Listening to anyone talk about riding is pretty much my favorite thing, but listening to riders who have the benefit of age on their side is a particular honor. Having the direct line to passionate, accomplished, still-horse-crazy riders who are over (or nearly over) 60-years-young makes me want to pull up a chair, turn off my phone, and, as I would say to my daughter, “listen with my ears and my heart”. Because riders over 60 not only have the passion of someone who has devoted themselves to horses for decades, they also have the wisdom to skim only the best advice off the top.
I sat down with some of the living legends of equestrian sport to get the inside scoop on what it means to ride when you’re older. These include FEI dressage judge Marilyn Payne, Canadian eventing Olympian Juliet Graham, grand prix dressage rider Lindle Sutton, amateur eventer Sarah Wildasin, and dominant hunter rider Jane (Womble) Gaston – what a badass group of women.
‘How has riding evolved for you from when you started to the present?’
Jane (Womble) Gaston
Riding has changed enormously for me since I began riding over 60 years ago. It has shifted for me physically due to body changes as I grew and now body changes as I age. Mentally it has also changed due to mileage and training. But probably the biggest change for me is beginning on Thoroughbreds and then adjusting to the modern Warmblood. Both of those involve their own physical and mental challenges. Interesting to me is I see the Warmblood evolving and becoming more like the Thoroughbred, which is welcomed by me. I prefer a more sensitive and active horse.
Jane Gaston and Sign the Card. Photo by Freudy.
‘What do you love about being a rider who's over 60?’
I love the fact that I can still do it! I had back surgery four years ago and I could hardly walk before that. It’s a whole new lease on life just being able to walk. Now I’m more picky about what I get on. I don’t get on any client horses anymore – no point in getting hurt again. I’ve been there, done that, and know how it ends.
What don’t I love about it?! I love having a harmonious relationship with my horse and how we can do things together that are really fun. It’s a mix of dance, movement, and martial arts and it’s all packed in together. I love martial arts but it’s still just you. But with a horse, you get this amazing being that does not have to let you do anything. It’s that relationship of creating a language and something really fun with another more beautiful, kind being that does not speak your language. You have to speak their language. It’s the whole relationship that starts when you feed them in the morning and turn them out and ride – it’s the whole enchilada.
Jane (Womble) Gaston
The positive I can see is the wealth of knowledge I have gained from so many. Now the challenge is to remember and implement the knowledge! Physically, I wish I were as strong as I used to be, but I can only hope to use the mental aspect to help me. I try to adapt and make the most out of my positives.
Jane Gaston and Because. Photo by Sportfot.
‘What do you think you bring to the sport that riders in their 20s or 30s, for instance, cannot?’
Experience from teaching and seeing different people ride. I learn something new every day. From watching horses and people, I learn how to deal with problems that arise and make it work. It applies both ways; I learn something on my horse one day and apply it to a student the next and vice versa. Horses are always a learning curve. Experiencing different horses and different people is always fascinating.
Jane (Womble) Gaston
My advice would be to absorb all I could whether it be in actually riding, watching whenever possible be it in person or via video, and reading. There are many materials out there to learn from. Of course, it all depends on your priorities and desire. But be honest and realistic with yourself and your horse. Never give up!
‘What’s your favorite thing about riding these days?’
I just appreciate the horse and enjoy training more than just trying to reach a goal. You understand and have a better relationship and partnership with the horse. It’s just so much fun to go out there and ride every day. I remember when I had [my son] Doug [Payne], I couldn’t ride for a while, and I remember getting back on and it was the best feeling in the world. It was like putting on a favorite pair of shoes. I just love being on the back of the horse. I think the older you get the more you learn and the more you have to share with other people. I love teaching and helping other people bring their horses along. It’s a lot of fun. As a judge, rider, parent, and coach I feel like I’m very lucky to have gotten into the situation and so grateful that I’m still able to ride.
Marilyn Payne (center) with her daughter, Holly Payne Caravella, and son, Doug Payne, both of whom are four-star eventers.
I have a really nice horse that I have a lot of fun riding and he’s great at dressage. I just enjoy riding my horse. I don’t care about competing, which is a bit of a difference because for so long it was just about competing. I’m enjoying teaching him the flatwork, and he’s fancy! He’s a Thoroughbred – a bit of a challenging child, but now he’s fine. There’s a reason he’s mine.
