Horses don't get wrinkles, which seems unfair.
I prefer not to think about old age, but not wanting to think about it doesn’t stop the process. The evidence is everywhere: recovering from a long run takes longer now than it used to. Mounting blocks look more inviting and more reasonable every year. The face looking at me from the mirror has more wrinkles. My friend Julie, whose 80th birthday is right around the corner, rolls her eyes when I complain to her about getting older. “It beats the alternative!” she keeps telling me. I have to agree. I’ll choose old age over an early grave any day. I am also discovering that not all the changes age brings are bad.
Julie Wilson, still in the saddle in her late seventies.
At 51, I feel deeply grateful to be alive and healthy. Death is no longer something that happens to other, older people. It will happen to me and everyone I know, sooner than I like to think. I know that horses are large and potentially dangerous without meaning to be. I know that, if you get on lots of horses, you will come off a few. I have hit the dirt plenty of times, but only now realize how lucky I’ve been all my life in avoiding serious injuries. Over 30-plus years of starting colts and re-starting colts started badly by other people, I’ve never broken any important bones, or spent a night at a hospital. I could say that’s because I’m very good at riding green horses, but I’m not kidding myself. It takes only a split-second of bad judgment to cause a wreck. Luck has more to do with it than skill, which I didn’t have a lot of when I was younger.
Because I’m more aware of mortality, I’ve become more cautious. I can still do what I love, which is ride horses all day, but with every passing year, I do more of the things I used to roll my eyes at when I was younger. Lungeing a frisky horse before I get on now seems sensible instead of chicken-hearted. So does stepping back from some of the stuff I used to do. Until a few years ago, starting young horses and re-starting troubled horses was my superpower. I was known for taking on any challenge, happy to get on horses who bolted, bucked, or reared. When I turned 50, something shifted in my mind. Shortly after that round birthday, and for the first time ever, I turned down a horse someone wanted to bring me for training for 30 to 60 days, “just to get the bucks out.” Instead of excited, I felt insulted. I started thinking about the potential consequences of saying yes: would this short-term project be worth the risk I took? Would it be fair to all my long-term clients and their horses to take that risk? I’m still a confident rider, but I now stop and think before agreeing to take on another project. Caution means I factor my desire to live and ride for as long as I can into my daily decisions, which is not a bad idea for people any age.
I've enjoyed riding bareback for the last 43 years - especially on cute ponies like Theo
While the years have made me more cautious, they have not made me wiser, smarter, or more organized. I used to think that, at a certain age, all people become responsible adults. This did not happen to me or anyone else I know- not at 30, not at 40, not at 50. I doubt it will happen at 60 or 70, which is actually a relief. I still enjoy riding bareback. I still would rather spend an extra hour at the barn than vacuum my house. Growing up sounds boring. But when it comes to my work with horses, there is some truth in the myth about age and wisdom. I find that riding so many different horses for so many years has built a huge vault of experience stored in my memory. While I keep learning new things from horses, I also keep revisiting lessons I’ve learned years ago, from horses similar to the bunch I work with today. I now can fine-tune my approach by repeating what worked in the past and changing what did not work so well. The puzzle of good horsemanship is beginning to look more like a picture and less like a confusing patchwork quilt riddled with holes.
Another upside of getting older is that I worry less about what other people think. I’ve always loved horses, of course, but I now feel much more clarity about the exact why and how of my work. I don’t do it, at least not anymore, to impress anyone. I do it for the sake of the horses themselves - for their long-term soundness, for their physical and mental well-being. Over the years, I’ve become more radical in avoiding training band-aids and shortcuts. I have not ridden with draw reins or twisted-wire snaffles since my days as an assistant trainer at various show barns in my early twenties, but in the last fifteen years or so I’ve become even more adamant about the methods, timelines, and equipment I will or won’t use. If it’s not fair to the horse, I won’t do it. It’s true that the horses themselves don’t pay my bills. Their owners do, which gives them the right to expect value for their money. Fortunately, my clients’ main goal is to build solid partnerships with their horses, instead of finding quick fixes.I hope I can ride horses for another 30 years at least. I hope I can keep learning and teaching well into my eighties. I know that my body will become weaker and my bones more brittle as time goes by. But even so, as Julie keeps reminding me, old age does beat the alternative. And I have something to look forward to, which sweetens the deal: the next level of horsemanship, rooted in even more years of experience, but free from the shackles of external validation, or the need to please other people.