Courtesy of University of Kentucky
People may be out of the saddle for long periods of time for many different reasons: illnesses, pregnancy, change in financial situation, relocation and many other reasons. Regardless of the circumstances that kept you out of the saddle for a period of time, we are excited that you want to start riding again!
Before you take on this new (or old) endeavor, you need to be aware that you may have forgotten some important riding skills. As we age, our bodies change, and our muscle memory is not the same as it was when we rode all the time. Body weight changes can affect your balance in the saddle, so it is important that you start off with a well-mannered, experienced horse, appropriate for your riding level and conditioning. This type of horse is more forgiving of riders’ mistakes and will allow you to readjust to the new reality more easily than an inexperienced or more sensitive horse would. Another issue to consider is that as we become parents, our responsibilities change and that also affects our performance while riding.
Parents may feel less comfortable taking risks after they have children. Therefore, it is imperative that you find a suitable mount, as a quiet, calm horse can be more valuable in this instance than a more excitable or unpredictable mount. It is highly important to get back in physical shape as you return to riding. Core strength exercises, as well as exercises to strengthen your legs and arms, are very useful. There are several books and websites that show workout exercises to improve core as well as upper and lower body strength. You may want to join a gym or work with a personal trainer.
As you get back in riding shape, it is equally important to also increase your endurance and flexibility. If you are overweight, this is a good time to start losing those extra pounds. Whether you will be looking for a new horse or riding your previous mount, it is important that you know that horses can carry about 20-25% of their body weight, depending on the type of horse and the rider’s ability. Generally, horses with wider loins and thicker cannon bone circumference can carry heavier weight loads than horses with narrow loins and thin cannon bones. Therefore, a 1,000-pound horse can carry about 200 comfortably, and maybe up to 250 pounds if the horse is a stock or cob type. You need to keep in mind that this means the weight of the rider plus the weight of the saddle, which can be up to 45 pounds.
In general, you should return to riding gradually, start with simple and short riding sessions or lessons, and increase the duration, intensity and complexity as you regain confidence. Switching to a less-demanding discipline can also help you progress at a reasonable pace. For example, even though you jumped 20 years ago, due to lifestyle changes or time constraints, non-jumping disciplines may be more suitable. There are many ways to be involved with horses without riding. This may be an option for you.
Whatever you do, it is important that you set reasonable expectations and return to riding in a safe and enjoyable way.
Could this happen to you: I had been out of the saddle for about 15 years and finally got my own horse. I was over eager to ride and long story short, I took her o‑ the property, alone, no helmet, down a paved back road for a quick ride. This gal was also in season and cranky.
About a quarter mile away and she got “dancy” in the street. Futilely trying to remain in control, I clamped down on my mare (she hated it) as we began to move towards the
drainage ditch at the side of the road. As we neared it, she slid in and the fun really began. We stepped through the ditch and into a recently plowed corneld: a big, wide, open field. She was ready to bolt full speed; I had a much better idea: go back to the barn in an orderly fashion – she wanted nothing to do with my wishes, she reared with me and I lost a stirrup. Because of my time out of the saddle and inexperience with this horse, I lost my other stirrup, my balance and in the air I go, as gravity took its toll. All I remember from there was hitting the ground. I got up wiped the mud o‑, did a quick, “see if anything’s broken” test and headed back to the barn, on foot. I didn’t THINK I was hurt at the time but ended up with a sprained finger, bloody nose, a fractured pelvic bone and a heightened appreciation for wearing a helmet.
Advice: When you return to riding it is important to pick a horse appropriate to your current skills. You may want to have an instructor assess your riding skills and give you lessons. It is also wise to begin riding in an enclosed area with someone else present. This allows you and the horse to become familiar with each other. Should anything go wrong, you have assistance close by.