It's my adulthood, and I'll ride horsies if I want to.
January 21, 2015 4:35 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn how to ride horses. Difficulty level: I haven't ridden a horse since I was 12, and it didn't go too well then. Oh, and I'm also a bit of a coward. What are my next steps?

What do I mean by 'bit of a coward'? I'm not particularly thrill-seeking, physically, and I don't enjoy feeling like I'm in danger. For instance, I was learning to row a year or so ago, and I straight-up quit when we started skulling, because I didn't feel secure in the boat and because we were rowing in one of Amsterdam's busiest waterways.

Still, I'd love to get back in the saddle. I rode a bit when I was a girl, and I miss being around horses. I really enjoy learning new skills and trying new sports, love being around animals, and want to pick up a purposeful new activity that gets me out of the city.

I'd effectively be starting from scratch, despite my youthful experience, and I know it's not really best practice to learn to ride as an adult. I'm not looking to get into riding competitively, nor am I in a position to buy a horse (I wish!), I'm just after a fun new hobby.

So, horsemen and women of AskMeFi, what do I do next? What should I look for in a potential riding instructor/stable? What questions should I ask? How should I prepare myself? Did you learn to ride as an adult, or do adult beginning riders stand a snowball's chance of becoming competent riders?

If you're rolling your eyes now thinking 'stay out of my barn, nervous grownup', then I'm very open to that, also.
posted by nerdfish to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
When I moved to the UK I picked riding up again after a similar hiatus. My only issue is I went in thinking I knew more than I did. Turns out years of summer camps as a kid teaches you fuck all about real riding technique. (YMMV) Once I came to that realisation and I was willing to come at it as a near-beginner, my lessons went fabulously and I got on really well with my instructor. In my group lessons, there were three other adults, all older than me, at roughly the same level of ability, all with the same "I rode a bit as a kid" background. It's not unusual.

As a kid you likely did more of the things you might consider "thrill-seeking" (jumping?) but my lessons spent just as much time on the basics of dressage - which are good to know no matter what your end goal is - and that's less thrill and more intense concentration.

I'd totally recommend it. Riding was easily the best part of my week. Be prepared for some seriously sore muscles, though.
posted by olinerd at 4:48 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Like you I knew a lot of horses when I was growing up. But one day a shetland pony bit me on the arse as I was diving under a fence to try to get away from it - and that put an end to my association with the animals until I took riding lessons in my late 20s. The typical client at many riding schools (as least here in the UK) does seem to be an 11 year old girl (to the extent that when I came last in a jumping competition one day, I was awarded a rosette that said "special" on it (I'm a guy)).

I can't think of any good reason why you should not be able to learn and enjoy riding at a later age - it certainly worked fine for me. But make sure you go somewhere where they have experience at working with other adult learners. If possible look for a place that actually gathers its adult beginners together in a class. Look for a horse that they describe as "bomb proof" at the beginning. Tell them exactly what you do and don't want to do.

Riding is a somewhat dangerous sport - and falling off is more of a problem when you get older. The trick is to take things slowly until you get your confidence up to the point where you are able to deal with potentially dangerous incidents with aplomb - and where you know your horse well. Good luck!
posted by rongorongo at 4:54 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

My daughter rides and there frequently beginner adults at the barn taking lessons. Find a local farm / stable the offers lessons and go for it.
posted by COD at 4:55 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

What COD said. When my daughter took riding lessons when she was 7 or 8, there was a long period of taking care of the horses and getting used to being around them and establishing rapport before they actually put her up on the beast, because little kids are often caught between "Horses are sooo great!" and "Horses are huge and scary!" Any decent riding stable will be able to tailor lessons to your comfort level.
posted by Etrigan at 5:49 AM on January 21, 2015

1. Call local stables and ask about any lesson offerings for an adult beginner. Believe me, there's a ton of "adult re-riders" out there, so many places will have lessons geared toward this. (Some barns are tailored to the little kiddies and might have mostly ponies, or be too hectic, or focus on eventing/show jumping or are wild, seat-of-your-pants operations). Go out for a visit and see if it seems like a reasonably tidy barn and low key enough to suit your personality.

