by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
Photo of Queen Elizabeth II and President Ronald Reagan By Michael Evans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you're an equestrian of a certain age, you may be wondering how much longer you'll be able to participate in your chosen sport. Or perhaps you've never ridden before, but it's something you've always wanted to try and you're wondering if it's physically possible for you. While horseback riding is beneficial for building core strength and balance, age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis can make it more difficult. Horse care tasks, such as grooming and tacking up are also complicated by joint pain. Here are five suggested adaptations to help the older rider work around common problems of weakness and stiffness in the hands, hips, and knees.
1. Try Rope Reins
If you have hand weakness or stiffness, you may find traditional flat leather reins difficult to grip. Fat, round rope reins are more comfortable in the hand and don't slip through the fingers as easily as leather. Look for clip-on reins that are are 5/8 of an inch in diameter and 10 feet long. They can be used with any Western or English bridle. You could even make your own reins from yacht rope and small bolt snaps.
Other options are available from vendors such as Freedom Riders, which specialize in items for disabled riders. For example, loops made to attach to standard reins are easy to hold without worrying about your hands slipping.
2. Switch to Ergonomic Grooming Tools
If you have problems with your hands, grooming your horse -- especially picking dirt out of hooves -- can be very difficult. Well-designed, ergonomic grooming tools are well worth the premium price. I had no idea that my two-dollar hoof pick was making this task far more difficult than necessary until I borrowed a friend’s high-quality pick. As soon as I got home I ordered one for myself.
I chose "The Ultimate Hoofpick" -- Amazon.com sells them, as does SmartPak Equine. With a firm sharp blade and a fat, comfortable handle, it is easy to dig under the muck and flick it right out of my horse's hooves. Alternatively, Oster makes a full line of ergonomic horse-grooming tools, including a hoof pick. Oster items can be purchased individually or in sets.
3. Step up to a Three-Step Mounting Block
When I complained to my doctor of pain in my left hip, I mentioned that I thought it might have to do with putting pressure on that joint when mounting my horse. His response? "Get a shorter horse." I got a taller mounting block instead.
At 22 inches high, my new mounting block gives me a stable platform for getting onto my horse without having to push up through my left leg. My barn friends laughed, but the block gets borrowed all the time.
You might be able to save some money by building your own, but be certain it is strong and stable. Do not try to substitute a household stepladder -- it would be too easy to knock over, which could frighten your horse and lead to a nasty fall.
4. Consider a Dressage Saddle
Dressage saddles aren’t just for “horse ballet,” but are also popular among trail riders for their supportive structure and light weight. Whether you've always been a Western rider or have spent your riding career in a close-contact English saddle, switching to a dressage saddle can reduce strain on knees and ankles.
Western riders will find the high cantle and large knee rolls of a dressage saddle support them in a familiar alignment of shoulder, hip, and ankle. All that's missing is the horn -- as well as 20 to 30 pounds of weight. My Wintec Isabell dressage saddle weighs a smidge more than 12 pounds. I can carry it over one arm, and easily lift it to set down gently on my horse's back. My arthritic left shoulder is very happy that I chose this saddle over a traditional trail saddle weighing more than twice as much.
For English riders accustomed to a hunt seat, a dressage saddle offers comfort and support while riding with knee-friendly long stirrups. In contrast, I found trail riding in my all-purpose saddle was leaving me with sore knees and ankles, as well as numb feet. Simply lengthening the stirrups on the all-purpose saddle left me feeling insecure, especially when riding up or down steep inclines. With my dressage saddle, I can dismount after a trail ride and walk away without pain.
5. Experiment with Stirrup Leathers and Different Stirrups
Inch-wide, English-style stirrup leathers put less twist on the knees than the wider, stiffer Western-style fenders. Stirrup leathers are standard for English saddles, but may also be an option for some trail saddles. While genuine leather is traditional, synthetic "leathers" have the advantage of not stretching with use. I love my Wintec Webbers, which consist of a single layer of a non-stretch synthetic material. The single layer means less bulk under the leg, and less resistance to curving around my shin.
Stirrup irons are available in a variety of designs, so you can choose what works best for you. Options include wide and padded treads, including endurance models designed for comfort when riding long distances. Stirrup eyes may be angled or adjustable, reducing torque on the knee and making it easier to pick up a dropped stirrup. A flexible attachment between the branches of the stirrup and the tread allows the rider's heels to drop naturally, reducing strain on the knees and ankles.
