Talking Horses: Let Older Mean Wiser


On a recent trip to California, I had the chance to spend time with a couple that had been riding buddies in the early days of my horse journey who later became students as my skills and knowledge accelerated way beyond what anyone predicted. Sadly, they had lost both of their horses to severe colics within the past few months. One had already been retired but was still an important part of their family. The other, much younger with many good years left, but taken way too soon.

In their mid-70’s, the couple asked me to look at and ride some horses they were thinking of buying. Horses had always been part of their lives despite their ultra busy professional lives, and they wanted to keep at it for as long as possible. They also asked for my honest opinion on doing that given their current ages.

This is a conversation I’m having more and more these days as boomer riders hit their 60’s, 70’s or even 80’s. The horses that got them through riding late in life are now retired or even gone, and they are now faced with the difficult questions of should they continue in an activity with such high risk for injury that is also so time consuming and expensive. It’s not quite like the conversation about taking the keys away from an elderly driver, but it’s pretty close.

Unlike other physical activities you’d like to keep going as long as possible – playing golf, hiking, tennis, etc. – riding horses involves a living partner rather than a piece of equipment, and that partner is a reactive flight animal that is sensitive to every gesture and movement you make, and to everything that’s going on in the world around them. In other words, it’s not just about you and what you want to do, but also what life will be like for your equine partner.

When I evaluate senior riders, I always start by looking very closely at their general physical abilities around a horse before any riding. Have they lost strength, are their movements coordinated or stiff? Do they have a sense of space and the kind of “soft eyes” necessary to be aware of everything going on around them even when they’re concentrating on a horse? Can they shift from left to right or change their body position as is so often necessary around horses? Could they hold on to a rope and help a horse that has tried to pull away or is frightened? Could they stay in the saddle during a surprise spin? Could they survive a fall or horse that jumps into their space?

My first suggestion to anyone faced with these questions is an honest appraisal of your physical condition and a realistic target for how many more years you think you can ride. Notice I said an honest appraisal. Anyone who has ridden for years knows a new horse requires an investment of time and energy to get the horse adjusted to new surroundings and a new rider. A smart horse person will spend time with a new horse doing things like hand-walking and groundwork to get to know the horse and evaluate his personality, conditioning and behavior before any riding. If you can’t get to know your horse from the relative safety of the ground because you have physical issues, you have to be realistic about the challenges you face.

A subtle change I see with many senior riders is that they start to look to the horse more and more to make the “right” decisions, i.e., to “take care of them” rather than being committed to their role as the leader who helps and guides the horse. Good horse people never believe the horse will take care of them and always make the safest and best decisions – they’re just horses and only know how to be horses. It’s always the other way around. The good horse person makes the right decisions and takes care of the horse. I think the senior rider who is a bit more fearful, has lost some confidence and has lost physical skills shifts more responsibility on to the horse because they’re not as confident they can handle things the way they did in the past. Given the nature of the horse, this can be a dangerous situation, and it’s why you need an honest and objective set of eyes helping you make this decision.

Many riders try to compensate for their physical issues by buying horses that are supposed to be “more comfortable, safer and easier to ride.” Rather than accepting their limitations and adjusting their expectations accordingly, they buy a horse that on paper should extend their riding careers. You especially see this with older riders buying gaited horses. Often, they forget to factor in that a very forward gaited horse may be more comfortable but may also raise the fear and anxiety in an ageing rider gradually losing confidence or skills because they are so forward. Almost all the wrecks I’ve seen in the past few years have been older riders on gaited horses, where constant attempts by riders to slow down the natural forward of the horse leads to frustration for horse and rider, frequently leading to painful results for both. Personally, I always advise people to accept their own limitations and find a horse suited for those, even if that means shorter or slower rides on a horse comfortable with this approach. I think safety for a senior rider trumps “what I used to be able to” any day.

