Recently we went to dinner with a great friend to meet the new man in her life. Her three children helped to make the meal and the conversation round the table was lively and easygoing. The talk turned to Finn’s school skiing trip and I said I’d always meant to try skiing, but somehow never got around to it – despite the fact that we’re only a couple of hours’ drive from the Pyrenees.
“You should try it!” said Finn (13), “There are loads of old people on the slopes.”
Embarrassed pause – then laughter all round.
Of course anyone over thirty is “old” to Finn, and his “ancient” Mum (and the new man) are ten years younger than me and my husband. But the fact is, Eric’s already turned 60, and those two dread numerals, instead of hovering on my horizon have now lumbered into full view and will be tapping me on the shoulder towards the end of this year. (Yeah, hands up, I’ve been coyly skirting round the issue until now.)
You really don’t give it too much thought, or as little as you can manage, as you putter through your fifties (Hell, it takes you long enough to get over the shock of Being Fifty) but once you turn 59, you cannot get, “Yikes, I’m nearly 60!” out of your mind.
Now riders will often tell you that equestrianism in its many forms is one sport in which you can continue virtually as long as you are sentient, citing Lorna Johnstone and Hiroshi Hoketsu, dressage Olympians at 69 and 71, not to mention a slew of eventers and showjumpers in their fifties’ prime as doughty, though exceptional, examples.
Naturally, you need to have a decent level of fitness to handle and ride horses and all the exercise involved in looking after and riding them helps keep you that way – a virtuous circle if you’re lucky and doing it right. But not even the fittest rider can count on their continuing good health, despite their best efforts.
When I began this blog, I was in my mid-50s and optimistic enough about my health and fitness to have recently bought a new horse. We still had two horses living a pleasant retirement at home, but I found that my life had a large, active-horse-shaped hole in the middle without riding. Even exercising a friend’s Lusitano just wasn’t the same as having the intense one-to-one relationship of riding your own horse.
I’ve written at length about breaking my leg, then fracturing my jaw and skull, so if anyone new to the blog really wants to know more about this era, the posts back in 2011-12 will fill you in, otherwise I won’t dwell on events other than to say that it takes a long time to get back in shape once you’re over fifty and at the stage of life where you need to pay attention to your thinning bones, lack of energy and unpredictable moods. Once you’ve lost your levels of health and fitness at this age they are harder to regain and maintain, especially mentally.
In other words, instead of moaning and resigning yourself to getting older, you have to make a determined effort to manage yourself with much more forethought and really Think about how, when, where and why you ride. And generally live your life.
With hindsight, this is all more clear-cut when you’re young and fit. Your time, family and financial commitments are much clearer, whether you’re a cash-strapped student, a Mum or Dad with a job or a single, career high-flyer. If you have no health or fitness problems and if your time and financial constraints allow, you take your ability to ride for granted.
Being suddenly prevented from doing as you want for physical or mental reasons gives you some insight into how hard it must be to be permanently disabled or at the mercy of debilitating conditions or diseases. Or prevented by any other insurmountable (sic) problem. And just wanting to get back to riding after injury is not, in itself, enough to make it happen.
I could have, but very fortunately did not “lose my nerve” and couldn’t wait to get back up there, probably because my injuries were caused in banal circumstances and not as a result of a jumping mishap, or a terrifying bolt or spook (and I’d had plenty enough of those as a very young rider and bounced back). Even so, it was a possibility near the beginning.
And the healing of bones was just part of getting better. My whole organism suffered over the next two years; weight loss, hair loss, loss of balance to the point of being unable to walk and a loss of appetite for life itself. I sunk into a slough of depression far deeper than I realised, until I was finally out the other side and, only now, three years after initially splintering my tibia do I finally feel as if I’ve spent some several months of quality time being “well” again, physically and mentally.
It’s also a frightening thought that, if I hadn’t been able to keep the horses at home and continue to support them financially, and rely on my husband’s help and goodwill, I might have been forced to give up altogether. I feel so relieved about that.
And now I can honestly say that I am feeling better it is all relative, because now I am well into my sixtieth year on this planet, I am forced to acknowledge that can never get back exactly to where I was before.
It may or may not be relevant to you, esteemed reader, be you my senior, junior or equal in age, but allow me to reflect on what I’ve learned in the process of passing through the fire and, I think, becoming a more “three-dimensional” rider and human:
– In periods when I’ve been physically or mentally unable to ride, I’ve been able to read much more equestrian writing, in books and magazines and particularly on-line, that I wish I’d had access to earlier (and been able to put into practice with my last horse, who I always felt had oodles of unexploited potential). I was much more of an instinctive, natural rider, but I awoke to the importance of marrying the physical and the mental, in horse and rider.
– I’ve learned the importance of reading and listening to my present horse in minute detail, being forced to do much more groundwork with him than would formerly have been my preference. It’s done us both a world of good.
– I’ve finally learned patience because I’ve been forced to go so very slow. I was thinking today that my horse and I have arrived at a place in our schooling now where we could otherwise have been two years ago – but maybe our mutual understanding would not have been consolidated in the same way. I learned to wait, withdraw, wait and quietly explain until my horse understood what I wanted, which earned lavish praise, until his unwanted, challenging behaviours trickled away.
– One of my early posts, “Horse or Garden”, posed my dilemma on a fine-weather day. Now it’s always Horse first. My troubled junior rebel is now a poised teenager – 13, like Finn. He’s attentive, listening, light off the leg and in the hand and improves with every session. The garden can take second place, though it does take a lot of satisfying work and gives me immense pleasure in a different way.
– In earlier posts, eg. “January Blues”, I was also searching for riding friends, fed up with being isolated. Well I did find some lovely people to ride with but here’s a thing with some riders; they are so fully committed to improving their horses and riding that they get into the habit with other people and their horses, and not always from a knowledgeable point of view. I know because I’ve done it myself. Yes, I’ll always listen to another point of view, and it’s lovely to have horsey friends to share rides and experiences with, but I have learned to have more belief in myself and my horse (and sometimes keep my opinion to myself as long as no one’s getting hurt). As an aside – the horsey world I’m on the fringes of being relatively small – I ran into an old friend with whom I’d fallen out many years ago and we were able to have a normal, pleasant exchange of views. Which felt like an old mental cloud drifting away.
– Clicker training was a great discovery, in part because it validated the reward-based training I prefer, but also because it was a new avenue to explore and made me extend the range of things I could ask my horse, because he devours knowledge like a dervish and needs ever more to swallow up.
– I’ve learned to think about the way I work and not ignore the way my body or mind are letting me know they’re feeling, in the same way I would for my horse. I’ll take a break or change in what I’m doing when I need to, before continuing a physical or mental task. Or not be ashamed to take an easier, less taxing way. Moving a muckheap or spring-cleaning the house doesn’t all have to be completed in one go!
– Maybe I’m not necessarily a better person, but I feel a little better about myself. Doing more “right” and “good” than, even unintentional, wrong. Considering more before acting. Appreciating when other people/horses do not feel physically or mentally able to do things. Worrying less if other people disapprove of me. And maybe cutting them and myself a little more slack. After all, nobody’s perfect, especially not me.
Yes, Sixty’s not too far off, but bring it on. I think I’m ready. I’m All Grown Up now (or very nearly).
If you’ve got over a difficult time in your life and feel it’s improved you as a rider and an all-round human being I’d love to hear about it. I always welcome readers’ comments …..