By Maureen Tuffs
So you want to ride but you’re too ‘old’? You’re never too old to learn something new…and maybe fulfil a dream! As people enter their middle plus years they begin to consider the memories of past plans and dreams that they have not had the time or opportunity to accomplish. Some refer to the actions taken toward these as ‘a midlife crisis’ where aging parents and friends buy sports cars, travel to foreign lands, change careers etc., but some go riding! So is taking up horseback riding in your prime years just a midlife crisis or is it something more? There is a definite increase in the number of those between 35 and 60, and even beyond, who are searching out instructors and horses in order to begin learning this new and exciting skill.
I set out to interview a large portion of this group of riders, who had all begun lessons in the past three year, in order to determine some of the reasons for their decision to take up a sport that is exciting but also requiring many new skills as well as an understanding of the creature with which they are working. It is not easy or a ‘one-shot’ success activity so where is the concept and determination coming from?
Some of the people who discussed their decision to take lessons remembered the longing desire to have a horse when they were young, while others had developed a fear of horses, sometimes due to an accident or for unknown reasons. It is now the right time to readdress youthful dreams or overcome fears and realize that they are strong, capable people able to move beyond past experiences. Whatever the reason for searching for lessons at this point in time, all respondents are looking to live a new experience and learn how to ‘connect’ with an equine friend.
‘Life’ often gets in the way of plans. A youthful, well laid out life can change in an instant due to love, career changes, family, health, repeated relocation, finances, etc., and as a result, some dreams get left behind or postponed. All interviewees had felt the desire to become a horse person at some point in their lives but unplanned events had always pushed this to the back burner. So why now? The answers to this question came in varying forms but all said that the ‘time was right’. Reasons for this answer included financial and lifestyle stability (no more moving), influence of equine activities in the area such as Spruce Meadows competitions, trail riding opportunities, Calgary Stampede and local rodeos, seeing the beauty of the many horses in the neighbourhood, desire to overcome fear of this creature, participating with a child or having children old enough to leave home without supervision.
Regardless of the reason for this step into equine education, all began by searching the internet and local papers for horsemanship lessons. At this point none were considering a specific discipline; their aims were to learn about horses and to feel a connection with these beautiful animals as well as learning riding skills. Everyone was excited but not in a hurry to become an ‘expert’. The prime objective consists of having a new and unbelievable experience as they learn ‘from the ground up’. The choice of facility and instructor was determined by advertisements, talking to others who knew him, talking to the instructor and beginning with a trial lesson. The consensus was that the final decision was made due to a feeling of calm with no need to rush to a particular point of accomplishment.
The new students arrived for their first lessons with strong feelings including fright, nervousness, uncertainty because they recognized that they were attempting something that was potentially dangerous, but mostly a feeling that was indescribable since they had never experienced anything like it before. Lessons started with learning the basics such as tying, handling, grooming techniques, horse behaviour, and then, their first ride ever! It took little time for these ‘prime time newbies’ to be hooked. They came away with expressions including “I was flying!”, “I didn’t want to stop!”, “It’s a different world!”, “I wanted to return the next day!”, “I loved the feel of ‘horse energy’!”, “I wanted to run out and get my own horse!”, and probably the most common and profound response was some version of “All my fears disappeared once I was around and on the horse. There was a feeling of calm and peace.” These new riders recognized that these large powerful creatures had a therapeutic effect powerful enough to temporarily shut out worries and daily problems, and to slow down their lives. This calm, relaxed feeling was allowing them to reconnect with themselves and realize the ‘real’ people inside who may have gotten lost or forgotten in the lifestyles of careers, families, and other day to day commitments. It was only the first lesson but its powerful effect would lead to varying levels of lifestyle changes for some.
Where to from Here
The novice horse people interviewed had all taken more than one lesson at the time. They were already committed to continue riding and they viewed the inclusion of horses in their lives as an absolute necessity. Their interaction with horses to date had brought them a sense of pride and accomplishment. They wanted to continue in this direction through the learning process. Unlike young riders they were not dreaming of grand competitions or fame from their equine experience but wanted to learn the skills of horsemanship and most importantly, to experience a special connection with their equine partners.
Goals for the future included becoming confident enough to ride outside the confines of the arena which eventually would lead to taking part in trail rides and other recreational equine activities, and for many, the purchasing of their own horses. At the time of the interviews, two had already taken this big step with the realization that it is a major and ongoing commitment. But these two people were so dramatically affected by their horsemanship experiences that they wanted to wait no longer to start their personal special relationship with an equine partner of their own.
The riding/horsemanship instructor who worked with some of the adult interviewees in this study is Lee Jones who has been offering his insights and skills to varying levels of riders for about 15 years. The majority of his clients are children but adult beginners are increasing in number. Prior to becoming an instructor, Lee spent his time taming and training wild mustangs. His success at this endeavour prompted him to want to show the equine world that these beauties of the wild could become dependable, skilled riding horses with proper handling and training. Around the same time, he read a news article describing a young girl’s death which was a result of being dragged by a horse. Lee realized that people needed to be trained not only in riding skills but in handling practices and proper human behaviour when working around and enjoying horses. The result would be more enjoyment and learning, and fewer ‘tragic’ accidents.
According to Lee instructing adults is similar to working with children in that learning tends to happen more quickly through demonstration than through discussion, and progressive learning is consistent. Both adults and children benefit from seeing other riders of similar age practising proper horsemanship techniques. Adult clients may be at a disadvantage when beginning to learn these new skills due to preconceived ideas caused by exposure to media accounts of equine activities. They might carry apprehensive or even fearful feelings due to past experiences and/or the realization of the possible dangers involved in working with large powerful creatures. In the beginning, adults may progress more slowly as they overcome fears and embrace the experience.
More women than men sign up for lessons at a ratio of about 5:1 and only a comparatively small number stick with it. They come from all walks of life and all ages, and everyone’s reason differs slightly. Many begin but a comparatively small number make it a lifestyle. Those who do continue will eventually buy their own horse and they will use their new found skills and passion to teach what they have learned to their children, grandchildren, friends, etc. in a small backyard setting. All are excited to pass on their new lifestyle experience to anyone who is interested.
Advice from Lee is to “Come and try it out!” It is always important to try new things. If you are apprehensive or afraid of horses this gives an opportunity to master your fears and gain a new, enlightening perspective.
For many, horses have a therapeutic effect on their lives and fulfil a deep desire of connection with powerful, beautiful creatures that once roamed wild across our homelands. Every new adult rider interviewed expressed emotionally charged feelings resulting from their new experience, and they felt extreme gratefulness for the opportunity to find what was missing in their lives. A long lost dream is becoming a reality…finally!
Lee Jones is Manager and Horsemanship Instructor at the family operated DJ Ranch, southwest of Okotoks, Alberta.