By Tonya Warren
Native Texan and former President Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed it. Former first lady Jackie Kennedy did it all her life, and in the height of COVID-19 two years ago, CNN network caught a picture of Queen Elizabeth doing it at age 94.
These historical greats will forever be associated with their love of horses and riding skills. You don’t have to be commander in chief or a blue blood to enjoy and reap the benefits of horseback riding. As with any sport, there are inherent risks, but several local older-aged riders are enjoying the fun while keeping safety as the top priority.
Start talking to older adults who enjoy riding and there’s a common theme among many of them: their love of horses began in childhood, but often that love wasn’t nurtured until many years later.
Steve Kepple, 72, grew up in Topeka, Kansas, riding a friend’s horse whenever he could. After serving in Vietnam and working all over the country in his job, three years ago he and his wife moved from the Dallas urban jungle to the wide, open spaces in Oglesby.
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Finally, Kepple said, “it was time to fulfill a lifelong dream, of learning to horseback ride, so I reached out to Liz Appleman for lessons.”
Appleman is owner of LA Performance Show Horses in Lorena and a riding instructor of all ages. Speaking with Kepple by phone, Appleman asked, “How old is the child?”
Laughing, Kepple said, “Oh, about 70 years old.”
He said she was a bit taken back, but Appleman actually enjoys more mature clientele.
“I love teaching older riders because they often appreciate it more because no one forces them to ride, and they know it takes work,” she said.
Appleman is instructing him in reining, a type of activity showing moves such as spins and slides that horses do in ranch work. Appleman’s 16-year-old AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) chestnut gelding, Hollywood, and Kepple enjoy working together every week.
Austin native Ann Aldridge got kiddie pony rides on Saturdays for making her bed daily.
Describing herself as “horse crazy” for as long as she can remember, Aldridge she began lessons in 2017 with Appleman.
The Woodway resident loves just being around horses and riding Pretty, Appleman’s APHA (American Paint Horse Association) brown and white splashy paint. Aldridge explained that a couple of years ago, her right hip socket was in “bad shape” due to wear and tear.
“Three months after surgery, I was back on Pretty as my only physical therapy,” she said. “That leg was weak, and riding helped it get stronger.”
Shari Hall is a 62-year-old retired emergency medicine physician who says she knew nothing about horses as a kid, but she was curious how people worked with them.
Growing up in Connecticut, she said her parents never encouraged her love of horses such as taking lessons or working at a stable. Eventually, when still in medical school and after the birth of her third child, she began her journey with horses.
Her first lesson was humbling, she said.
“The instructor handed me a tray of grooming supplies and showed me which stall my lesson horse was in — a sweet sorrel gelding named Hank,” Hall said. “He told me to get the horse ready.”
Gulp. Hall knew nothing about grooming or picking out hooves. She told the trainer to “start at square one” with her.
“I knew all about human anatomy, but nothing about horse anatomy,” Hall said.
Twenty-nine years later, she’s still riding and improving the quality of her horsemanship, thanks in part to her friend and trainer, Mary Bauer, owner and riding instructor at Lorena’s Painted Ridge Farm. Bauer and Appleman are sisters.
Mention horses in almost any setting and invariably there’s a sobering story of someone who was thrown from a horse or injured in some way, or perhaps even worse.
According to a 2021 study in a Trauma Surgery and Acute Care Open article on rider injuries, hospital admission risk is higher for horseback riders than football, auto and motorcycle racing, and skiing. While chest injuries are the most common, head and neck injuries are most deadly.
The study noted one-quarter of the patients were ages 50-59, and 22% were 60 and older.
Jennifer Matthews Williams, co-owner and head trainer of HOT Equestrian Academy in Valley Mills, has 25 years of horse industry experience and says there are many ways of keeping all riders, but especially “prime” (older) riders, safe, such as knowing your personal limits and communicating them to your instructor or riding buddy.
Among the safety tips for older riders:
Always wear an equestrian-approved, well-fitting helmet.
Check and double-check that all tack (riding equipment) is in good condition and secure before mounting.
Use a mounting block to make it easier on your joints.
Williams recommends riding at least twice weekly to keep limber and to maintain strong balance. Hot Texas summers increase the need to pre-hydrate with water and it’s best to ride in the early mornings or late evenings during these grueling months.
Don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses, she added.
Horses help heal
Check your stresses at the barn door when it’s time to ride and enjoy the experience. Brushing out your mount’s coat, picking hooves, applying sunscreen to their sun-sensitive nose (yes, really!) while listening to fellow horses munch hay or give a soft nicker.
Riders also develop and build confidence when working with horses. A sense of accomplishment and pride are achieved when you groom, saddle, ride and continually learn good horsemanship. Horses don’t lie, judge or manipulate.
Aldridge was busy doing life last fall when her husband suddenly passed from cancer. Adjusting to her new normal, took time both in and out of the saddle. Pretty, her favorite equine at Appleman’s stable, buffers life’s difficult times.
Aldridge explained, “Riding was a total break from dealing with the paperwork and feelings, and now I’ve worked through that.”
The 67-year-old refuses to let age define who she is.
Kepple swings on his mount like he’s been doing it for years.
“I like riding because it’s fulfilling a lifelong dream,” he said. “I like that rhythm and to be in sync with the animal.”
Kepple describes riding as “getting in the zone.” He respects he’s on an 1,100-pound powerful animal that is responsive to his requests.
Quite a few folks are surprised Hall continues to ride after health issues and multiple spinal surgeries, but she credits her horse and her life at Painted Ridge Farm for giving her reason to get out of bed.
“Horses are my therapy,” she said. “They gave me a reason to face each day and are helping me heal after my son passed away at age 29.”
Winston Churchill, World War II’s British legend, perhaps said it best: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” ￼
Note: Writer Tonya Warren has been riding horses off and on since age 6. She is taking lessons at LA Performance Show Horses with Appleman and enjoys the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of riding.