2. Get yourself a good helmet. Not that you're going to be doing anything wild and crazy, but you should always protect your noggin from any random accident. (And many lesson barns will offer helmets, but I personally don't want anything someone else has been sweating in...). IMHO, I don't think a beginner should take lessons from someplace that thinks that helmets are optional, but I know that there are big cultural differences about that. Still: protect your head!

3. Get back in the saddle and have a blast!
posted by TwoStride at 5:58 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

The lesson barn I ride and board at has a TON of adult riders starting in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond--some are new to the sport, and some are "re-riders"--people who rode a little or a lot as a kid and are coming back to it after often decades out of the saddle. In my case, I rode on-and-off as a kid but stopped riding pretty much entirely after age 12 and didn't go back until I was 40.

So here's my 2 cents:

1. believe it or not, having ridden some as a kid may still put you at an advantage over adults who have never ridden. I've had instructors say they can tell the difference between adults who are coming to riding for the first time vs. adults who didn't ride as kids in how quickly they pick things up and just a general sense of relaxation and confidence.

2. Even if you had never ridden, of course you can learn to ride as an adult! I know so many adults at my barn who are new to riding as adults, and with time and dedication they can become quite competent. My first instructor when I cam back didn't start riding until she was 50. After many years of lessons she became a horse owner, and when she retired from her day job she started working as an instructor. She only just recently retired from her "retirement job" at 70.

3. What to look for in a barn: I'd look for a barn that has an active population of adult lesson riders, with adult beginner classes, etc. Private lessons are also an option, but in all honesty half the fun of being an adult rider is the actual horse part, and half the fun is my human barn buddies, so try to find a barn that has an active and engaged population of casual adult riders.

4. In the EU, I'd look for a barn that leans more toward dressage than hunter/jumper. Not that it needs to be a super competitive dressage barn or that you need to get into dressage on a formal basis, but just that the emphasis will continue to be on flatwork rather than expecting you to graduate to jumping after you master the basics. Unless you want to graduate to jumping, which you TOTALLY CAN DO (see my profile pic!)

5. Being a bit of a coward: if you really want to enjoy riding, this is something that you can work on at the same time that you're working on your basic riding skills. It's an issue with a lot of adult riders, and while you've got to have enough rapport with your instructor to say "I'm just not feeling confident enough to do that quite yet", short of walking around on a lead rope there's also no way to avoid situations on horseback that test your courage a bit. And if you tense up and give in to the fear in the moment, "you're gonna have a bad time." There are a lot of resources out there to help with riding fears.

6. Be patient with yourself! You probably know this, but being a good rider is so much more than sitting on the back of the horse and squeezing your legs to go forward, hauling on the reins to stop, and pulling on one rein or the other to change directions. There's a lot of multitasking, training your balance, mentally separating all your limbs so you can use them independently to talk to your horse, etc. I'd say typically for adult riders riding 1-2 times a week, you may be able to build up the skills and muscles to DO basic walk-trot-canter after a few months, but it takes a year or two before the basics start to go on autopilot and you feel confident and comfortable at walk-trot-canter.

7. Preparing yourself out of the saddle: good basic aerobic fitness and flexibility in your hips and ankles are things you can work on on the ground that will help you when you get back in the saddle. For strength training: squats, calf raises, and exercises that target your adductors, such as sitting in a chair squeezing a ball between your knees.
posted by drlith at 5:59 AM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Most of the adult riders at the stable where we board our horses did not start riding until they were like 40 and they are all really really great riders. So being an adult should not deter you at all.

When I began riding again after a long long hiatus and dealing with riding anxiety I made sure to be very upfront with my instructors. I told them outright that I was nervous/scared and to take it unprecedentedly slow with me. And in the course of regaining confidence if I ever felt scared or nervous I told my instructors and they would help me.

You may want to opt for ground lessons first (not in the saddle) - where you learn how to handle a horse on the ground - walking the horse around on a lead line, lunging the horse, etc. Then move up to mini lessons. Instead of the typical hour long lessons in the saddle, just do mini sessions of riding - starting off with just sitting in the saddle and being comfortable doing just that. Progress from there.

