Could 60-year-old Mark Todd have his fifth win at the iconic event? Lucy Higginson wonders what the secret is of the older horse riders who manage to stay on form for decades.
Older horse riders are set to dominate this year’s Badminton, as eventing continues to enjoy a trend strange in the sporting world: the competitiors are only getting better with age. Lucy Higginson encourages us to feel inspired by the “galloping grandfathers”, who are confirmation that sporting fun has no age.
You may not make it to Badminton to Burghley on your own horse, but that’s not to say you can’t sport a prized owner’s badge. Read owning an event horse. Would you do it?
OLDER HORSE RIDERS
People may be living longer than ever, yet our sporting prime rarely expands with our life span. The average retirement age of a professional footballer is 35. In tennis and swimming, you’re often washed up by 26. In gymnastics it’s nearer 20.
But there is one sport – and I mean a proper, sweaty, adrenalin-filled sport – in which the silverware seems increasingly to go to those with silver hair albeit because much of the grunt work is done by a horse.
Eventing (or Equestrian Triathlon, as it seems soon to be rebranded) lacks nothing in speed and excitement, can be horribly dangerous, and increasingly sees older horse riders of forty- and fifty-something on the winner’s podium. So close to claiming their pensions are some of them, I know at least one who’s been thrown off the bus to an Olympic village (“Sorry, Mate, this is for athletes only.”)
OLDER HORSE RIDERS: SIR MARK TODD
Indeed, one of the older horse riders and front runner for this year’s Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials (4-7 May), is New Zealand’s Sir Mark Todd, who turned 60 on 1 March. A former double Olympic champion, Toddy already holds the record for being the event’s oldest winner – victorious in 2011 at the age of 55 (more than 30 years after his first Badminton triumph). Although he took a break from the sport, retiring in 2000 to train racehorses in New Zealand, he made a comeback – largely as a dare – in order to take part in the 2008 Olympics.
So as one of the older horse riders could he win Badminton aged 60, and rewrite the record books once more? “I hope not just to be making up the numbers,” he says wryly, and his form speaks for itself. Last year he posted four top 10 placings at four-star events (the world’s toughest horse trials).
Does riding these huge tracks feel any different now to how it used to? “I’m so old now I can’t remember what it was like in my twenties,” he confesses. “For me the biggest thing was that eight-year gap [when he stopped riding to train in New Zealand]. It definitely took me a few years to get back into my stride.
“I’m probably not quite as fearless as I used to be,” he reflects, and in common with many well-established older horse riders he admits he’s “more fussy about what I ride now. Last year I felt I was riding as well as ever, though I probably have to do a bit more to keep myself in shape.”
OLDER HORSE RIDERS: FROM A PASTIME TO A BUSINESS
One of the reasons eventers are often older horse riders now is because what 40 years ago was a pastime for gutsy amateurs has become a business. The days of teenage winners like Lucinda Prior-Palmer (19 when she took the first of her six Badminton wins in 1973) or Richard Walker (18 when he won in 1969) are long over.
“There’s more chance now of someone in their sixties winning than someone under 25,” agrees Badminton’s director, Hugh Thomas. “In the days when Lucinda first came here – and when I was riding – the qualifications to ride here were trivial. You didn’t have to spend years working your way up the grades. Riders were much younger and so were the horses.”
Back then, riders competed for as long as they or their parents would finance it; then they concentrated on a “proper” job. Now eventing is a job for some, besides being a hobby for thousands more.
“I don’t think anyone’s got rich by going eventing but there are huge numbers who have successfully made a living out of their involvement with it,” Thomas elaborates. “They break, sell, teach and naturally continue to compete – it’s part of their life and business. There used to be much higher turnover, and young riders could break into the sport much more easily.”
And to forge a career in eventing, don’t expect to keep your best horses initially. “Young riders have to sell their horses to build their business,” agrees eventer Lucinda Fredericks. “I did so much selling in my twenties and thirties; two horses went on to the Spanish team, and I sold Springalong [who went to the Olympics for Britain with Daisy Dick].” Fredericks did eventually win both Badminton and Burghley, though not before she had turned 40.
OLDER HORSE RIDERS: FATALITIES AND ACCIDENTS
But as the sport has grown, so have the number of rider fatalities. Eventing remains one of the world’s most dangerous sports, even for the most experienced. In 2013, French international Bruno Bouvier was killed at the age of 60 in a rotational fall, and last autumn fans were shocked as two previous World No 1s – Andrew Nicholson, 53, and William Fox-Pitt, 47, suffered terrible accidents in competition. Nicholson broke his neck and was fortunate to escape paralysis, while Fox-Pitt suffered a brain trauma falling at an event in France. Both are now back in the saddle, though their competition plans for this season are not yet clear.
Do older horse riders sometimes compete for longer than is wise? These two were certainly at the top of their game, Fox-Pitt having won Badminton last year and Nicholson having scored an unprecedented treble of Burghley wins before his accident.