Think you're too old for horseback riding? In the 2012 Olympic games, many equestrian competitors were well past the age of 50. These inspirational riders included [then] 65 year-old show jumper, Ian Miller of Canada, and 71 year-old Japanese dressage rider, Hiroshi Hoketsu. Of course, most of us will never compete at Olympic level, but that doesn't mean we need to give up our chosen sport because of age.
Marlissa blogs about books and reading at "You Are What You Read," and pins to her Pinterest page of the same name.
You may also want to read these equestrian articles by Marlissa:
Can You Afford That Free Horse?
Horses, Bikes, and Hikers: Sharing the Trails
Review of Wintec Pro Dressage Saddle with Contour Bloc
by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
So, you've been taking horseback riding lessons for a while, you feel that you've got the basics down, and you really love the animals. You've learned to groom and muck out stalls, and you even kind of enjoy the tangy smell of manure -- after all, where there's horse muck, there's horses! You long for a horse of your own, and have started to save up. Then one day a friend of a friend from the barn tells you about a horse that's available for free, or for a nominal price that you can easily afford. Of course, you're told, it's a terrific horse and absolutely perfect for you.
It happens more often than you might think, especially in today's poor economy. A horse owner loses their job, or a marriage breaks up, and suddenly their beloved mount becomes a financial drain they can't handle. All they want is a good home for their friend, but they need it now, and can't wait for a buyer with a few thousand dollars to hand.
Their misfortune is your lucky day. No more lesson fees, and you can ride whenever you want. Your dream of a horse all your own, to love and pamper, is coming true. What could possibly go wrong? As is true for any animal, the purchase price is only the smallest tip of the iceberg of overall cost. In the case of a horse, that iceberg can be of Titanic-sinking proportions. So what's a horse-mad person to do? Here are ten tips that will help you make sure you're ready to make your dream a reality.
1. Choose carefully -- Chose a horse that is at least basically trained to do the kind of riding you want to do. You should be able to get on and have fun right away.
Unless you're an experienced trainer, an untrained, unrideable free horse is no bargain. Rule out any horses that are too young to have been trained, or who otherwise haven't been trained to ride for any reason. Having some famous horses in its pedigree still doesn't make an untrained horse a good deal. Quality training is expensive and it takes time. Don't imagine that you can buy a book or video and do it right yourself.
2. Take someone with you -- Take someone who knows your skills and knows horses well -- someone who can't be seduced by big brown eyes and flashy coat color. If you don't have a friend who fits the bill, a lot of trainers and instructors will go with you to evaluate a potential horse. You'll need to pay their expenses plus a fee to be agreed ahead of time. It's well worth it to have someone along to talk you out of making a potentially dangerous and expensive mistake.
The current owner should ride first, then your trainer, and only then you. Too many people get hurt trying out prospective horses. Don't be one of them.
3. Get the vet out -- Have at least a basic pre-purchase veterinary exam even on a free horse. Don't expect perfection, but expect a horse that's sound and healthy enough to do the activities you want to do with it. A vet can tell you if there's any evidence of injury or disease requiring expensive treatment and affecting rideability as of the day of the exam. You don't want to get your new horse home only to find a nasty, costly surprise. On the other hand, a flaw that might not look great to the casual eye, such as poor muscle development, could be readily correctable with proper feed and exercise.
4. Make a budget -- You'll have expenses of various types. One-time expenses include equipment such as tack and grooming gear. Regular monthly expenses include boarding and feed. Other regular expenses include hoof care, worming, vaccinations, and dental care. And there is always the potential for unexpected injury and illness requiring veterinary care. Be ready for all of them.
5. Check out the boarding options in your area -- Boarding your horse will be your highest regular cost commitment. The monthly cost of boarding will vary with your area and with the type of facilities. You'll pay more for amenities such as riding arenas and staff who do all the daily feeding and cleaning. You'll pay less if your horse lives out in a pasture and you have time every day to do your own chores. You'll find many options in between. What works best for you will depend on your schedule, your riding needs, and your budget. For example, if you prefer trail riding to schooling in an arena, why pay for a facility with a covered riding arena and an on-site trainer?