Also, you may find that riding just isn't your thing and that's ok!! There are still tons if things you can do around horses to satisfy that itch - cleaning stalls, grooming, learning how to braid manes and tails, lunging horses, maybe a place that offers lessons in driving horses (think hooking a horse up to a cart/buggy). The list is almost endless of things you can do with horses.

Have fun!!
posted by Sassyfras at 6:14 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

A friend took up riding as a complete beginner when he was 30. Until the sport became too expensive for him*, he competed in English Pleasure. He said he was often competing against preteen girls, but it didn't bother him much. You can definitely do this!

*He had several expensive hobbies and realized he needed to cut down to 1-2 for the sake of his bank account
posted by RogueTech at 6:17 AM on January 21, 2015

With much respect, I think you're overthinking this!

I started riding again last year as a 33-year-old, after a 15 year hiatus. It is different (You'll be way more sore than as a kid! Ow!) but still fun.

Just call any old stable that looks good, tell them you're an adult with some (old) riding experience, that you're nervous about injury, and that you'd like to take it slow. If they don't respond with "No problem," then repeat with another stable.

They'll pick an appropriate horse out for you, and the instructor should communicate well with you. If you're not comfortable trotting? Say something. And if they don't listen/communicate? Move along, little doggie. There's another stable for you.

Seriously. It's that easy! Have fun and don't overthink. People do this all the time.
posted by functionequalsform at 6:49 AM on January 21, 2015

My 42 year old friend just took up riding at the same barn where her daughters are taking lessons. She is thrilled, labeling it the best Christmas present she'd ever received, and having a great time. Her instructor has definitely worked with other adults and it's been a wonderful experience all around. Good luck and have fun!
posted by goggie at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I learned how to ride as an adult. My experience was that at this particular stable, they had a whole lot of horses that were pretty much programmed to follow the ass of the horse in front of them and ignore the rider. There were only a few lazy horses who would decide to walk into the center and create a huge clot of horses with perplexed riders.

The stables taught English saddle. Most of the early classes were based around learning to communicate with the horse and how to sit with proper posture. Each level they added skills - walking, stopping, turning, posting a trot, canter, and so on.

If you live in New Jersey, this is hugely easier in that (most?) every county has county run stables with classes and as a resident of that county, you are entitled to better rates. I grew up in NJ and had absolutely no idea that this existed until I was an adult.
posted by plinth at 6:56 AM on January 21, 2015

I think riding is actually fairly safe when you're not jumping.

One thing you can do even today is start building the muscles in your inner thighs. These are the muscles that get suuuuper tired when you first start riding (to the point that you might be unsteady on your feet the first time you finish a lesson and get off the horse), so any advantage you have going in will help.

Also, you might want to make sure the muscles that take care of your knees are in good shape.

Have fun!
posted by amtho at 7:28 AM on January 21, 2015

I highly recommend Jessica Jahiel's books that are in question/answer form (the "problem solver" books) and her Horse Sense newsletter. Brilliant, simple, clear explanations for why the horse is doing this, that, and the other thing. She has also written a book just for adults who are learning to ride.

Lots and LOTS of people learn to ride (or learn to ride again) when they are adults, quite successfully, and the brilliant part is that if you just go and have a good time, it will be just like learning when you were a kid. Instructors will be able to pair you with an appropriate horse, and I'm sure you'll have a great time. :)

Have fun!!
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:43 AM on January 21, 2015

If you are nervous, the horse is going to take you for a ride if something unexpected happens. You don't want that. Low branches suck when horse thinks it is running for its life because a rock rolled down the mountain and horse is being ridden by a rider who does not instill confidence.

I had to unexpectedly get back in the saddle for work 3 years ago after 32 years of being without horse. My first thought was "Why does this species seem so much bigger than it did when I was seven?"

