Gutsy Seniors Take Life by the Reins

Southwest Senior, March 2001

How many Olympic athletes are over the age of 50?

Hilda Gurney, for one. At 68, she’s one of the oldest active Olympic-level athletes. Her sport? Dressage.

You’re never to old to ride. Even in the Olympics, the only limitation to your years is a minimum age of 16. Otherwise, riders have been known to compete internationally well into their 60s, like Nelson Pessoa, or 70s!

In fact, age is often an asset rather than a handicap. Experience and mileage are much better insurance than athleticism when working through a potentially dangerous problem on the back of a horse.

But from the armchair perspective of the average AARP member, they only catch glimpses of riding late night on ESPN, and miss its finer details. What they see is that riders fall off, sometimes with tragic results. And their over-50 bodies tell them even a minor fall can risk serious injury.

So riding probably doesn’t make most retirees’ daily activities list, right? It takes flexibility, strength, balance and courage. Not to mention a horse. But for a surprising number of seniors, it’s a daily activity, if not a total way of life.

Defying the Norm

Four years ago, Gayle Penzig, 51, bought a horse as a project of discovery. She’s been on a learning experience ever since.

She began lessons with me to learn enough hunt seat equitation to try her luck at the shows. Her goal? Training her gelding, Cisco, to jump.

“I never planned on jumping when I started riding,” she says. “It evolved as an exhilarating challenge.”

Penzig’s hours in the show ring pale in comparison to the hours she spends training. Riding seven days a week is almost not enough.

“My friends and family are impressed. My mother is the only one who thinks it’s dangerous and wishes I would trade my spooky Thoroughbred for a quiet Quarter Horse like I had as a kid.”

I turned to my 50-ish trainer, Peggy Lenz of El Paso, Illinois, (if I say how old she really is I’ll pay for it at my next lesson), for her perspective on why we defy our age limitations to pursue our childhood’s passion.

“The thrill of riding,” she says, “is the feeling of being one with the horse and having influence over such a big, strong animal. Part of the thrill is that mutual trust.”

Like Gayle’s mother, many seniors question the danger. How do riders like Gayle or Peggy justify the risk for the activity they love?

“It’s like driving a car,” says Peggy. “Both can be risky but you try to use good judgment and train to the best of your ability.”

Gayle started riding again after 30 years and found she had to retrain her body to build her confidence.

“It was like starting from scratch,” she says. “Fear of falling is a major concern – we don’t bounce so good anymore! It’s been a slow process to gain the skills and balance to feel confident.”

But a process she doesn’t regret. “Cisco and I are a long way from the greenies we once were!”

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