Even if you have your own land that is zoned for horse keeping, you will still have expenses to consider. You'll need safe, secure fencing, as well as some kind of shelter for your horse. You'll need to buy hay for at least part of the year, and you'll need a suitable place to store that hay. You'll need a watering system so your horse will always have access to fresh drinking water. Last but not least, as horses generally do not do well living alone, your horse will need another equine for company.
6. Shop carefully for tack -- There may be good bargains to be had in second-hand tack, but tack fit matters. A saddle has to fit both you and your horse if you're going to have a comfortable and safe ride. Ill-fitting saddles are the cause of all kinds of bad horse behavior, from refusal to move forward to fits of bucking that can send you flying. Over the long-term, a badly fitting saddle can damage your horse's back, even if he seems to tolerate it.
Even if you have access to a professional saddle-fitter to work with, reading up on the basics is a good idea. I can personally recommend Galadriel Billington’s book, Saddle Fitting Overview for the Horse Owner, which covers both English and Western style saddles.
Tack also has to be in good repair. Catastrophic breakage of a rein, girth, or stirrup leather can be extremely dangerous. Don't fall for a false economy.
7. Don't skimp on routine care -- Regular hoof care, worming, vaccinations, and dental floating are essential to keeping your horse healthy. If you live in an area with sandy soil that may be ingested by your grazing horse, regular psyllium treatments are also a good idea.
Failure to keep up with these basic procedures will eventually cost you big in heartache as well as vet bills.
8. Prepare for emergencies -- A sick or injured horse can run up big vet bills fast. Insurance is available, and well worth looking into. Unfortunately, horse insurance tends to be based on the purchase price and age of the animal. Older, low-priced horses can be difficult or impossible to insure. So start a savings account earmarked for vet bills and don't touch it for anything else!
9. Have some liability coverage -- If you have homeowner's insurance, personal liability for damages and injuries caused by your horse may be covered. Talk to your insurance agent. Otherwise, ask around and investigate what is available and appropriate for horse owners in your area.
10. Always have a Plan B -- None of us plan to lose our jobs or fall too ill to take care of our horses, but these things do happen. Your horse's best protection is to be sound, healthy, gentle, and well-trained for riding. Short of selling your horse, you may be able to find a leaser, or a lesson program that will take over at least some of the cost in exchange for using your horse.
Even though you got a good deal on your horse, and gave him a great home, it's better not to sell or give him away if you can possibly avoid it. Not to be too dramatic about it, but if you have to sell, find out the current price being offered by meat buyers and ask more. Horse rescue blogs like "Fugly Horse of the Day" are full of tragic stories of owners who thought their horse was going to a good home, only to find it at auction, slaughter bound. Make a commitment to never let that happen.
Horse ownership isn't just for the wealthy. Most of us are working people who sink all our "spare" cash into our beloved animals. However, taking care of a horse is an ongoing financial commitment, far beyond the initial purchase price. Do a realistic assessment of your resources and the options in your area before you fall in love with a pair of big brown eyes and a sign that says "Free to a good home!"
Marlissa blogs about books (including horse books!) and the reading life at "You Are What You Read." She is also a Pinterest addict and can be found at her page of the same name.
by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
Hiking, cycling, and horseback riding are all popular ways of recreating and enjoying the outdoors. Many trails are designated as multi-use trails, which are open to all three of these recreational pursuits. Unfortunately, participants in one activity aren’t always as aware as they should be of the needs and safety concerns of other groups.
Know the laws and park rules for your location and obey them. If bikes or horses aren’t permitted on certain trails, don’t ride there.
Know the rules of right of way. The general convention for shared trails, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is that bikes must yield to hikers and horses, and hikers must also yield to horses.
Don’t leave an enemy behind you if you can make a friend. You may never see that person again, but they’ll be more kindly disposed to the next hiker, biker, or equestrian they encounter.
My personal pet peeve is iPods on the trail. Music is great, but if you have your ears plugged and filled with your favorite tunes, you may not hear when someone is trying to tell you something important. Keep the volume down and take out one ear bud; make yourself available for communication.
You are responsible for training your horse and working on your own riding skills so you can cope safely with unexpected situations. Get your horse accustomed to sights she is likely to encounter on the trail, such as bicycles, hikers with backpacks and walking sticks, and dogs. Start with short trail rides in the company of experienced riders and horses, and work your way up to more challenging rides.