A good stable will put you on the right horse. I do Western now because I need that pommel and the cargo capacity, but I learned on an English saddle and I recommend that because it really teaches you to communicate with the horse. A serious stable is going to start you that way and you should be able to google the instructor and see that they have competed. You don't want to be jumping, but you do want an instructor who knows The Way of the Horse. If they are going to take you out on trail rides immediately, go somewhere else. You should be prancing around in a corral for a while before you do any real riding.

And I would really look for a woman. They get shoved out of the racing industry and sometimes they start stables because it was never about winning the race for them.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:04 AM on January 21, 2015

Adults can learn, although it is more difficult than learning while young. Lots of adult learners at my stable of varying skill levels and ages (one woman in her 60s who's been riding for 7 years now!), and they're definitely working harder than the pre-teens who are learning. If you can arrange your work schedule to have a morning off and find a barn that offers a weekday morning lesson, that's usually a quiet time with mostly adults present (since all the kids are in school).

One problem I see adults fall into is that they often don't set goals beyond "ride a horse". Kids usually have some simple, big goals like "jump x height" or "get first place ribbons at the show". This means they have something to work towards and something they can look back at to judge their progress. Adults tend to get to their goal ("ride a horse") and then stall out, paying a whole lot of money to do the exact same thing week after week with no changes until they get frustrated and quit. The best thing you can do is find an instructor who will gently encourage you to keep growing as a horse-person and trying new things, even just new ground skills like "put a bridle on a difficult horse without help" or simple things like "trot for x minutes continuously". If you can't find an instructor who will do that, then the next best thing is to find a more advanced rider who has seen you ride and who can help you pick out good goals on your own, things that are tailored to the areas where you need improvement.

The other thing I see adults do (even more than kids, which kind of surprises me) is fall in love with a specific horse or a specific instructor and refuse to try anything else. Every horse has something different to teach you and every instructor explains things in a different way. If you can afford to ride twice a week at different barns, that's really great. If you're a normal person with a normal budget and can only afford to ride at a single barn, try to find one where they have a few different horses who are all beginner level. There may be only one horse for "complete noobs" but after a month or two you should be able to alternate between two or three horses so that you don't fall into a rut. After you're pretty comfortable with the basics on a few different horses, try to at least occasionally ride with a different instructor. Maybe that's doing a clinic at your barn or a drop in class at a different barn or something. Riding is more art than science and you need to pick and choose the ideas and exercises and methods that work for you (and for each individual horse). If you only get one set of ideas then that's what your stuck with, if you can pick up a bunch of ideas then you've got lots of options. (Side note, some instructors may try to guilt trip you about always riding with them and not picking up "bad habits" from other instructors.... They just don't want to lose the money. Just ignore that. You're an adult, getting a nth opinion is not a bad thing and just because you try something new doesn't mean you have to stick with it.)

they had a whole lot of horses that were pretty much programmed to follow the ass of the horse in front of them and ignore the rider. There were only a few lazy horses who would decide to walk into the center and create a huge clot of horses with perplexed riders. Avoid stables that encourage this. Lesson horses do tend to be "followers", but you need to learn how to get a horse to do something other than what the horse in front of him is doing or what he wants to do. A good instructor will give you at least some exercises which do not involve following! Otherwise when you are in a situation where you want the horse to do something different, you will be screwed.

Also, horses are much bigger than you and yes, there is some element of danger. Make sure you get a good, professionally fitted helmet--price doesn't matter, as long as it's certified, it fits correctly!, and you always wear it. Then buy a sturdy pair of riding boots. Then if you're made of money, but a protective vest (I don't ride with one, but I always regret that after a fall--do as I say, not as I do). I do jump regularly and most of my accidents have not involved jumping, so don't assume jumping == dangerous and not jumping == safe. One of my worst injuries was from handling a relatively small horse on the ground, she just happened to put most of her weight down very precisely on my left pinky toe--ouch! Even given that, riding is well worth it. Don't let your anxiety hold you down, but don't feel like you need to rush, either. Slow and steady, with small, incremental goals.
posted by anaelith at 9:05 AM on January 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm in my 40s and just rode my first horse a few months ago. So it can be done. It was far easier than expected, and felt completely natural after about 10 minutes. So just contact a local stable that offers trail rides or riding lessons and get started.

