Tips for Adult Beginning Horseback Riders
Perhaps you never had the time or the budget to ride a horse when you were young, or your athletic pursuits leaned in other directions. If you suddenly find yourself with the urge to climb in the saddle, rest assured that you are not alone. Many riders don’t touch a horse until middle age, and you too can start after 40. I learned to ride as an older teenager while living in the Netherlands, but I took a long “hippopause” (author Jane Smiley’s term) when I got serious about dance, and didn’t return to riding until my late 30s. Here are some tips and inspiration to help you take up this amazing sport.
The Benefits of Horseback Riding
There are so many wonderful gains to be had from taking up riding, you’ll wish you had started sooner:
- improves fitness, including strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, proprioception and cardiovascular health (and doing a few barn chores doesn’t hurt either!)
- burns calories
- increases discipline
- builds self-confidence
- teaches animal communication and facilitates bonding, which has both emotional and physical benefits
- encourages time spent outdoors in nature
- develops neuroplasticity, the formation of new brain connections, which is important as you age
If you get serious about your riding, you can participate in local parades and compete in shows, as well as enjoy activities like dude ranch vacations or volunteer for missing person searches. You’ll expand your circle of friends too if you ride at a barn with lots of other students or boarders.
Are you looking for the perfect family activity to do with the kids? Horseback riding may just fit the bill. You can find riding stables nearly everywhere across the globe, and riding gives you access to stunningly beautiful places you’d never see on foot.
While many horse rental facilities may be all-purpose stables that don’t promote any particular type of riding, if you want to get a little more serious about equestrian sports, you may want to find a specialty barn. There are many different riding disciplines, and selecting the right one can be your key to finding a life-long hobby, instead of giving up after just a few weeks. Even if you just want to go out on a hack (a leisurely trail ride) once in a while, you need to decide what style of riding suits you and learn some basic equitation, or riding skills.
Horseback riding is generally grouped into two categories: Western and English, although there are some disciplines that resist buttonholing or combine the two styles. Western riding comes from utilitarian horse use, like ranching and cattle driving. It has expanded to include recreational activities such as rodeo riding. Because Western riding is practical in nature, the saddles are big leather affairs, designed for hours on horseback. Saddle blankets tend to be larger and heavier, stirrups are more sizable, and other tack (the bridle, reins, martingales, etc.) is more substantial.
Apparel for Western riding is typically more informal, and jeans and cowboy boots are the norm. If you like the idea of one day visiting a working ranch to help work livestock, going camping with your horse, or maybe doing a little barrel racing, Western riding might be a good fit for you.
English riding has a reputation as being a bit snobby, but that isn’t entirely true. Of course, there are some high-and-mighty stables everywhere, but this shouldn’t deter you if you have your heart set on a traditionally English discipline. English riding may have been made popular by British riders and films depicting fox hunts, but so-called English disciplines have their roots in many different countries, like Germany, Austria, France, and Spain.
Two of the most popular “English” disciplines are dressage and hunter-jumper. In dressage, you ride a horse in a pattern around a marked arena, performing different movements, such as the trot or the piaffe, a prancing step that looks simple but takes years to master, and in competition isn’t even allowed until the uppermost levels. In those competitions (AKA shows) a judge watches your ride, or “test,” and assigns a score that will be compared to others at your level, to determine the winner. There are also tests that can be done to music, and patterns for two or four riders together, like dance choreography.
The term “hunter-jumper” puts together several similar types of riding that stem from conventional hunting styles. In hunter seat competitions, horses may complete a jumping course, but the horse and rider pair is judged on the horse’s appearance and how they move together, as well as how they handle the jumps. In strictly jumping shows, only the technical aspects of jumping are considered, and the rider with the fastest time and the fewest errors wins. You can see both jumping and dressage in Olympic games.
Dressage and hunter-jumper riding are performed with smaller saddles than Western riding. The stirrups are more simple too, similar to those used in racing. There are numerous technical differences between English and Western riding. One of the greatest contrasts is in the way the trot is ridden. In Western riding, the rider always sits the trot, whereas in English disciplines, the trot can be posted, meaning the rider rises out of the saddle on every other stride.
Dress for English riding is more formal than Western riding, and usually breeches are worn with short or knee-high boots. In competition, jackets are donned, as are gloves and nicer accessories.
If you can’t decide between dressage and jumping, and if you think you might also like to try a little cross-country racing, eventing is the ideal competition for you. In eventing shows, riders compete in dressage, jumping, and cross country, so you have to be an all-around good rider (and a rather intrepid one!) to do well.
While it’s too late to begin a track racing career in your middle years, you can still try other riding activities like driving (when the horse pulls a cart), polo, or endurance racing. And of course, you can learn basic equitation skills and simply go for pleasure rides in the countryside.
