There are definitely sports that are youth sports, gymnastics being an obvious example. Many sports that cause heavy wear and tear on knees, shoulders, and various joints see few athletes lasting very deeply into their thirties, and a forty year old professional football player is called “the old man.”
Horseback riding definitely has the potential to be a wear and tear sport, but that`s from falls and wrecks, not from the inherent stresses that accompany daily riding. With luck, a rider who is, say, 12, should be looking at a riding life that can easily continue for the next forty to fifty years, and not only last for decades, but also have the prospect of being an elite riding career for many of those years.
There is a tendency for younger riders not to think in these longer range terms, but to have the misconception that if they fail to reach some goal by, say, 25 or 30, their dreams are dashed, their riding life is washed up, and their goals must be abandoned. Partly this is the fault of the way the various horse sports create “youth” or “young rider” divisions, within the various sports, as though mastery isn`t a continuum, but a finite goal.
Perhaps there is a better way to look at the stages of a rider`s career. Let`s say someone starts riding at 10 or 12. Let`s give them the first ten years or so to get to be “pretty good.” Not to “make it” to some international level, but to develop a good, independent seat, to have the start of an understanding about how horses think and react, to begin to get a handle on various emotional issues, temper, perhaps, or frustration, or impatience. Just as we might think that a 22 year old gymnast might be entering the twilight of her sports life, so we should think of the 22 year old rider as entering the dawn of hers.
Then the following two decades, from, say, 22 to 42, even to her late 40s, will be thought of as the “heart” of her competitive riding life, and the “heart of the heart” will probably be the decade of her thirties. That`s the time when there`s most likely to be an intersection of drive, hunger, physical capability, emotional stability, and the years of accumulation of the necessary skill sets. A thirty five year old rider, the saying goes, is “young enough to still want it, young enough to still have the physical strength to do it, and smart enough to know how.”
There are riders in their fifties, even into their sixties, like Bruce Davidson, who can still be competitive. Usually, it`s not so much the skills that go, or even the fitness, as much as a waning of that fierce, driving “want” or need.
My real point in this is to say to younger riders, and to their parents, that there`s plenty of time. Plenty of time to both get an education and still ride. Plenty of time to bounce around well into their twenties at lower than the higher levels, and still be able to get to the top. If, however, a young rider sets an arbitrary goal, like “having” to ride at the advanced level by 25 or so, and if she fails to achieve that goal, here`s the fear. She won`t say, “Hey, so I didn`t make it by (25-27-30, take your pick) So I`ll recalibrate my goal to a later age.” No. Instead, she`s apt to think she`s failed, period.
That`s probably one of the reasons why we see so much attrition in the ranks of younger riders. They appear on the scene, flame like a Fourth of July rocket, then fade and vanish. They didn`t lack ability, they lacked staying power. They set goals that weren`t logical, failed to meet those goals, and then felt like failures. Certainly, this isn`t the only reason they vanish. The bigger reason is that old saying, “Life gets in the way.” But for those who might have had the potential to be good riders, the mistake they may have made was to think in terms of short term goals, rather than in terms of the long term quest toward mastery.