With the supply of horses far greater than the demand for horses, I feel it is important to be clear in your own mind as to how much longer you want to ride. If you’re 65 and want to ride until you’re 70, and you get a 10-year-old horse, that means you’ll have a horse that will only be 15 when you stop riding. That’s a horse with 5-7 years of use left as a riding horse and maybe 15 years of life. What’s your plan for that horse when you stop riding? I think it is incredibly selfish not to think about that before you get a new horse, and it certainly argues for looking at an older horse.

Ask yourself, what kind of riding do you intend to do for the rest of your riding career? If all you want to do is ride the trails, then you should only be looking at horses with lots of trail experience. But you should ask yourself if you’re fit enough for trail riding. I always ask people questions like “if your horse came up lame and you had to hand walk him back 3 or 4 miles to the trail head, could you do that?” Or would you punish your lame horse by riding him back because you can’t walk that far? Also, can you get on and off the horse with no problems to open gates or deal with obstacles? I’ve seen many older riders that are so sore and stiff after a ride they literally can’t get off their horses without help. Maybe that’s a sign you should re-think your goals – not stop riding, just set new goals and use those to help evaluate a new horse.

If you think you’ll shift your riding focus to just a few days a week in an arena, then you should make sure you’re looking at horses that have that kind of experience. This may seem like a dumb comment, but I’ve seen many trail horses who are simply awful in an arena (likewise, arena horses that became unglued on the trail). A horse that has spent its life out on the trails is not necessarily going to enjoy doing patterns in an arena. I know many older riders adjust their riding goals to arena riding only for safety, time and ease on the old body, and they’ve been able to ride for many more years than they thought possible. In every case they had horses that knew arena life and were happy with it.

As challenging as it is to get a rider to admit to their actual physical condition and skill level, it may be even harder to evaluate a horse for what his new job will be. Many older riders start off with a list of qualities for a new horse that focuses on things like bloodlines, former training or competitive success. That’s all very nice, but practically irrelevant for what the new job will be for this horse, that is, to be a good horse for a senior rider.

These are the qualities I consider “must haves” for a good senior mount: does the horse lower its head for the halter or bridle; does the horse stand rock solid for mounting and dismounting (most riding accidents happen when mounting and dismounting, especially with older riders who are stiff, not as strong or may have less mobile replacement body parts); does the horse stand still after mounting and only move out when asked by the rider, even if your riding buddies have started down the trail; does the horse stay in the gait and at the speed you choose in all circumstances, even if other horses are breaking gaits and changing speeds; can you stop the horse from the walk and trot with just your voice and seat. I believe all horses should have these qualities as a starting point, but they are especially important for the senior recreational rider.

I can tell you from experience that few horses out there can do all these things. Fortunately, all these critical pieces can be taught to any horse at any age. With time and patience, you can turn a trail horse into a competent arena horse, and you can teach most horses to be good and sane out on the trails. You can teach every horse patience and respect. However, the question you have to ask yourself is whether or not, at this point in your riding life, do you want to spend the time (if you’re skilled and fit) or the money (if you need to hire someone to help you) to go through re-training or re-starting a horse? If the answer to that is “no” then your search for a new horse has to be pretty thorough.

I’ve lost a lot of friends and students over the years by being honest about the challenges of continuing to ride horses late in life, but I’ve also felt some of my biggest horsemanship successes have been the cases when I convinced someone it was time to hang up the spurs. I was trained to be honest about the realities of horses and that my number one priority as a professional trainer was to keep every horse and rider as safe as possible. Sometimes that means saying things people don’t want to hear, but at least I know I made them think about the reality of their situation today. Like a horse, the rider needs to live in the moment as well, not the past.

So, what did my friends decide to do after a few days of looking at horses and many hours of talking? They did the right thing in my book. They decided to look for a trainer with a good school horse so they could take a couple of quality riding lessons every week, but not become horse owners again. They’ll get to go to a barn, be with horses and enjoy the magic of riding, but they’ll be doing it in the safest way possible and in a way that fits with their age and physical abilities. They’ll be off the trails and all the risk and insanity that can happen out there. A great solution and one where older did mean wiser.

Scott Thomson horses