On my last birthday, I officially crossed over to the high side of middle age. Yes, I have joined the ranks of older horsewomen. Personally, I’d like to popularize the term “vintage horsewomen” because it connotes a certain amount of charm and respect. Yet regardless of the terminology, I’d equate getting older to a wedge of high-priced gourmet cheese: There’s much to be treasured about the aging process, but first you have to get past the part that stinks.
My doctor, who happens to be my age, offered little consolation. “It just happens,” she said with a tone of resignation. “As women age, the reduction in hormones causes our body fat to redistribute itself, particularly around the midline. You may weigh the same, but your pants won’t fit like they used to.”
She’s not kidding. Though I’ve yet to develop the much-maligned muffin top, I have acquired what I refer to as “biscuit bunches.” These are soft pads of tissue that have glommed on to my upper thighs, mocking my desire to wear full-seat breeches as part of my everyday wardrobe. I once thought nothing of running errands in horse clothes. Now, if time permits, I change out of anything made with spandex and faux suede before heading to the grocery store. I don’t want to offend fellow shoppers with a rear-view image of me. As it is, after a riding lesson I shuffle up and down the store aisles like a zombie. I lean against the handle of the grocery cart like it’s a walker.
Besides coming to terms with my changing curves and flagging energy, age has also forced me to re-examine my goals as a rider. For a while I continued to envision a 30-something version of myself. The self-image I held on to was free of chronic health problems, equine-inflicted battle scars and the aches of tired joints. The process of bidding farewell to my high-octane glory days on the show circuit was difficult. I literally went into mourning.
Yet once I got past that sense of melancholy, I became comfortable with who I am now as a horsewoman. I’m at home on the back of a well-trained, predictable gelding. This has zero to do with fear and more to do with a slower reaction time, brittle bones and a desire to stay out of the ER.
Fortunately, there are benefits to wearing the mantle of Vintage Horsewoman. When I sift through stacks of old photos, I’m amazed at all the horses I have raised, ridden or shown. Each one taught me something. I can thank Bubbles, for instance, for teaching me the meaning of that adage: “Never jump ahead of your horse.” A devious stopper, Bubbles would slide into a jump if I happened to roll my shoulders forward in anticipation of leaving the ground. A mare named Lady taught me to use my aids only when necessary. She demanded a quiet rider with finesse; she wouldn’t tolerate being nitpicked to death. Other horses helped me learn lessons about life. When I met Jazz, he was 17.2 hands with a nasty attitude. He had a cheap price tag because, despite his talents, he was a sullen beast no one could trust in the show-ring or in the stall. But with consistent, fair discipline and unrelenting affection, he became a dependable mount and an honorable champion. Jazz exemplified the notion that love, when applied appropriately, does indeed heal all wounds.
Thanks to these many wonderful horses—and the respected coaches and mentors I’ve known—I’ve assimilated a great deal of experience. That’s one thing we vintage riders have over our more youthful counterparts. I’ve discovered that the greatest luxury of being an older equestrian is the ability to settle onto the back of an unfamiliar horse, pick up the reins, push the horse forward with my aids and then surmise, “Ah, yes, I’ve ridden a horse like this before. I know how to connect with this fellow.”
I hope this isn’t interpreted as a lack of humility, but we live in a society that discounts the value of anyone much past their 30s. Yet in the horse world, years of experience practicing sound horsemanship skills are priceless. Thus I’ve come to embrace my age. It’s actually a worthy accomplishment to grow older with my boots on.
If you happen to be a vintage horsewoman, I encourage you to be proud of your years in the saddle too. Own your history on horseback. Give your knowledge value by sharing it. Teach novices how to avoid the mistakes that you surely made many years ago. Offer basic lessons in riding and safe horse-handling to beginners, or mentor a Pony Club or 4-H group. Consider working part-time at a training barn. Trust me, professionals appreciate an assistant who already knows how to properly boot up and longe a horse.
Want to be more altruistic? Look for a therapeutic riding program in your area and volunteer a few hours a week as a side-walker. You can also search for a reputable horse rescue facility that needs someone dependable who can work with abused and neglected horses.
Ultimately, I hope that as you grow older you’ll find your own place on this long, glorious trail ride of life. Just don’t retreat. Don’t become invisible in the horse community. Wear your wrinkles, your scuffed-up boots and your ill-fitting riding pants proudly. Be patient with novice riders and offer your wisdom when appropriate. It’s your choice. You can become a wise mentor and local resource, or simply be disregarded as just another crazy old horse lady.
During her lengthy show career on the hunter-jumper circuit, CINDY HALE won more than 20 medals for hunt seat equitation. She currently serves as a judge at local and regional open horse shows.
The Seven Stages of Aging on Horseback
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.