Reprinted from the Sept/Oct. 2014 Issue. Written by S. E. Morris
Autumn is upon us; for many, it’s time to go back to school. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, is it also time to return to riding? Adults in greater numbers have resumed horseback riding after a time lapse, whereas others are experiencing the joy of learning to ride for the first time. Several riding programs in Virginia offer lessons, support, and health advice for “those of a certain age.”

“Riding is so much more than position and riding theory; it’s also the rider’s mindset and level of self-confidence,” stated Joyce Howard, a member of the teaching team for the Return to Riding program of Montanova Stables Foundation at Belvoir Farm (Keswick, Va.; Howard, along with Jennifer Jones and Nancy Lowey, began the program to target adults who have left riding or never had the opportunity to learn to ride.

Leslie Keck & Corky 1

Leslie Keck is living her dream of being a trail rider with her Kentucky Mountain Horse, Corky

“The physical aspect of riding, which encompasses fitness and flexibility, is critical for riding,” Howard added. “[Riding] involves mental energy, focus, and our outlook and attitudes about ourselves.”

Often, it is difficult for adult riders to find time to practice their sport.

“We all have lives, and it’s really hard to balance to doing something for ourselves and all of the commitments to others in our lives,” Howard said.

Jessica Zarudzki, a re-rider from Warrenton, Va., left riding for more than 15 years but has slowly returned to riding and showing. She stated, “It hasn’t been easy trying to fit the lessons and shows in between my crazy work schedule…but every ride has been amazing.”

Zarudzki loved riding as a youngster but had to stop after being diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis, which caused her spine to curve. She underwent multiple spinal fusion surgeries, and her doctors told her to stop riding “because it was considered too dangerous.”

She added, “If you’re a horse lover and avid equestrian like me you know giving up riding is not an option!” Zarudzki recently began horseback riding at Somerset Stables, and although her back now is “full of fancy hardware,” she credits her return to riding with a restoration of feeling in certain parts of her back.

“My horse Smile Away (aka Gus) is calm and takes care of me,” Zarudzki said. “He is really funny because he knows when I’ve had enough and my muscles start tensing up, and I’m secretly thinking I’ve had enough yet we need to continue on in our lesson, and so he will start to slow down or just stop and stand still. He has been a true blessing.”

“I put my lesson on the calendar and schedule my commitments around it!” said re-rider Jennifer Bell, who rides at Hazelwild Farm in Fredericksburg, Va. “Having a regularly scheduled lesson is the best way for me to have the opportunity to ride.”

Bell started riding when she was 7 years old and purchased her first horse when she was 10.

“From that point on, I rode practically every day until I went off to college, and rode for the IHSA team all four years of college.”

Bell, however, “completely gave up riding when I married at 24,” adding, “When I had the time, I didn’t have the money, and when I had the money, I didn’t have the time.”


Jennifer Bell riding her horse “Rippy” in 1980 when Jennifer was 17

She credits her daughter as her inspiration to start riding again.

“Watching her ride weekly made me I realize that I missed it. So I signed up for lessons too and came back to the equestrian world,” she said. Bell rides with an adult group once per week in a one-hour lesson and focuses on “having fun.”

Another re-rider, Leslie Keck, said, “It took a devastating disease to make me realize the importance of dreams and that is how I got back into horses!” Keck was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. “I loved horses and riding since I was a little girl,” but the “years flew by with school, sports, marriage, and children,” and her focus was elsewhere.

Now, she and her husband live on a farm in Alton, Va., with their own horses, a Kentucky Mountain Horse and a Rocky Mountain horse, and enjoys traveling and participating on trail rides.

“All I wanted to do was be a trail rider,” said Keck. “Now, I’m living the dream!”

Lillian Davis, a 70-year-old re-rider, returned to riding two years ago after being encouraged by her grandchildren to resume the sport.

“I rode English as a teen and young adult,” said Davis. A career in nursing, and marriage and children left her “no time for horses.” She saw an advertisement for Western riding lessons at a local farm in Gloucester, Va., “for ages 8 through 80—and at 68 I was in that age group!” Davis now owns her own horse, a 13-year-old quarter horse/paint mare. She was “apprehensive” and “took many precautions,” but over time found her horse to be “perfect.”

“My life has been enriched by riding and having a wonderful relationship with a horse,” she added.

Davis hopes her experience as a “senior rider” will inspire others to “renew their relationship with a horse.”

“It’s not easy riding at our age as it was when we were younger,” agreed Joyce Howard. It is important to have goals, she stated, such as improving our equitation; however, “it’s most important to set a riding routine and stick to it, and to find a trainer who is supportive of you and your learning style.”

Zarudski photo

Jessica Zarudzki riding Smile Away (Gus) on the Eastern Shore. Jessica is back to riding after a 15 year break, and won’t let anything stop her!

Howard stressed the importance of a strong, trusting relationship between the student and the trainer, which is “an essential component for the teacher to help the student actually ride through situations that may cause a lack of self-confidence.”

“We not only need a patient trainer, we also need to be patient with ourselves,” she added.

One way to gain self-confidence is strength training in preparation for riding, Howard stated.

“Pilates and yoga are great for riders,” she said, adding that strengthening core muscles and posture adjustment exercises are helpful. “The more flexible we are, the more capable we are to ride.”

“A consistent, balanced training program is needed for riding a horse: strength, flexibility, balance, stamina, alignment, and body awareness,” writes Melina Folse, author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses: Find Meaning, Magic and Mastery in the Second Half of Life. “Riding can help keep you fit, but to become a better rider, you need something more” to ride longer and enjoy it more.

Jennifer Bell “walks regularly and works out on an elliptical…[but] nothing beats actually riding. Sometimes I find that I have to stretch out muscles after a few minutes of riding as they cramp up easily.”

Jessica Zarudzki focuses on stretching and swimming—by herself and with her horse, who loves the water!—to strengthen her muscles for riding.

“Also, it is important to work out our brains,” said Howard. “Ride through situations mentally; practice riding the course or performing the lesson with a positive outcome, then practice that in real life,” Howard added. She also stressed the importance of watching good riders: “Putting those images in your brain will help you ride,” she said.

“Fear is a result of a lack of self-confidence,” stated Howard. “However, as our skills develop, our confidence grows, and our fear recedes—as we practice and do more exercises, we are able to work through situations.”

Leslie Keck & Corky 2

“It took a devastating disease to make me realize the importance of dreams and that is how I got back into horses.” says Leslie Keck

Another important factor for returning to riding is the proper equipment. An American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)—approved helmet is required for equestrian events and by riding instructors. Boots with a 1-inch heel also are usually required by most stables. And many re-riders decide to wear a safety or crash vest (ASTM-approved) to protect their inner organs, ribs, and spine in case of a fall; vests also offer security for adults learning to ride.

Howard stressed the most critical gear for riding “is our courage.”

“In our program, we give our riders that ‘push’ to go and achieve their dream of riding. We instill in them the gift of determination that will help them overcome their obstacles—physical or psychological.

“You can do it! You may have to work a little harder at this age, but you must believe you really can do it. So go!”


Resources: Online support groups, books and riding clubs for adults