The Wisdom (and Challenges) of Age

A horse trainer and riding instructor reflects on the changes that come with growing older.

Aging can be challenging for an equestrian. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve been training and teaching for so long—over 40 years now—that most of the people I’ve found myself riding with in recent years are people I’ve taught to ride. And when you start to doubt your own riding skills, it can be awkward to be around your own students.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sharon Mastous The author with Missouri Fox Trotter gelding Sarek.

I moved from California to Ohio several years ago, in my 60s. Not long after, I lost my good Missouri Fox Trotter mare, Tez. I’d delivered her as a foal, raised her up, trained her. She’d been my partner for 20 years, and I figured replacing her wasn’t going to be easy.

In fact it took more than a year for me to finally find Sarek, another Fox Trotter. He was 7 years old but essentially untrained. (He’d had six months of basics, then hadn’t been ridden in four years.) Still, I was so enamored with Sarek’s brain and personality that I didn’t even take into consideration my changed physical capabilities, given my age.

‘All Things Horse’
Sarek made me take them into consideration. More than that, he nudged me into realizing I genuinely was getting older. After years of being in charge of “all things horse,” I found the ground had changed under me.

I was in a new environment, where my carefully cultivated approach to training wasn’t fully understood. I no longer had 80-foot round pens or regulation arenas to work in. I no longer had access to familiar trails right outside my back gate, and I no longer even had a trailer. Most important, though, I no longer had an extensive network of like-minded friends surrounding me.

All this clipped my wings even further, at a time when I could’ve used more support, not less.

Now, at 76, my body has decided it’s not happy when things don’t go the way it expects them to. It doesn’t adapt well to rough gaits, silly spooks, or any on-trail surprises.

This loss of riding chops has been hardest to accept. I used to have the confidence to ride absolutely any horse, in any situation, and fix any problem. Now my body doesn’t recover as fast. I also find I now need help with the simplest tasks, including saddling and mounting. My mind knows what to do; my body can’t quickly execute. My reactions to Sarek’s mistakes are sometimes late, and corrections take longer.
It complicates things.

Sticking With It
I’m embarrassed by all this, and it makes me question my ability to continue to ride. I don’t want to be a hindrance to the groups I’ve ridden with. It’s so, so hard to be the one who needs help—rather than the one who gives the help. I used to be the teacher; now I’m more like a student.

But you know what? I’m not going to let that stop me. Yes, I have to change my approach to riding. I no longer can do what the younger version of myself easily accomplished. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, and sometimes when I’m challenged in this way, it’s disheartening. Still, I’m determined to stay in the saddle, and to find joy in teaching and training as well—all in modified ways.

My bottom line? I have no intention to quit being a horsewoman anytime soon—the good Lord willing.

Sharon Mastous has been riding, training, and teaching since 1976. Her gift is to rehab horses and their riders. She worked for a college in California for 18 years and owned her own facility. Now in Ohio, she still loves to work with horses. Sarek moved on to a new home, but Sharon has unlimited access to ride him. She’s also occasionally asked to lend her training expertise with other horses doing groundwork.