Also, have you considered volunteering at a local equine rescue center? Not sure where you are, but in the Hudson Valley, Equine Rescue near Newburgh is looking for volunteers to help out with grooming, mucking-out stables, and that sort of thing, so if you like being around horses it may provide a good opportunity to do that and do some good for some horses who have had a rough life.
posted by Leatherstocking at 9:40 AM on January 21, 2015

Just wanted to say that I am not particularly thrill seeking, and physically pretty cautious, but for some reason I'm not nervous on a horse. You might be the same.

Other than a bit of time as a kid, I only ride once every five or so years (so, almost none at all), but I do love it.

On my honeymoon I was literally frozen in fear when I was supposed to jump off a rock into a pool of water, it was 8 feet up, a whole bunch of other people had just done it and it was perfectly safe and easy - but I just couldn't do it. We also took a horse ride and due to lucky circumstances the last part was done at a full gallop along the edge of a steep drop off into a stream in the near dark, and the equipment was of questionable quality (one of the guides stirrup straps broke during the ride), and I had the BEST time ever! I knew I should be scared, but damn I was just having too much fun.

So you know, just because you're nervous with some activities, doesn't mean you necessarily will be with riding : )
posted by pennypiper at 10:02 AM on January 21, 2015

My mom rode as a kid, then stopped after a major fall (or some other scary event). She got sucked back in when I was about 10 and started taking lessons, and 20 years later is still really into it.

Go check out some stables in your area. Ask them how many adult beginners they teach and what their approach is. Some stables will be snooty and some will be laid-back (although keep in mind that there will be a few snots at any stable, it's part of the territory).

If you tell us where you live maybe some MeFites will have stable suggestions.
posted by radioamy at 10:11 AM on January 21, 2015

I have stable suggestions if you're near Atlanta, because the one where I work gets a fair number of adult learners (and is awesome). If I were you I would pick a random one that's nearby, then check out their website, call, and set up a visit/tour of the facilities. If any of those things rubs you the wrong way, that's not the stable for you, but I'm sure one is out there.

In case you need some inspiration, check out one of our riders, who came back to riding as an adult after years away, and was recently named Adult Independent Equestrian of the Year by PATH. I believe she's in her 70s, and has severe rheumatoid arthritis that limits her ability to mount the horse by herself.

Because horse riding is often used as physical therapy, many stables are equipped to handle special cases like this, and they all should be used to getting phone calls along the lines of "I have xyz special needs, can you accommodate me?" So you being a little older than the majority is not out of the ordinary at all, and is definitely not any sort of barrier toward getting back to riding.

Have fun!
posted by jessicapierce at 11:16 AM on January 21, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the super helpful and encouraging responses, everyone!

I live in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. My Dutch is passable, but I'd prefer instruction in English if possible.
posted by nerdfish at 11:28 AM on January 21, 2015

I'd also like to echo the suggestion to volunteer at the stables you'd like to ride at. This would help with any nervousness you might have at being around those big beasts again, would work as a refresher course on horse body language, and would get you in good favor with your riding instructors.

Also, for what it's worth (I'm no instructor), I think your nervousness could be an asset, because it means you recognize your own inexperience and the need for caution. I would WAY rather work with someone like that, than with someone who doesn't know her limits and takes dumb risks.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:30 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I took up riding again at 23 (I felt soooo old!) after about a ten year hiatus. I think you're gettimg great advice. I went broke after a year and quit again, but apart from that what sticks out for me was the intense muscle pain and the fear. I rode for years as a kid and jumped a lot and I remember no fear and no pain. That said, I loved riding again and I wish I had the time and money to pick it up for a third time. I chose a barn that had a good reputation and had adult classes - that seemed to work.
posted by semacd at 1:26 PM on January 21, 2015

My sister is doing what you want to do, with the same background and she is so happy! For me, the horsy big sister, it is a bit weird to hear her planning her weekends around riding, and even a holiday..

