A few weeks ago, I moved our small herd of cows and calves from one pasture to another. For this I chose my gelding, Little Mack, still a tiger at age 15, a horse who relishes the prospect of moving cows as eagerly as a football player craves the kickoff.
Indeed, Mack can be a little too much horse early in the task, so I’ve learned to get rid of a little steam by putting him into a fast lope for the first quarter mile or so. Then he’s ready to settle down, responding to an ounce of rein pressure on alternate sides of his neck to cut back and forth and move the critters along.
On this particular occasion, I was loping Mack toward our south pasture when I noticed an annoying “slap-slap-slap” sound accompanying the rise and fall of Mack’s canter. I was horrified to realize I was hearing my rear end hit the cantle of my saddle with each beat of the gait. I never bounce in the saddle, or so I’ve always thought. But the sound was unmistakable.
Traditionally, Western riders took pride in holding themselves in their saddles in such a way that their bodies showed little movement. Early cowboys gravitated toward smooth-gaited horses, often with some version of “single-foot.” In lieu of that, a smooth trot would do. Posting was considered an eastern affectation and hardly practical for spending an entire workday on the back of a horse.
Regardless of gait, the cowboy held himself in the saddle, absorbing much of the horse’s movement so that his own body appeared to move very little. The effect at the trot was exactly the opposite of the dressage rider, who moves freely up and down. At the canter, the cowboy seemed one with the horse.
It’s this tradition I grew up with, so a slap-slap of my butt on the cantle was as alarming as if I’d suddenly discovered I no longer knew how to drive a pickup. With some effort, I silenced this annoying sound and proceeded to move the cows. But I spent a day asking myself what had changed.
My life has included a great deal of physical labor, starting with the stacking of thousands of hay bales each summer during my teens and continuing through decades of ranching mixed with teaching and academic pursuits. The result is a common malady of advanced middle age: lower back pain. Apparently, nothing about my back is operable, or even very treatable, but the pain is real, and I’ve learned to avoid it by controlling my body in a certain way.
And thus the annoying “slap-slap.” Unconsciously, I was holding my lower back stiffly to protect myself from pain, and that stiffness prevented the easy flex that had always made sticking to the saddle at the canter a natural, harmonious act.
By the quantity of gray hair (including my own) peeking out from riding helmets and cowboy hats on most trail rides I’ve witnessed, it’s quite clear that many regularly receive communication from the American Association of Retired Persons.
Yes, trail riding involves younger folks, but I fear that for every one we recruit into the activity, hundreds stay glued to their cell phones and video games. The bulk of trail riders seem to be baby boomers, and many are considerably older. All of us who love covering ground on the backs of our beloved horses wish to continue to do so just as long as we can.
The aging process can’t be denied. What can we do to keep its interference to a minimum? Here are some problem areas, plus suggestions from a good friend and fine horseman, Billy Oley, MD.
• Heavy torsos, weak legs. As we all know, weight gain in middle age is common. Combine weight gain with leg muscles grown slack behind a desk and two things happen on horseback, both of them bad. The center of gravity of the horse/rider combination is now higher, and the weaker legs impede the rider’s ability to use the stirrups for support.
I’ve seen riders with heavy-torso-weak-leg syndrome simply topple off the side of a horse that gave a barely perceptible spook. Weak legs also preclude one’s ability to grip with them and to plant them firmly into the swells of a Western saddle for further support should a horse act up.
• Poor upper-body strength. Also exacerbated by an overweight body, poor upper-body strength does more than make it difficult to throw a heavy saddle onto the back of your horse. Depending upon your mounting style (and your horse’s height) it can make pulling yourself onto his back difficult, particularly if your left leg is too weak to flex from the stirrup and push your body upward. Once in the saddle, poor upper-body strength affects balance, quickness, and reaction time.
• Painful back. As we’ve observed, you’ll tend to compensate for back pain by holding yourself stiffly, which hampers your ability to move with your horse. Back problems are horribly complex, and long before surgery is indicated, your doctor is likely to recommend medications to ease the pain. Make sure he or she knows you’re an equestrian. The last thing you need in your system while aboard a green horse in April is a medication that slows your reflexes.
A Doctor’s View
For a professional look at the effects of aging on riding ability, I turned to my friend and riding partner, Billy Oley, MD. Physically, Billy is just what the cavalry used to recruit: young, slim, and not too tall. His wife, Erin, a mom, runner, and health professional (nurse practitioner and physiologist) also rides.
Erin added her input to Billy’s when I posed this rather broad question: “In your practice, you deal with many people who ride as part of their jobs (ranchers) and who ride recreationally. Among the boomer generation and beyond, what are the most common physical changes you see people undergoing that impede riding ability and enjoyment? And, what do you most commonly recommend for each of these problems?”
Billy’s list, with no specific priority: (1) decreased strength and flexibility; (2) decreased speed of reflexes; (3) increased body weight – usually in areas that change balance (e.g., the midsection); and (4) decreased bone mass, which increases the chance of a broken bone as one ages.
But we’re not all the same: “A key point is that physiologic aging isn’t uniform across the population, a fancy way of saying that some 70-year-old people have the bodies of 40-year-olds and vice versa,” says Billy. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle absolutely slows the changes commonly associated with physiologic aging.”