Just because you have right-of-way, don’t insist on taking it. Giving way may make more sense and is always a courteous gesture. A cyclist coming up a hill will lose all momentum if you insist they stop, so why not move to the side and let them pass? On the flat or downhill, a bicycle moves faster than a walking horse. Making it safe and easy for them to pass you is the sensible course of action. On the other hand, don’t hesitate to ask a hiker or cyclist to wait for you if you feel your horse is nervous and may act out.
Be gracious. If people stop to let you go by, thank them – even if their actions weren’t necessary. If they ask to pet your horse, and you believe it would be safe, say yes. Stop and chat for a few moments. It’s not just about you. You’re an ambassador for all equestrians, and the next equestrian will benefit (or not!) from your behavior.
When someone does something wrong, don’t scream obscenities at them. Communicate. Ask for them to help you by stopping and waiting out of harm’s way while you calm your horse. Explain what happened and what you’re doing. Non-horse people have no idea how their actions can frighten a horse, or how dangerous a frightened horse can be.
You’re the fastest moving trail user which brings particular risks and responsibilities. First and foremost, make sure you have a line of sight and room to stop before getting up your speed. Everyone stands to get hurt in a collision, and everyone benefits from avoiding them.
The Idaho chapter of the Back Country Horsemen organization has created and published a set of safety posters, to educate mountain bikers and hikers on how to keep everyone safe when encountering horses on the trail. While the images are dramatic, they do make the point that horses are prey animals who may regard a fast-moving bicycle as a predator.
Even on a wide trail with room to pass, always approach horses with caution. If you’re coming up behind a horse, shouting “left” and racing by without reducing your speed is a bad idea. Even the most placid-looking horse can, if startled, swing out in front of you far faster than you or the rider can react. Horses typically weigh over 1,000 pounds and you do not want to risk running into one. Slow down and speak to the rider. Ask if it’s safe to pass. Be patient if the rider needs a moment to get their mount over to the right side of the trail.
The same precautions apply if you and the horse are traveling in opposite directions, with the advantage that horse and rider should see you coming.
Whatever you do, don’t try to pass between two horses. Don’t do it even if there appears to be room. Conversely, if you’re cycling with a group, don’t pass on both sides of a horse. If the horse spooks, it will jump away from whatever scared it. You don’t want to risk spooking it into someone else.
As for the bike poster described above, the Back Country Horsemen’s poster for hikers is a dramatic presentation, but it does make a point. Horses tend to be wary of the unfamiliar and may see threats in the most innocuous objects. For example, my horse had concerns about the loaf of French bread sticking up out of a hiker’s backpack. She went by without trouble, but let that bread know she was watching its every move!
On a single track trail, it is best to move off the trail to the downhill side, and wait for the horse or horses to pass. On a wider trail, keep everyone in your group to the same side of the horse and leave plenty of room. If the horse spooks, you want it to move away from the people on the ground – not away from one person and into someone else on its other side.
Please don’t hide behind a tree or other obstruction. The horse will still know something is there, but not whether it’s a person or a lion.
Control your dog. Clip on a leash, pick him up, or recall her to your side. This is for your dog’s protection as much as for the horse and rider. Some horses are afraid of dogs. If they’ve had a bad experience with a dog, it can be difficult to persuade them that most dogs are harmless. Some horses don’t like dogs and will deliberately try to kick them. Most good trail horses are steady around dogs and will ignore them. However, no horse is happy to have a dog suddenly rush out of the bushes into its path. Nor do they care for barking dogs running close around their legs. A rider can’t prevent an irritated horse from kicking out.
Similarly, don’t let your child run towards a horse. If your child would like to pet the horse, ask the rider first. Some horses aren’t used to children and may be nervous of them. Even with an easygoing horse, it’s best to pick a small child up and let him or her pet the horse’s shoulder or neck, not the face or anywhere on the back end. Whenever you’re standing close to a horse, keep an eye on your feet, or more accurately, on the horse’s feet. I’ve been stepped on before, and it hurts!
Whatever our preferred form of trail transportation, all trail users have more uniting than dividing us. Most encounters on the trail are pleasant and add to our shared enjoyment of the outdoors. Remembering a few simple courtesies and conventions can ensure that everyone stays safe and has a great time.
Marlissa writes about books and reading on her blog, "You Are What You Read." You can also find her on Pinterest.
by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
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