An even better story is about our former neighbor, a big city construction worker with no experience of horses or nature. When my daughter was very small, they became friends. She visited them every afternoon mainly to eat sweets and watch TV. Since I grew up working as a stable hand, horses were always a huge part of her life, and she told my neighbors (a childless couple) about it.
So they both began to take riding lessons, in the suburbs, with posh people all around. The wife stopped after a while, but today, the husband has bought a horse, and rides every single morning in the woods!

I think he must have been over 50 when he started, today he is a pensioner. So it is never too late..
posted by mumimor at 2:16 PM on January 21, 2015

I am a late 30's adult and I started riding for the very first time a little over 2 years ago. I tried it out for the first time at a friend's urging, figuring I'd just give it a try and stop. Then, much to my surprise, I ended up really loving it.

You should probably just be very up front about what and how you want to learn. The lady I found teaches English Hunter style riding. I informed her at the start that gravity had gotten stronger and the ground further away since I was a young man, so I was really interested in getting "competent" at riding and wasn't interested in jumping and whatnot, but wanted to be able to go trail riding on a horse that wasn't trained to just do the trail ride no matter what the rider did. She was perfectly happy to let me progress at my own pace to whatever level I wanted to get to. I started with once a week lessons, and now I go twice-a-week when the weather and work schedule allows (which is most of the time, spring to fall).

I figure as long as you're clear from the start, you can find an instructor who's on-board.

Even though I didn't think I'd want to get into any of the jumping... well... This is a recent picture. Go for it!
posted by Lafe at 2:35 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can learn to ride at any age, so don't let that put you off. There was a Swedish rider who competed at Badminton Horse Trials at the age of 38 after having learnt to ride four years previously. THere was also a competitor in the dressage at one Olympics who was 70 years old.

What I will say is try to find an instructor who teaches classical riding. It's much better for you and the horse, as all the aids are based upon natural movements and correct posture of the horse and rider. Having been originally taught to kick and pull, then re-learning to ride classically I can attest to just how much better it is for both horse and rider. It radically altered the way my old pony moved after just a few months of me changing my riding style.

If you want to find an instructor then I'd recomend joining the Classical Riding Club that is run by Sylvia Loch. The club has been promoting humane, harmonious, logical, and correct riding for 20 years now. Although the newly designed website has just gone live today, so there may be the odd kink for a day or two. It's an international club so anyone from around the world is welcome to join and there is an instructors page to help you find someone to have lessons with. There's also a huge wealth of information on there so you can start learning before you even get near a horse :-)

Aslo if you want books or videos to learn from too I'd recommend The Complete Training of Horse and Rider by Col. Alois Podhajsky. It's incredibly clear, easy to follow, and can take you through all the levels if you wish to go that far. Also any of Sylvia Loch's books and videos are worth getting. Especially the DVD Balance and Body work, as it provides exercises you can do unmounted in your living room, so you get the most from your lessons. Also the books The Classical Seat and Invisible Riding are both great.

As classical riding is about working in harmony with the horse, the horse will be more comfortable and most probably calmer and happier. There's also something magical about having a whispered conversation with a horse. Especially on a well trained horse, when you can stop it just by sucking your belly button towards your spine. Or when you get the aid right, and suddenly the horse rewards you with this incredible feeling of power and lightness.

As for finding a yard, look for horses who are happy and healthy looking. I'd rather go to a stable where there was hay on the floor and happy horses than a pristine yard and miserable horses. Learn a bit about correct classical riding (some people don't use the term classical but teach correct riding, some people use the term classical yet teach something that isn't classical) so that you can watch a lesson or two and see if the instructor is teaching riding that is healthy for the horse. If the instructor tells someone to pull on the reins to get the horse to stop, then walk away.

There's more questions that I can't think of. However the Classical Riding Club has a Facebook page where you can ask questions. It's very informative on there and there'll be plenty of people willing to give you more questions to ask or things to look for in a school.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 4:44 PM on January 21, 2015

Since you are in Amsterdam, the riding classes mentioned in this Meetup Group event might be of interest. You could potentially contact other members of the group for help. This appears to be an English speaking group and I would guess they might have had (private) lessons in English. Right in Vondelpark.
posted by rongorongo at 12:00 AM on January 22, 2015

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