When I am teaching new riders, especially when they have not ridden earlier in life, I am constantly hearing comments about age. Generally they come in the form of off the cuff remarks or self-effacing jokes. But they keep coming, often enough that I realized quickly it a huge concern for most adult amateurs. Now the point comes where you might be expecting me to pull out the pom-poms and say that you can do it! No matter what! And age doesn’t matter! And now comes the point where I will disappoint you.
As far as risk and injury are concerned, a 2007 study from The American Journal of Surgery placed horseback riding above motorcycle racing and football. It is just as dangerous as rugby.
Your age does matter. Your physical state is important and you need to listen to your body. Your experience level is incredibly important. Not on your best day when everything goes well and everything’s coming up roses. What happens when the s*** hits the fan? How do you react? How scared are you? When your horse spooks suddenly or scoots out from under you, how much are you unseated and how long does it take for you to regain your composure and return to riding as normal? Do you freeze? Do you panic? Do you pop off immediately? These all inform your experience level as a rider, no matter the length of time you have been riding.
There are gorgeous horses out there, but for the bulk of them, the flash that you are in awe of on the sidelines comes with a sensitivity and flightiness that would be totally unsuitable for you. Find a horse that is a joy to ride every day. Find the horse that you would ride if no one were watching and there were no mirrors. If a horse is a pleasure to ride, is safe and gives you a platform to learn, then that is a horse appropriate for you. If you come away from every single lesson like you just climbed out of the trenches, then it is time to speak with your trainer about your safety and enjoyment.
These questions need to be asked in tandem with you honestly assessing your physical state. Has your doctor told you that you have osteoporosis or are at risk? Does your mother have it? Do you have issues with joints? Previous injuries? Medical conditions that are relevant? And for goodness sake let your trainer know about any conditions you might have! She or he cannot help you if they do not know what your issues are.
My point in this laundry list of questions is not to beat your morale into a pulp, but for you to get an honest assessment of your own self. The term, “knows just enough to be dangerous” is one that often flits through my brain when I am watching the warm up ring at certain shows.
And now for the good news – age has nothing to do with ability to learn. Some of the most dedicated riders I know started later in life with little to no previous experience. They drink up knowledge and dedicate themselves to discovering more about the sport of dressage. And that is as it should be, this is their lifestyle and their passion. I want my students to learn and grow and there is no reason why they cannot. If they make appropriate goals for themselves in line with their experience and physicality, then age should not matter. That is not to say that some will not reach the FEI, but it is that blitz toward the shadbelly without spending time in the salt mines of basic work that gets the women (and men) I see in trouble. It gets them over horsed, under experienced and in possibly dangerous situations.
All riders, no matter their age, can progress and learn. If they are properly mounted, of course wear protective head gear, and are aware of the risks involved then they are taking reasonable precautions against injury. That is not a guarantee against it but is the best we can do when winging along on a 1,000 pound prey-drive mammal at 20 miles per hour.
If you enjoyed reading this, then you might enjoy Adult Amateur Dressage Shame.