Jane (Womble) Gaston
Still, my favorite thing is working with young horses. I never had the means to buy the old or made horse and for that, I am happy. I would never have known the joy of having a young horse bond and have them become confident with me. To have a horse stumbling over their first jumps, cross-cantering, and then almost saying, ‘I got this, I know the playbook’ is the reward for hard work. It is a joy for me to win with them or see them go on to other homes where they continue to give joy. I am truly blessed to continue the journey at my age. To be outside and with the animals I love is a gift I appreciate every day.
‘What advice would you give to riders who don’t have the benefit of your experience and wisdom?’
Never stop learning! Learn by watching and reading. Ride for the journey and enjoy every moment of the training. Since I am older, I’m not pressured to do well. You learn with experience and you just wish you knew what you know now when you were younger.
People need to take more time with the basics and understand how their body works and how the horse’s body works. It’s not just a machine. Get as much education as you can get; not just your own lessons but watch clinics and videos and do a lot of reading. There’s so much online now that you can get! We didn’t have any of that. Take advantage of all the opportunities.
Sit with a dressage judge and see what they see and also what they don’t see. The horse is coming down the centerline and the rider is worried about a square halt, but the judge can’t see that if you’re straight (unless there are three judges). They also can’t see when you’re going away, all they can see is the horse’s butt. Make your corrections then.
Most people like to get on and ride but it’s great to educate yourself. You don’t know what you don’t know until later.
Watch a lot of horses and riders. Ask questions. Riders will see things these days and not necessarily correct it. There’s a lot of incorrect stuff going on; a lot of shortcuts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from anyone. Read the old books like George Morris, Brig. Gen. Harry Chamberlin, Bill Steinkraus, and Jim Wofford. They are all very correct in what they do and what they did, and there’s a lot of stuff these days that’s so incorrect. There are a lot of shortcuts going on because it takes a long time to make a horse go correctly and even longer to re-make a horse correctly. I think a lot of riders now are taught how to compete but not how to ride. I watch some of the lower levels and it’s terrifying because it’s not safe. Riding should be safe and fun. For that to happen it has to be correct. When you put your leg on the horse it goes forward, and when you want it to stop it stops and everything in between – that makes riding more fun.
Juliet Graham and Sumatra.
This is what I tell my serious clients and my Dartmouth girls: If you really, really, really want to do this, you can. Always get the very best instruction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean go for famous riders. The famous ones have their own agenda. And they need to train, train, train. Really check out how the instructor teaches, what their philosophy is, and what their background is. If you want to do it you have to know this is pricey. Most of my really serious students have taken me up on this: You can be a really talented, productive amateur. With the cost of horses, it makes more sense to get a good job and ride as an amateur. That said there are some who have to eat, breathe, and be part of the world 24/7. Really check out what the realities of being a professional are.
Don’t lose the connection with the horse. I believe this is when things come apart. The horse is your partner. He has a heart and soul. Your horse can teach you a tremendous amount. Just listen.
Sarah Wildasin and Totally Awesome Bosco. Photo by Sportfot.
More about these riders:
Marilyn Payne is a USEF “S” Dressage judge, 4* FEI Eventing Judge, “R” Eventing Technical Delegate, amateur event and dressage rider, and a breeder. Marilyn was President of the Ground Jury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a member of the Ground Jury at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and President of the Ground Jury at the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Juliet Graham is a Canadian event rider who rode in three World Championships and one Olympic Games, including winning the team gold medal in the 1978 World Championships – all with her mare, Sumatra.
Lindle Sutton is a grand prix dressage rider and trainer in New England who currently coaches the Dartmouth Equestrian Team. She rode in the 1983 Equi-fest Pan American Games Trials, the 1986 World Championship trials, the 1988 Olympic Trials, and has coached Olympians.
Sarah Wildasin is the joint Master of Foxhounds for Aiken Hounds and is an amateur event rider. She is also passionate about riding out West in the backcountry with her family!
Jane (Womble) Gaston: Jane is a legendary and dominant hunter rider. Multiple years she earned the AHSA Horse of the Year and AHSA Grand Champion Hunter with her mare “Sign the Card,” who was inducted in the National Show Horse Hall of Fame and Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame.
Written by Courtney Alston
Courtney is an event rider turned show jumper turned stay-at-home mom. She grew up galloping her pony bareback-halter lead rope in the fields of Virginia and now calls North Carolina home with her wife, daughter, and little Spaniel.