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'Vintage Riders' Prove Dressage Gets Better With Age

“I’m not one to get hung up on numbers, but if you want to say 60 is the new 40, I’ll take that. You can be and do whatever you want, thanks to exercise and hair color.” Oprah Winfrey on turning 60.

In many ways, equestrians of a certain age have it much easier than our younger counterparts. Children are out of the house and those 50+ hour work weeks are (hopefully) a thing of the past. There’s more time and freedom to pursue our passions, and luckily for dressage riders, the golden years are ripe for the picking. In our sport age is just a number, you truly are as young as you feel. Dressage is an art and a sport where we can continuously learn, improve, and excel into our 60s, 70s, and beyond. With the ability to continue improving over the years, one might say vintage riders are like a fine wine - they keep getting better with age.

(Vicky Stashuk-Matisi, 70, enjoys a lesson with Hilda Gurney, 74).

We take inspiration from a generation of rock stars who continue to compete and win at the highest levels. Many of dressage's top riders can be credited with giving their "golden years" a new, and very literal meaning. Debbie McDonald rode in her first Olympics when she was 50. Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan at 71 was the oldest athlete to compete in the London Olympics. Paralympian Margaret McIntosh was 62 when she competed in the Rio games on the aptly named Rio Rio.

A Guiding Light

Then there’s Hilda Gurney, who at 74 simply refuses to slow down. And why should she? As a member of the 1976 Olympic Team she was on the podium with bronze medals. At the Pan Am Games she won individual gold and silver, and three team golds with her legendary Hall of Fame member, Keen. Now over 40 years later Hilda admits to riding and training up to 15 horses in the morning, and teaching students until late in the day. Impressed yet? On top of all that she runs Keenridge Farm, continues to compete, and is a popular clinician. If that wasn't enough, Hilda also boasts a hugely successful breeding program.

However, Hilda didn't enter the spotlight of competitive dressage until much after the sun would have set on a young rider career. In fact, Hilda "fell into'' the profession of dressage after an initial career in education. As a 26-year-old schoolteacher and mostly self-taught rider, Hilda was a successful eventer who developed a passion for dressage. She came across Keen, as a 3-year-old thoroughbred with spectacular gaits. She remembers trying him out in a cow pasture: “I got on him and he bucked me off. And then I got back on. I bought him that day for $1,000.”

Since her days on Keen, Hilda's legacy in our sport has only grown, creating an enormous positive impact on U.S. dressage. “I have no plans to stop. I love to ride and I love to teach. Maybe I do a little less competing than when I was younger, but my work keeps me fit and healthy.”

Continuous Goals – Constant Learning

Vicky Stashuk-Matisi, is another force of nature. It’s no surprise that she makes a 4-hour journey to ride and train with Hilda. A successful FEI competitor, trainer and judge, she owns and runs Ramor Oaks Riding Club in Watsonville, California. As a co-founder of the Woodside Horse Park, Vicky is another visionary in the equestrian community.

Vicky just turned 70. When asked what she finds most challenging, she had a vigorous response: “Nothing! I’m continually on the move. I’m healthy and I’m surrounded by great people.”

When she’s not hard at work on her ranch she is training students, judging, riding and competing her talented mare, Springfield. “My goal is to ride the Grand Prix and move up to the next level of judging – for both dressage and eventing competitions.”

Active professionals like Hilda and Vicky shine a light for those of us who embrace our own challenges. Aches, pains and doubts fade away once we’re sitting tall in the saddle, riding forward and focusing on the work. Consider their advice:

Be Fit

This is priority #1 for any rider at any age. Both Hilda and Vicky stressed how important it is to be in good shape. “If you don’t have your body organized, if you don’t have cardio endurance, how can you develop and maintain harmony with your horse?” asks Hilda. In fact, Vicky is proof in point, working with a personal trainer and practicing Pilates regularly. “It’s difficult to teach students how to control their posture and position. It’s something we all have to practice both on and off the horse”.

How many times do you hear from your coach “sit tall, engage your abs, legs down, and quiet your hands” - all while your horse is pulling you forward, behind your leg, or bouncing you out of the saddle? Consider all you do to keep your horse strong, healthy and sound. Are you doing the same for yourself?

Commit to Time in the Saddle

Hand-in-hand with fitness is being consistent in your riding. Your half-ton beast has an opinion of his own. While your trainer can help move him along, only you can develop the partnership you need for success. From your horses’ upkeep, to your tack – from training to competition, this sport is a big investment. Yet there’s nothing that replaces the results of quality time in the saddle. Hilda and Vicky just keep getting better with repetition, so take notice. We can too.

Have Fun

We all have the occasional lesson from hell, unmotivated horse, or simply a bad ride. If only there was an easy button. But alongside the hard work and the ups and downs there comes satisfaction and pleasure, harvested after a long season of struggle. If not, why bother? Hilda and Vicky point out how critical it is to have good people around you. Find a way to make this happen for you. Work with a coach you like,bod respect, and trust. Be part of a supportive team where victories are cheered and low spirits are lifted. Find ways to dial down the stress and amp up the enjoyment. Let positivity reign.

Set Realistic Goals

Who doesn’t dream of the day they’ll be passaging, piaffing and zig-zagging their way around the arena? At the same time, vintage riders have the benefit of experience. We're confident enough to set big goals, yet wise enough to be realistic. As judges, Hilda and Vicky have seen it all and offer, perhaps, the hardest advice to accept. Don’t get in over your head. Be prepared. Train and compete at a level where you and your horse are ready. Set yourself up for success. That may be the best way to go out and have some fun.

So maybe you feel a little arthritis in your fingers or some tightness in your hips? You run out of breath after a few extended trots? How do you adjust when your mind thinks one way and your body goes another? Give some thought as to what Hilda would do. Find the commitment that Vicky inspires. Or take a rest and have a beer. Whatever it is – enjoy it. It’s your time.

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Mark Twain.


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