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
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