it. Or you may find it harder and harder to do the kinds of things and ride the kinds of horses that you used to.

Maybe it’s nature’s way of making sure mothers stay close to home and keep rearing the children. I doubt it’s cultural–the same woman who is now terrified to ride above a walk used to gallop cross-country courses when her whole culture was telling her to stop having adventures and start attracting a mate.

It’s nature, I think. Because something happens to a woman around age forty, as her childbearing years wind down and, if she has children, they’re likely to be getting old enough to fend for themselves.

If she left horses to marry and raise children, she finds her way back. And if she never did horses, she may find herself discovering them, and learning to ride, and becoming a horse girl almost in spite of herself.

Maybe her daughter starts off with it, and mom follows along, and when daughter wanders off to something new, there’s the horse still. Or her friends have gone that way, and she tries it and discovers she likes it, and suddenly she’s a horse person herself.

There’s a whole industry within the horse industry, of adult-onset riders or re-riders. There are instructors who specialize in them, horses trained to accommodate older riders who may be more cautious and less headlong than the kids, and show classes dedicated to the Adult Amateur and the Golden-Ager. There are even classes for senior riders on senior horses, with awards and bragging rights.

We’re not talking about dumbing down, either. We’re talking about people in their fifties and sixties and seventies and older, riding hundred-mile endurance races, competing in international dressage and Western reining, cutting, even barrel racing (it’s not just for crazy teenagers any more), and participating in the challenges of the three-day event (where horses and riders are asked to perform in the dressage arena, over quite impressive obstacles across country, and over a tight course of challenging fencings in a stadium). Older riders are out there giving the youngsters a run for their money.

The beauty of equestrian sports is that the horse gives the human four strong legs and a powerful body–even if the human’s own legs and body don’t work so well. And if riding is no longer an option, there’s still driving. Horse people can keep on with the horses for a long, long time–for many, lifelong.

I’m in the late middle part of it myself. I came out of the scared phase into horse breeding and training. Crazy stuff, if you don’t do it right, and dangerous–not only the stallion handling but the mares with strong views of their own and a half-ton of superpowered muscle to back them up, and the babies who are not yet civilized enough to realize that when you kick or bite or trample a human, the human breaks.

There is no way I’ll train someone else’s youngsters, but I will train my own. My secret there: I raise them from birth, I know what they’re likely to do, and if they’ve got a certain look to them, we do something else that day besides the riding thing. There will always be another day for that, if I don’t push things and land myself in the ER.

I can still stay on just about anything, though I have one horse who keeps me humble. He has warp thrusters. About once every five years, if I do something stupid, he triggers the ejector seat. But I’m getting wise to him, I hope. I’m learning not to push his limits, even while I refrain from letting him push me around.

That’s one advantage of age and superior evil. You learn to recognize the signs of a bad situation, and avoid or defuse it before it turns into a medical adventure.

Hence the “wiser” part of the senior athlete’s motto. When you’re not immortal any more, and you break instead of bounce, you figure out how to keep on flying while minimizing the likelihood of crashes. Do it well enough, and wisely enough, and you’ll be riding and dancing and flying straight into that good night.


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Citius, Altius, Sapientius: The Equestrian Connection — 2 Comments

  1. Yep. Mocha has just enough of an edge that it makes riding her interesting and keeps me honest. She’s not a beginner’s ride. And yet she’s utterly reliable in the sense that I have to worry about her consciously looking to dump me, or that she’ll lose her brains and do something stupid in something other than very rare circumstances. Do I have to ride ahead of her? Yep. Do I have to pay attention to her? Yep. Do we still get into Discussions? Oh yeah.

    But the key is that she’s a well-bred horse that I’ve known from a foal, still living in the barn she was born and raised in. She’s had consistent, mindful handling all her life. She’s much less attitudinal and much more kinder than her dam was (That said, her dam was competed young and hard, by a leading reining trainer. Mocha has the potential to develop that edge, and it shows up after she’s been at a horse show). Those factors really make the difference, IMO.

  2. I’m right there with you where you talk about women coming back to horses when the child-bearing years wind down. Oh, I had excuses like not enough money and a husband with a marked dislike of horses. Now, after the husband and with less money, I’m back into riding, and loving it. I’m definitely not back where I was as teenager, when I would get the difficult horses, too. I’m also not longing to repeat the dozen times when I went sailing off the horse’s back. So riding is different now, but still as exhiliarating as it was. I’ll take another dose tomorrow.