Billy’s and Erin’s recommendations:
• Year-round strength training. Resistance machines are recommended over free weights for older folks.
• Year-round aerobic training. Billy recommends 30 minutes most days of the week. “Brisk walking/hiking is the best, most accessible, and cheapest aerobic exercise,” he says. Get medical clearance for both strength and aerobic training if you’re entering a new, intense regimen, or if your risk factors are high.
• Year-round flexibility training. This includes stretching and range-of-motion exercises. “Yoga is great, but a tough sell with most guys,” notes Billy.
• Year-round riding. Riding improves reflexes and strengthens the muscles specifically used for your chosen activity. Billy points out that this equally benefits your horse and decreases the likelihood of an accident on a horse full of vim and vigor each spring.
“Following this lifestyle will, one hopes, increase strength, flexibility, hone reflexes, and decrease weight,” Billy concludes. “Strength training also improves bone mass and can improve balance. I purposefully stressed that it really has to be year round.”
Don’t expect significant changes for six to eight weeks, but stick with it, he says, and you’ll improve your riding and decrease the likelihood of injuries.
Year-round riding can be challenging for people in northern areas during extreme winter weather. Consider renting indoor arena time if conditions are so severe that riding even with proper winter attire seems out of the question.
Conversely, during summer, some southern areas of the country can be equally inhospitable for both horse and rider. I know folks in Florida who meet their riding partners for a late dinner, then trail ride in the middle of the night to beat the heat. Just do whatever you can to prevent riding from being only a seasonal activity.
Note, too, Billy’s emphasis on strength training. No longer are weight machines considered strictly the province of male athletes and body builders. Strength training of one sort or another can benefit nearly everyone and will pay big dividends for trail riders.
Of course, Americans spend billions of dollars on diet schemes and exercise machines, along with books and videos claiming to provide whatever we need to keep our bodies strong and attractive. Yet, most diets don’t seem to work. The problem is that the one most necessary ingredient for success in improving fitness is one you can’t buy. With it, I’m convinced, virtually all of the diet and exercise schemes will work; without it, none of them will. This key ingredient, of course, is motivation.
My primary motivation, when I’ve been successful in making improvements, has stemmed from my identity as a horseman. Keep at the front of your mind the joy that comes with feeling really secure in the saddle after mounting with little effort.
Focus on how much more enjoyable each bit of interaction with your horse will be once you’re lighter and/or stronger. Trail riding is such a joy that the prospect of making it even better can be a powerful motivator, indeed.
One thing that’s worked for me: Go to your favorite trail without your horse. Take a fanny pack, lunch, and a canteen. Then walk it. Walk it, filled every step of the way with eager anticipation of your next trip on horseback over that same terrain. You might be surprised at just how much you enjoy yourself. You may even gain some insight into hiker/equestrian relations.
The Right Horse and Gear
The right horse and gear can also help us stay in the saddle as we age. For instance, a horse built for sprinting is typically heavily muscled for acceleration and lateral ability, and is likely built with his rear end higher than his withers. For all his wonderful attributes, he’s probably rough-gaited and perhaps a little lacking in the endurance department.
And, if something should go wrong with such a horse – a bad spook, a runaway, or a bucking session – his quick-twitch muscles will assure that it happens in a sudden, bone-jarring fashion.
If riding the trails is your greatest love at this later point in life, maybe you should look at a horse specifically tailored for the task and specifically tailored for your own body. Smoothness of gait is obviously desirable, but there are other considerations.
A horse whose chest is narrow to moderate in width but deep from withers to sternum, conformational features often associated with endurance, spreads your legs less widely than a horse with a torso like a barrel. This narrower build does wonders for your knees. Knees are designed to bend just one way. A wide torso begs your knees to bend sideways to conform to the animal’s build. A narrower horse allows your legs to remain straighter side to side. The difference in knee strain is astounding.
Your horse’s height is another consideration. I frequently see trail riders whose horses are too tall for their riders’ builds and/or physical conditioning. It may sound harsh, but if you can’t get on your horse without a mounting block or a leg up, I question whether you have a proper trail horse, or even a safe one.
What happens when your rest stop in a high mountain clearing is interrupted by a sudden, violent thunderstorm and you need to get down the mountain as quickly as possible? Riders who can’t mount without searching out the right stump or rock can jeopardize the rest of the party, or at the very least, annoy them.
Since many small breeds are superb weight-carriers, perhaps it’s time to consider a Paso Fino, an Icelandic, a Galiceno, or, if you’re not concerned about gaitedness, a Pony of the Americas. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that your 16.2-hand dressage animal, lovely as he is in his way, isn’t the best possible trail horse for you.
Equipment improvements can also help. A light saddle still sturdy enough for trail use will be easier on your arms, shoulders, and back each time you throw it on.
A high/low stirrup attachment can help with mounting. My wife Emily is a smidge over five feet tall, but her stirrup attachment lowers three inches for mounting, making her horse’s 15.2 hands shrink to 14.3, a considerable difference. (One model is the E-Z Up Stirrup Extender; 877/865-1497; www.ezupstirrup.com.)
Few of us are likely to be so blessed as my late friend Walt Sipes, who rode with our group until he was over 90. But we can all try! See you on the trail. (I’ll be one of the guys with gray hair.)
Dan Aadland (http://my.montana.net/draa) raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.
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