By Jill Montgomery
What comes to mind for many people when a riding instructor says, “I give riding lessons,” is a group of little girls with pigtails popping out from under their helmets circling around a white-board fence riding arena on a mix-matched herd of ponies and horses. For those in the horse business, recognizing this as a popular myth speaks to the opportunity to have a broader segment of the horse-interested public. Educating the public about how learning to ride, and or returning to riding benefits them and you as a horse professional.
Riding lessons can be a gateway to horse ownership, they may lead to the sale of a horse, or a new boarder in your barn, or to register more horse enthusiasts in a clinic or event. This is true regardless of the age of your student. So why shift gears? The older student may not be a fit for all riding instructors, but this is a growing market. What should you consider before targeting older riders as new students for your horse program?
There are more differences between the older rider and the traditional younger riding student than stirrup length and the weight your horses will carry. The first you may notice with the older rider is that you are providing service to the person paying the bill. Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) CEO, and owner of CJL Training Inc. Christy Landwehr comments, “Once the kids have been raised, parents may be ready to give back to themselves. They may have more discretionary income and time.” Another difference – older students have a lot more life experience than those 8- to 12-year-old kids that come for your instruction tabula rasa. “The older student may have previous training and more experience with horses, both good and bad. They may just have their own ideas about the sport and horses in general,” says CHA certified instructor Ken Najorka of Najorka Performance Horses. He goes on to say, “This group is one the coach must outthink.” He recommends using a lot of humor and emphasizes keeping it (the ride) fun. Both have found requests on the rise from over-50 riders for lessons in their programs.
Sixty is the new forty in the U.S. of A. Many adults are finding that enjoying experiences is more rewarding for them than acquisition of material things. A recent study reports a push for corporate America to adopt a 4-day work week giving employees an extra weekday to experience more of life. They seek activities that offer exercise to help them stay fit, a challenge to develop or fine tune mastery of a sport, and a sense of accomplishment from achieving goals. Horseback riding checks all these boxes for older riders. Riding is a sport that promotes health – improving key elements of fitness such as balance, coordination, core strength, and flexibility. Additional benefits include – it promotes communication skills, can be a social and family activity and takes place in the great outdoors – which is a particularly good trait given recent social conditions. Groundwork, grooming and learning about equine care and management further the opportunity to bond with a horse – which can be amazing.
There is a wide range of athleticism in people over 50 years of age, and we stereotype older riding students at our peril. Both Christy and Ken reveal a wide range of ages in the older riders they work with, from 50 to 80+ years young. They come with a multitude of reasons for being interested in riding lessons. Reasons span from satisfying the decades old desire to ride, to the horse the kids rode until they went to college needs a job, and more. Examples from their programs include-
Preparing for a horseback vacation
- A prominent attorney in his 70’s needs to get into riding shape so 6 days in the saddle at a luxury dude ranch doesn’t become misery. He rode in his youth and understood the physicality of the sport. He signs up for 8 weekly lessons in advance of the trip to condition and feel competent / confident for the event. The gentleman reports back after that he wished he had started training earlier or had upped the frequency prior to trip, but still has a great time.
Needing help being matched with the right horse
- An 80-year-old author wants her own horse. This student was a good rider to start with and didn’t know where to find a suitable horse. After seeing many candidates, she found a docile, experienced Gypsy Vanner to be her right match. The owner was able to give her a long-term lease on the horse which was a bonus for the partnership.
Motivated to participate by riding with family
- A father needs to learn to ride so that he can ride with his adult daughter in a parade. He takes lessons right up to the parade and pulls it off to his daughter’s delight!
- A 61-year-old nurse has an acquaintance abandon a Paso Fino rescue horse at her property. She was classically trained as a child to ride and decides to keep the horse. Her boyfriend wants to be able to ride with her, so they acquire another rescue. Both the riders and the horses get training to help ready them for riding on the area trails.
- A family new to horse ownership take their tween-age daughter to a local horse show. Dad discovers there is an open class in which he could compete. He decides he too needs lessons after he is asked to ride in,” …something called a curb bit, because his horse is over 5, and the show follows the rules of AQH something.”
There is much that older riders and younger riders have in common when learning to ride horses, still their differences are worth considering. What follows are a few to think about in terms of the resources you may need to make equine activities with this type of student successful.
