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Horse sense: What motivates older equestrians

Although Ann Knapp, on Birch, has suffered riding

Although Ann Knapp, on Birch, has suffered riding injuries — and her husband once cracked his pelvis in a fall from a horse — she says she has no fear on a horse. (April 26, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Barbara Margulies stretched her long legs down around her horse as he trotted about the Willow Springs Farm arena in East Patchogue. Her face was a picture of both focus and fear.

Her riding instructor, Raul de Leon, stood in the ring's center, encouraging her to take command of her mount. "Right now, you are sitting there saying to the horse: 'Please, can I sit on you, do you mind?' You want that horse to hear your body say, 'I own you,' " de Leon said.

Spotting the way she was holding the reins, de Leon made a quick correction. "Keep your fingers like you were holding a raw egg," he told her. "Yes, yes, that's right. A very steady feel, very good."

As the lesson went on, Margulies relaxed, but the trepidation that comes from riding a horse never leaves her. "I have bad fear," said Margulies, who is 75 and lives in Holbrook. In 2008, she had a serious accident at a Huntington stable when the horse she was riding was spooked by a loud car muffler, and she tumbled to the ground. She broke both legs, and it took months of physical therapy to get back in the saddle.

Now with another, steadier mount, she has remained committed to being an equestrian, at an age when many riders have turned in their helmets.

"I cherish every minute on a horse," she said. "I'll probably die on a horse. It's either stupidity or passion, I haven't decided which yet."

Margulies is one of many older riders who has persevered in a sport that's challenging at any age, but especially for more mature enthusiasts. Not only does riding take balance and coordination, it also involves an enormous animal that can be unpredictable, flighty and headstrong.

Yet, there is something about these noble steeds that draws people in, regardless of the passing years.

Peter Teng, 86, a retired pathologist from Forest Hills, began riding as a child on his family's farm in Vietnam, and now shares a horse with his wife, Claudie. He described riding simply as "my love."

 

WALKING IS HARDER THAN RIDING

Teng, who has owned several horses, fox hunted and taken lessons with world-class trainers, said being on a horse enables him to be mobile at a time when walking is sometimes difficult. He enjoys "the exhilaration of being able to control them with knowledge and gentleness."

De Leon, who is in his 60s, said more than 70 percent of his clientele on Long Island are older than 50. "When people get older they have more fear. You have to realize it could be lethal for them to have a bad fall, and they have more responsibility financially and can't afford a mishap," he said. "However, compared to other sports, you can participate in it and be effective for many years if you are healthy and have good horses to work with."

De Leon, who lives in East Northport, learned to ride in Cuba, where he was born. He trained Tad Coffin, who grew up on Long Island and was an Olympic gold medalist in the individual and team three-day riding event in 1976.

With more than six decades of riding experience, Ann Knapp, who is in her 70s, betrays no hesitation while jumping fences on horseback. On a recent afternoon, while riding Birch, a 29-year-old horse she leases, Knapp confidently negotiated a line of three jumps in a smooth canter.

"On a horse, I have no fear," said Knapp, of Manhattan, who declined to give her exact age. She rides twice a week at the Lloyd Harbor Equestrian Center at Caumsett State Park, continuing a tradition she began as a young girl.

"My son tells me, 'Mom, isn't it time to stop?' And I think maybe it is." But, she said, when she gets on Birch and has a riding lesson, "I think there is no reason to stop yet."

When she was 10, Knapp, who was raised in Brooklyn, begged her parents to give her riding lessons and, within months, she was in her first horse show. Whether it was formal lessons, fox hunting, or equestrian vacations to places like Ireland, Africa and Mexico, riding was always a part of her life. She met her husband, the late federal judge Whitman Knapp, at a riding club at the Delaware Water Gap when she was in her 20s.

"He could ride anything in sight. His form was not the greatest, but he had a wonderful communication with a horse," said Knapp. The judge rode until age 90, even after a fall that cracked his pelvis when he was in his 80s.

Knapp, a former book editor who gives tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, still nurses her own riding injuries. "I am a risk-taker," she said, "and sometimes my judgment went the wrong way." While she has slowed down, she has never lost the carefree feeling on a horse that comes with years of experience. "Riders who start in their 30s, they never catch up," she observed. "They always have the worry factor."

She may be correct in Margulies' case. Margulies, who started lessons in her 30s, is keenly aware of her own vulnerability. After each lesson, she uses a heating pad for hours and takes painkillers for her aching legs.

"What am I going to do?" said Margulies, a commercial artist, art teacher and art therapist. "It's so much fun for the moment, it's worth it. It's communing with a beautiful animal."

NOT AN INEXPENSIVE PASTIME

Margulies has struggled financially to keep up riding and couldn't always afford to have her own horse. Now, she owns Ma Hoss and boards him at Willow Springs. Lessons can run $80 an hour or more; boarding a horse is roughly $1,000 a month; and riding clothes and equipment can run into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

But older riders stress the importance of investing in quality instruction at a stable where the horses are quiet and well trained. They credit their own teachers with keeping them safe and building their confidence.

"You need a horse you can trust, and an instructor who cares about you," said Margulies. "You don't want a teacher who sits on a fence and says, 'Trot around 10 times, and I will see you later.' "

Knapp's teacher, Lesley Woodworth of Northport, who is in her 60s, said maintaining her students' security is critical, especially when they are older. "When I am dealing with Ann, safety and the suitability of the horse are my major concerns," Woodworth said. "The size and shape of the horse, the personality, these are all important ingredients in what I plan for Ann week to week."

Woodworth still rides, trains and competes in horse shows, regularly schooling high-spirited mounts over large jumps. But she, too, has become more aware of her own safety.

"There are certain situations where, when you were 30, you didn't mind the idea that you might hit the ground," she said. "But that changes."

Claudie Teng, 71, who came to this country from her native France to work for the United Nations in 1976, started riding in her early 60s. When she and Peter were married in 1977, he urged her to take up the sport. But "to me, it was completely foreign," she said.

When Peter had to go to China for two years for his work, it fell to Claudie to take care of Chambord, their chestnut quarter horse. "It was not a great, great pleasure. I was really overwhelmed by the strength of these animals. Everything was new, especially the care of the horse, and always there was fear."

Over the years, with the help of teachers like de Leon, she has learned to love her time with Chambord, who is now Claudie's day-to-day responsibility. Peter Teng jokes that he rides only when "permitted by the boss."

Claudie said:, "When I watch the young riders at 10 or 12, they seem so much at ease on a horse. That part probably doesn't exist when you start when you are older." But she has her own reasons for continuing to ride. "You know at a certain age, you don't really control your life," she said. "Events control your life and you adapt. But on a horse, I am in control."

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