Horse and Instructor Selection
Finding the right instructor and the right horse are two key elements in having a fun and rewarding time on the back of a horse. Often the two are to be found at one location. If you do your homework in advance, you can locate the right stable for you.
The days of having to buy your own horse or use a worn-out rental nag are gone. While you may ultimately want to purchase your own horse, a good way to test the waters first is to lease a horse. You can rent a horse long term just like you would a car. You pay a monthly fee and work out a contract with the owner, deciding who will cover expenses like food, veterinary care, and shoeing. The horse is at your disposal whenever you want to ride, and you know the horse has limited riders, so it won’t be getting contradictory training or be too tired to go out when you want to. In some instances, you may be allowed to split a lease with a friend or barnmate who studies the same riding discipline.
Since it’s probably harder to find a good instructor as an adult, it’s advisable to find your trainer first and then seek out a horse. Many large stables have horses available for lease, or you may also be able to trailer in a horse you are leasing from elsewhere. Another option is to find a trainer who is willing to travel to the barn where your leased horse is stalled.
There are several ways you can locate a high-quality riding instructor. You can look online, check the back of horse magazines, or ask at your local feed or farm supply store. Try to find reviews that indicate whether the instructor or stables take adult students and how satisfied customers are with their training.
If you live in an area with lots of equestrian shows, you can attend those events and ask riders there who they train with. Don’t be afraid to go “backstage” to the barns, where you can talk to people when they are not under the pressure of imminent competition. At dressage and jumping shows, many trainers will set up little hospitality areas in front of the stalls where their horses are staying during the show. You can stop by, have a cup of coffee, and ask about lessons for adult beginners. Shows are also a way to see which riding discipline attracts you most if you are undecided.
If you’ve never spent any time around horses, you want an instructor who is willing to show you more than just how to ride. You should be taught about horse safety on the ground, in addition to how to saddle and tack a horse.
You probably want to first make sure you like riding or that you don’t want to change disciplines, before investing a great deal in clothing and gear. If you lease a horse, it will usually come with its own saddle and tack. However, you may need to put together a grooming kit or purchase your own lead rope.
The one item every rider must have, and some barns smartly mandate this, is a riding helmet. Every year people die in riding accidents, and sometimes this is due to failure to wear head protection. (I took a pledge with Riders4Helmets and have never ridden without a helmet since—not easy living in Mexico, where cowboy hats rule!)
You can order a helmet online, get one at a feed store, or purchase one from a sporting goods shop. Make sure it has an adjustable band inside, as well as an adjustable chin strap, and then be sure to put your helmet on as a habit before you even approach your horse.
You can ask your riding instructor what you should wear to lessons. You may be able to wear jeans for a few weeks of English riding until you get the hang of it and feel comfortable picking up a pair of breeches. Western classes will likely let you wear jeans all the time. A polo shirt, denim shirt, or fleece with a supportive sports bra underneath is fine on top. You’ll probably want sunglasses too, unless you’re riding in a covered arena.
Different riding disciplines have their own preferences for footwear. You won’t need expensive boots to start; cowboy boots for Western classes or paddock boots for English disciplines should be okay, as long as they have a bit of a heel to prevent the foot from slipping through the stirrups. Avoid boots with laces, as they can become hung up in the stirrups if you fall, and don’t use boots with zippers on the inside of the leg, as these will rub uncomfortably on both you and the horse. Some riders in both Western and English styles like to use half chaps, which are leather or suede gaiters to cover the bottom half of the leg when full boots aren’t worn.
Challenges to Beginning Adult Riders
Being an adult beginner in the equestrian world can have its unique challenges. One the biggest hurdles for adults is finding the time to commit to riding. If you lease a horse, you may need to add general horse care to your lesson schedule, which can include feeding and mucking stalls.
You don’t have to be in tip-top shape to ride, but it sure helps. It’s not as easy as it looks to ride once you move past the walk. If nothing else, core training will help you establish your seat on the horse, which not only lets you keep your balance, but allows you to communicate what you want to your mount. If you want to take your riding fitness further, there are some fine training programs available through DVDs, and there are also excellent books on the topic.
Another common issue for adult riders, that kids don’t seem to face so much, is fear. Having a good bond with your horse can mitigate this, as can finding an instructor you trust, and who knows how to push you just enough to improve without making each lesson an hour of terror. One way a teacher can do this, for example, is to put your horse on a lunge line, a long rope attached to the bridle. You can experiment with riding technique and even ride hands free without fear that your horse will take off on you.
As an adult you may not have experienced failures or frustrations recently, but you will encounter both of these in riding, as you would with any sport. Know that you will probably take a fall or two, or want your horse to do something it just refuses to do. It’s best to be realistic but to be positive as well. Don’t let your mistakes keep you from trying again. After all, horseback riding is the origin of the expression “getting back in the saddle”.