Adults usually weigh more than their younger counterparts
- Are your school horses able to carry heavier riders? Many programs have older horses with some soundness issues that are tolerant of light riders only.
Does your tack fit larger and less flexible riders?
- Good saddle fit is always important for the horse, and it may be critical for older riders with arthritis and joint issues. Do your saddles have a comfortable seat? Padded and suede for grip may be better than slick hard leather. A narrow twist may help with hip issues, stirrups should make it easy to keep legs in good alignment.
Older riders may have musculoskeletal or other health issues. They rarely bounce well.
- Will your horses stand still at the mounting block and tolerate being bumped on the rump by a leg that can’t clear it when swinging over? Standing still and quietly for the dismount is just as important. Are your school horses patient? Older riders who are less agile or flexible may benefit from a slab-sided (narrower) horse. Clients with previous major medical issues might require a doctor’s clearance to ride. These riders really cannot afford to get hurt.
Older Riders may be less tolerant of exercise or heat while riding when it’s hot.
- While all riders can become dehydrated in the heat and many young riders get sore from riding, older riders are at high risk for this. They may need shorter intervals of strenuous activity interspersed with recovery time. Ken suggests alternating 10 minutes of easy work and not more than 10 minutes of more challenging maneuvers. Christy likes to use warm-up on the ground prior to mounting as well as once in the saddle. Even when the mind is willing, the body may not be. Setting expectations about the need to drink water and remedies for soreness following the lesson is recommended.
Older riders may come with baggage from previous bad experiences, or they may not have been taught good safety and equitation practices.
- Many older riders are very aware they are not bullet proof. Are you good at building confidence? Can you explain the “why” behind your methods to those who learned how to do what you are asking differently? It may be both muscle and memory that needs to be retrained. This may take longer than if it were being learned for the first time. Older riders can and will set their own limits. Are you patient?
Both Ken and Christy have seen increased interest in horseback riding from older clients in their lesson programs. The U.S. population is living longer and is looking for ways to find meaningful healthy experiences. Safe, effective, and fun experiences with horses can help fill that need. While some older riders will require more consideration to deliver those experiences, others may not. Ken describes two of his riders as 70-year-old eventers. Christy describes one of her competent walk, trot, canter students as in her 60’s with her own horse. The only accommodation she needs in Christy’s program is a mounting block and to be spotted on the dismount.
These riders come with their individual stories, skills, and goals, as do they all. Safety is typically first on their list of requirements. They may have a need that you and your program can help fill. Some barns have even developed specific programs for over-50 riders with targeted marketing and riding instructors that have therapeutic riding instruction credentials. Centurion classes requiring participants combined age of rider and horse equal or exceed 100 years have been added to some horse shows. Ken is even building a campsite complete with RV hook-ups as part of his ranch for adult riders to come with their horses and stay a while for clinics and lessons. It opens next year.
For more on this topic be sure to attend Ken Najorka’s live presentation on “Working with the Older Rider” Wednesday Nov.10th at the Cowtown Coliseum during the CHA International Conference in Fort Worth, TX. See you in Fort Worth!
Author and Contributors
Jill Montgomery is a CHA English and Western Riding Instructor, and Equine Facility Manager and Certifier. She is owner and CEO of JRAM Enterprises Inc. an equine consulting business that focuses on work to keep equine activities accessible and enjoyable for everyone. FMI Jill@JRAMEnterprises.com
Christy Landwehr is CHA’s CEO and holds most of the credentials available through the organization, especially relevant to this article is her CHA certification as a Master Level Riding Instructor. She has been teaching children and adults how to ride for over 30 years. Christy is an AQHA Professional Horseman, an APHA Professional Horseman and won the AYHC Distinguished Service of the Year Award. Christy sits on the Colorado State University Equine Advisory Council and teaches in the Communications Department part time at the Community College of Aurora. She is also on the Interscholastic Equestrian Association Board of Directors. Christy runs CJL Training where she teaches riding and does meditation and facilitation of meetings for the equine industry and others. FMI www.CJLTrainingInc.com
Ken Najorka has been affiliated with CHA for many years, he owns Najorka Performance Horses in Fort White FL where he raises, trains, and sells reining horses. Ken was the coach for the University of Central FL equestrian team and now conducts horsemanship clinics across the southeast. He maintains a lesson program at his barn that serves to develop riders in Western Dressage, Ranch Horse, and Trail Riding disciplines. FMI contact firstname.lastname@example.org