“I think my riding just improved as it went on,” says John Marsden, another rider who contested elite horse trials late into his fifties. “It’s possible, so long as you are prepared to keep watching people and improving as the standards improve.” Now 68, Marsden has only just given up eventing, “because of my sight mainly. I couldn’t get on with contacts.”
Yet not all riders stop at their prime. “Sometimes you do watch a rider and think their best is past,” agrees Badminton’s Thomas. “They don’t sit as well somehow.”
Older horse riders who start to lose their magic at the elite level often find that horses and owners slip away from them; the decision to step down is taken out of their hands. “I’ve always said to those nearest to me, ‘For God’s sake tell me if I’m starting to look my age,’” concedes Todd. “I’m probably not quite as fearless or as brave as I used to be but I’m confident in what I do,” he says, adding that the swing from vast fences to very technical ones (a trend that’s lately moved into reverse) helped lure him back.
“I think my reactions are as good as they were. Experience plays a big part in that. Maybe when you’re younger you don’t make the right choices all the time; when you’re older you make more right ones than wrong. But the main reason I do the sport is because I love it and because I can still be competitive.”
OLDER HORSE RIDERS: THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
Science supports his theory, as Human Performance Coach Jon Pitts explains. “The average age for winning a major equestrian championship is your early forties,” he says. “We would put that down to ‘feel’, this magical thing we talk about elite older horse riders having, based around years and years of experience. They are almost able to predict what a horse will do at a certain time, and it’s that experience that makes the difference.”
As in Formula 1 racing, event riders cannot even recall parts of their cross country round once they’ve finished; instinct and reaction speed just take over. “I don’t think people recognise the type of mental skills that make the best as good as they are,” adds Pitts. But coaches like him are working to accelerate the development of these skills in younger riders, “deliberately training their ‘cognitive function’ – their decision-making skills and so on”.
The bad news is that physical deterioration damages cognitive function, too. Pitts points out the rapid heart rates recorded on event riders going round Badminton. A brain that’s not getting enough oxygen “starts to shut down, and your fine motor skills – balance, co-ordination and reactions – everything you need to ride, starts to suffer”.
There is evidence that these skills rust up more rapidly in older horse riders if for some reason their schedule is interrupted; an older jockey forced to take time off with injury is more likely to have a further blip on returning to the saddle than a younger one. Food for thought for Fox-Pitt and Nicholson. Happily, just about every over-fifty rider I come across seems to have embraced yoga, cycling and rowing machines.
“Physically I didn’t feel any different when I hit 40. I do now – but I’ve had some [bad] falls since,” says 50-year-old Fredericks. “If I hadn’t had those tumbles, I think I would still be a very competitive rider. Your body just doesn’t bounce as well. You see younger models falling and they just seem to bend better.” Her desire now to contest the very highest levels hinges on having “a very special horse”. “I’m slightly off the pace now. I’m not prepared to live on the edge as you have to be to make the optimum time these days, like being slightly out of control skiing.”
OLDER HORSE RIDERS: THE “GALLOPING GRANDFATHERS”
Ironically perhaps, while show-jumping is also strewn with older horse riders – John Whitaker, now a grandfather aged 60, is riding as brilliantly as ever – dressage riders have become younger. It may be the most serene equestrian sport but the chances of fielding a 70-year-old rider at the Olympics as we did with Lorna Johnston at the 1972 Games in Munich, seem remote. For this discipline has seen the biggest explosion in standards and scores, requiring riders to make an early and sustained commitment to finding and training phenomenally powerful horses.
So, as you plan the annual visit to Badminton, look out for the “galloping grandfathers” still showing how it’s done, and let these older horse riders inspire you to embrace a few more years of fearless, glucosamine-fuelled sporting fun. And try to remember where you’ve parked.
Ian Miller, 69
If you’re talking older horse riders, no one tops this Canadian show-jumping legend who’s gunning to ride at his 11th Olympics this year. And why shouldn’t he? His best individual finish (ninth overall) was at London 2012 and he won his first Olympic medal aged 61.
Hiroshi Hoketsu, 75
The oldest athlete at the last Olympics was Japanese dressage rider Hoketsu, then 71. He hadn’t competed at an Olympics for 44 years. But earlier this year he bought a new Grand Prix horse with a view to selection for Rio. Will he carry on riding for Toyko 2020?
John Whitaker, 60
Whitaker had a hugely successful 2015.“All you can do is try to be professional,” he reflected after one of last year’s Grand Prix wins. “I get up at 6.30 every morning and school horses, trying to improve all the time. You have to keep upping your game.”
And kicking on at the lower levels
Jane Smith, 69
This Usk farmer’s wife took up eventing a couple of years ago, aged 67, when plans to get a horse “for hacking” were thwarted by her irrepressibly competitive nature. She’s still going strong despite two new hips. “I’ve no delusions that I’ll win anything but I absolutely love it,” she says. She’s in good company; 133 riders aged 60 and over took part in British Eventing-run horse trials last year. One, in her seventies, declined to be interviewed. “People fuss too much if you happen to fall off,” she said.