This is madness! I thought, soaking in a hot bath one late August afternoon in 2006. Everything hurt. I had survived my first riding lesson since 1985. My dream since childhood had been to ride dressage, but in those days, dressage instructors were rare. Over time, marriage, motherhood and a change of location to Georgia derailed all those plans, and I said good-bye to that phase of my life.
Fast-forward to December 2005—my children were grown, my husband owned a successful business and I was a writer and small film producer of modest success. That year, I attended a performance of the Spanish Riding School which was touring America to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Gen. George Patton saving the Lipizzan horses in 1945. The horses were stunning, and that old itch of feeling a horse under me flared up like hives, but I tamped it down. Six months later, while shooting a little film, I met a German dressage instructor. Between shoots, we talked horses and dressage. When I expressed my apprehension about starting over at my age, he only encouraged me by saying, “You’re never too old to ride dressage.”
A friend, who kept a few horses for kids’ lessons, invited me over just to sit on a horse. Surely, this would cure this infatuation. But after ungracefully climbing onto Hunley in borrowed boots and breeches and walking a few circles, I was hooked. I signed up for three months of weekly lessons at a hunter barn and thus began the new love affair. My mounts consisted of field hunters, who were lazy enough in the ring, but an unexpected element reared its head—fear. The slightest increase in speed raised my anxiety levels, and even cantering a circle was beyond my capability. My knees gripped, my breath caught and I seized up like rusted machinery. “You obviously have done this before, but your muscle memory is rusty,” said the patient young instructor.
Once a week was not getting me into shape. I called a cousin who had been riding since I had quit, and asked her opinion. “Pilates,” she said. I had never heard of it, but I enrolled for twice a week. More warm soaking baths ensued. “Keep at it,” my husband replied to my moans and groans.
I found an instructor with a suitable dressage horse—Cisco, a small black and white paint, became my weekly partner. He was easier to canter than the old hunters. Slowly, fitness returned. I felt better physically and lost 13 pounds. Soon, Cisco had served his purpose. It was time to find a schoolmaster.
Another young instructor took my fear of speed seriously. I rode two different school horses, but one was young and sometimes a little spooky, so I began to ride the older horse on a regular basis. His name was Navy—an Irish Sport Horse that didn’t seem impressive at first glance. But twice a week, he became my trusted teacher. He was forward and tolerant of my unsteady hands and bouncy seat. And with his big trot, the bouncy seat took some time to improve. We had longe lessons and, finally, I was cantering circles without a break. The confidence I had lacked through that first year of riding grew stronger with each hour spent on Navy’s back.
Then a stroke of luck came my way. I was offered the chance to purchase Navy on a half-owner/lease. Not only did that suit my bank account, but he was perfect for me at my point in coming back. Today, three years later, Navy has become the angel in my life. I lost the fear of going forward because I trusted him. Soon we were doing clinics and then a little schooling show. All my life I had waited for this moment, to ride seriously at dressage. And though it was only a Training Level class at a small competition, I was as proud of our 61.1 percent score as if I had ridden at the World Equestrian Games.
Once more I am immersed in a passion I thought I had forfeited forever. The devotion to my sport and my horse is rewarding in many ways. It has taught other life lessons as well—that nothing you love is easy. It takes dedication and facing obstacles that only desire can overcome. My advice to anyone who remotely considers returning to the saddle after a long hiatus is: “Do it!” The German dressage instructor is long gone, but his words remain: “You’re never too old to ride dressage.”