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
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
by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
The Wintec Pro Dressage saddle with Contourbloc is one of several models of dressage saddles made by Wintec. The Pro Dressage saddle with Contourbloc features a large knee block incorporated as part of the flap. This can be contrasted to the flexibloc system, which consists of changeable blocks that fasten with Velcro underneath the flap. The Pro Dressage can be purchased with standard flocked panels, or with Wintec's unique air-filled CAIR system.
All Wintec saddles are made of synthetic materials, rather than traditional leather. The use of synthetics means lower prices compared to leather saddles of comparable quality. Synthetics are also easy to care for, meaning more time in the saddle and less time cleaning tack. Wintec uses a changeable gullet system for all of their saddles, which helps to fit a wider range of horses than is possible with a single gullet size alone.
I was able to try the Wintec Pro Dressage saddle with Contourbloc, thanks to SmartPak equine's test ride program. I had been riding in a Wintec 2000 All Purpose saddle, which fits my horse well. I was interested in a dressage saddle in order to ride comfortably with a longer stirrup, while feeling secure both in the arena and out on the trail. This review is written from the standpoint of a general pleasure rider, rather than someone actively competing in dressage.
- The saddle was generally comfortable for me to ride in. I really liked the Contourbloc, which helped me feel secure in a good riding position without any sense of being restricted.
- Like other top-of-the-range Wintec saddles, the Pro Dressage with Contourbloc is a lightweight and attractive saddle. The Equisuede seat looks nice and has a bit of grip, which adds to the sense of security while riding in the saddle.
- The adjustable rigging has a Y-shaped rear billet, which helps balance the back of the saddle.
- The saddle required a 26 inch dressage girth. At least on my horse, this placed the buckles right behind her elbows. I'm not sure that it really got in her way, but it seemed an awkward placement to me.
- The Pro Dressage with Contourbloc has a surcingle, or overgirth, attached to the flaps of the saddle. It appears to be designed to hold the flaps down by fastening around the barrel of the horse over the girth -- unlike leather flaps, the synthetic material won't break in to the shape of the horse. The surcingle prevents adjusting the girth while seated in the saddle.
- Unfortunately, the Pro Dressage saddle simply turned out to be a poor fit for my horse. It wasn't an obvious bad fit. It didn't rock, it did not appear to bridge, and it did seem to sit level on her back. It was a little low at the withers, leaving about two fingers width clearance rather than the three to four generally considered ideal. At the same time, it was clear a narrower gullet plate would have pinched. In the end, she just did not seem happy to be ridden in it. She was reluctant to go forward, and did not want to bend around my leg.
What to know before you try:
Remember that when you are buying or trying an English saddle, you will receive just the saddle itself. You will need to have, or arrange to borrow, stirrup leathers, stirrup irons, an appropriate saddle pad, and a selection of girths in different lengths. You should have all these items to hand before you place your saddle order.
For a Wintec saddle, or other brands using the Wintec changeable gullet system, you will need to be sure that you have a gullet the correct size for your horse. This is a critical step, as without the correct gullet installed, you will not be able to assess the fit of the saddle. Wintec saddles are typically shipped with the medium width (black) gullet plate installed.
If you're not sure which size gullet your horse requires, Wintec sells an inexpensive gullet gauge that will allow you to measure the width of your horse at the withers. Once you know the correct size gullet, you can buy one inexpensively. Ask around your barn and friends. If you're lucky, someone will have a gullet gauge you can borrow, and perhaps even the entire kit of gullets in different widths.
The combination of changeable gullets and the CAIR panel system gives Wintec saddles the ability to fit a wider range of horses than many other brands. That doesn't mean, however, that they will fit all horses. Additionally, don't assume that because one model of Wintec saddle fits your horse all of them will. Even the different models of dressage saddles made by Wintec are not identical in fit. You need to try each saddle, with the proper gullet plate inserted, in order to be sure of a good fit.
Overall, I found the Wintec Pro Dressage saddle with Contourbloc to be an attractive saddle that was comfortable to ride in. I was disappointed that it didn't fit my horse. Give it a try if you think it might work for your needs. Just don't forget to listen to your horse.
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.
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