Never Too Old to Ride

After removing my fur-lined parka and black leather gloves, I rubbed my hands together to warm them before bending to kiss my grandmother. At 99, Grandma was the wisest person I knew. Seeing her lying in a hospital bed following surgery, I realized that even if she recovered, her days were numbered.

I took a deep gulp of the antiseptic air. ?It’s cold today, Grandma! Just feel my hands,? I said, taking one of hers in mine. She smiled gently, then asked, ?What’s this nonsense about you wanting to get a horse??

?It’s not nonsense, Grandma. I brought a picture to show you. His name is Te Appeal,? I added, pulling a photo out of my purse. ?You?re too old to be riding a horse. You?re going to get yourself killed!?

Her reaction didn’t surprise me. Ever since I was a little girl, she?d warned me about how dangerous horses could be. And she backed up her admonitions with anecdotes.

There was the gruesome story about some man who?d gotten his nose bitten half off, and the incident of Old Bill, a stallion my grandfather used as a plow horse. Old Bill apparently had a mean streak, and chased my mother and one of her sisters across the barnyard?and, my grandmother insisted, ?almost followed them through the kitchen door.?

More recently, there was the tragedy of the young Amish man who?d bought my grandparents? farm; he was killed when one of his horses kicked him in the chest.

But if Grandma taught me that horses could be dangerous, she also sparked and fed my love for them. It was Grandma who bought me all those ceramic horse figurines when I was a child. And, when I was a horse-crazy 10-year-old, she didn’t object when my grandfather (himself 64 at the time) bought a Quarter Horse, largely for me. Comet was also big enough to carry my grandfather easily around the farm, and Grandma, in turn, bought a buggy and sleigh.

My grandparents moved to town when I was 13, and I didn’t have the chance to be around horses much after that. Years later, a one-hour trail ride in South Dakota reawakened my interest, but the time wasn?t right, so another decade would pass before I moved to fulfill my horse dreams.

Finally, when I turned 50, I started to think seriously about getting a horse of my own before I became too old to climb into a saddle. And now, here I was at 53, considering the purchase of a Quarter Horse geldin named Te Appeal.

I was younger than my grandfather had been when he bought a horse. Still, Grandma was worried.

?I’ll be fine, Grandma. I promise,? I crooned, wanting her to understand why I chose Te and hoping to reassure her. ?I?ve been e-mailing the lady who?s selling him. I haven’t actually seen him yet, but she says he’s quite gentle. He was a show horse. He?s well trained. And?he’s old, Grandma?22 years.

He?s perfect: an old horse for an old rider!?

Grandma regarded the bay gelding in the photo. ?Why is he for sale?? she asked.

I explained that Te had been sold to a riding stable after his long-time owner left for college. He?d dropped weight and wasn?t faring well in the herd hierarchy when someone recognized him as a former show horse and bought him.

?He was awfully thin when she got him,? I said. ?But now that he’s doing better, she’s selling him. She has other horses and can’t afford so many.?

Grandma looked at me and sighed. Then she simply said, ?Just be careful.? I had her blessing!

A month later, just two weeks after my grandmother?s funeral, I drove more than five hours to meet Te Appeal on an unusually warm and sunny March morning. The photos I?d seen initially had been taken in the fall. His winter blanket had been removed just before I arrived, and he was thinner and fuzzier than I?d expected. When his owner whistled to him, though, and he came trotting across the frozen pasture, I thought he was the most beautiful horse I?d ever seen.

I?d like to be able to say I loaded him into a trailer and brought him home that very day, but that’s not quite the way it happened. Grandma?s warning (?You?re too old to be riding a horse. You?re going to get yourself killed!?) haunted me for a month.

Finally, however, I did buy him?just as she would?ve wanted me to. Te is not the perfect horse I wanted my grandmother to believe him to be, but buying him was the right decision. And my grandmother?s wisdom stays with me. I’m being careful, Grandma. I always wear a helmet, and I recently signed us up for instruction, where Te and I are learning to play equine soccer.

After all, that’s another life lesson Grandma taught me: We’re only as old as we feel.

PATTI HUBER lives in McFarland, Wisconsin, with her husband Jim. Since Te Appeal, she has added three more horses to her family. Patti is a full-time instructor at Madison Area Technical College, where she teaches public speaking and coaches the school’s speech team. 

From the April 2010 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.