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Horsemanship Instruction for Older Riders


Written by Heather Smith Thomas

Most riding instructors teach children or young adults who want to learn to ride or improve their riding skills for competitions. A different kind of class is taught by Susan Dudasik (Misfit Farms, Salmon, Idaho), helping older riders learn for the first time, or ride again after a lapse, or after a bad experience that left them with fear and insecurity. 

Dudasik ponying young horse
Dudasik ponying young horse

Dudasik is a certified PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) instructor who has spent many years working with riders in the local Whitewater Therapeutic program and with 4-H children, but currently her students are all over 50 years of age, and the oldest is 65. “My oldest student just started riding a few years ago. She’d gotten bucked off a horse and badly hurt, but didn’t want to give up, and came to me for help. I put her on one of my dependable old mules. She worked with old John until she gained confidence again,” says Dudasik.

“When I started instructing professionally, I thought I would be teaching children, but soon found I was getting more adults—people who rode as children and want to try it again (now that they have time), or new to riding. Many have ridden in the past but had an accident that intimidated them,” says Dudasik.

“With these students I start out doing a lot of ground work. Then I try to get them riding and relaxed about it. Some have their own horses or mules and some use mine. For some, this is the first time they’ve owned an animal,” she says.

Many of her students are retirement age, or no longer have children at home, and now have the time and a chance to ride. “Many of them used to trail ride and are now looking for something different and more focused—to have more of a relationship with their horse than just being a passenger going down the trail. They want to know why the horse does what it does, or why certain things happen; they want to be more in control. It’s a training program for horse and rider, to see what they can accomplish together,” she explains.

Some students are still working on walk/trot. Some have no desire to canter again, especially if they’ve had a horse run away with them. “They want to build confidence at the walk and trot,” says Dudasik.

“In these classes I use my 22-year-old BLM mustang, a 21-year-old molly mule, and a 25-year-old mule named John who is very opinionated and has arthritis. He can’t go faster than a fast running walk. I put most of my insecure riders on him. Some of them just sit on him in the barn at first because this is all they can deal with—just being with him one-on-one and knowing he can’t go anywhere, and they feel safe.”


Susan directing a student practicing for the trail class.
Susan directing a student practicing for the trail class.

She starts everyone on the ground, handling horses/mules. “We do ground work in the barn at first. This gives them a feeling of security. Then I take them out in the round pen, which is only 10 feet bigger, but some feel insecure because there are no walls. I have several pens they graduate into before we actually go out into a dressage arena and a fenced-in area near my house,” she says.

Dudasik feels one reason she’s successful in working with these riders is that she has fear issues, herself. “After seeing a lot of wrecks, and having a few problems myself, I’ve become one of these ‘what if’ riders—what if my horse spooks at that, or what if she does this or that? I had to learn to control these feelings. I understand first hand and know it’s not as simple as just saying ‘don’t think about it’. Your mind can say one thing and your body is saying ‘no way’.”

Her most recent accident was 2 years ago while riding a neighbor’s horse. “It needed more groundwork and I probably shouldn’t have been on it. I’d ridden the horse only a few minutes and was ready to get off, and it suddenly bucked—and off I went,” says Dudasik.

The next day she went out to the barn to ride her own mule. “I had her all ready, got the saddle and went to put it on the mule, and almost got sick just thinking about having to get on her. I froze up. I had to stand there a moment and work through it. Then I saddled her and just sat on her, in the barn, and didn’t even take her out. And this is a mule I’ve had all her life. But after what happened with the horse, I was thinking of all the ‘what ifs’. As we get older, we don’t want to bite the dust anymore.”

Older riders often have timidity and cautiousness about possible accidents, not only because they are more “breakable” and prone to injury than a younger, more limber person, but also because they have more responsibilities and can’t afford to be hurt and laid up. “If I fall off or get bucked off, and get hurt, who will do my work? We can’t risk it,” says Dudasik.

“When I was young I used to ride Roman and had a 3 horse team I jumped over 3 foot fences. Now I’m hesitant to jump anything higher than 18 inches. Things change as we get older. Some of the people who used to rodeo or barrel race when they were young now want to do something different, that’s still fun,” she says.

“There are many issues that we have, being older, that younger instructors don’t understand, and some men don’t understand. They think we should ‘cowboy up’ and get through it. But we women may be more apprehensive,” she explains.

“I get the students on a horse, loosen the reins, and have them walk–and use their body instead of the reins, and just relax. They discover how their body affects the horse’s action and movement. I do a lot of work based on centered riding principles, having them realize how what their body is doing relates to the horse. They also need to be aware of their body position when working the horse on the ground. Are they in front of the horse, behind the horse, driving it or stopping it? Also we work on emotions—how we talk to the horse, react to the horse, and how this affects the horse,” she says.

“We also work on respect issues. Many of the women are timid about getting after the horse and it walks over them; the horse is in control.” Often they are afraid to be firm because they want the horse to like them, and don’t want to upset the horse. But then the horse just does what it pleases.

“It’s very satisfying to watch these riders progress to where they are in control, taking a leadership role. They start to understand how communication works–and the partnership begins. When I see the horse and person working together and the relationship starting to come together, that’s one of the most rewarding things for me.” Dudasik knows she is making a difference.

“I’ve been working with a novice who recently bought a mule that supposedly was broke to ride. We spent 2 hours just getting that mule to walk forward on the lead line. It was difficult to know where to start, to help that novice, with a mule that had already bucked people off. She is intimidated by him and wants to go back to the beginning and get him to lead. She wants to learn how to read his body language and start building a partnership with him so she can get him to do things,” says Dudasik.

Two of Susan's students saddling a horse in preparation for one of them to compete in an introduction to dressage class at a show.
Two of Susan’s students saddling a horse in preparation for one of them to compete in an introduction to dressage class at a show.

“We do a lot of confidence-building. We take things very slowly; I push my students but I don’t push them past their limits. Each one has her own speed. One rider was so scared to lead her horse that I had to walk with her and hold the end of the lead rope and she walked between me and the horse. I put a lunge line on the horse, and as we were walking I just kept stepping a little farther back without her knowing it and soon she was leading the horse; I was at the end of the lunge line. As soon as she realized I was gone she panicked and asked what she should do. I told her she’d been doing it for 5 minutes and was doing fine.”

“Often we go back to basics that most of us don’t even think about. I tell them to think like a horse. How would you like this or that done, to you. Even for simple things like leading, I’ll have a student hold onto the lead rope and tell them they have to hang onto it like it’s attached and they can’t get away from it. They hang on as tight as they can and I just walk off and drag them. The first thing they do is pull back. I tell them that’s exactly what their horse does, if they don’t bother to ask their horse to walk first. He had no idea you were going to leave and want him to come along,” she says.

“We do the same with the reins. I have a student hold the reins, pretending she’s the horse’s mouth, and I play with the reins and pull on them, and lead her around and drop my hand or get stiff or hold it short, and she can see how very little pressure it takes for the horse to feel it. The students realize this is what’s causing their problem with the horse,” says Dudasik.

Whether on the ground or mounted, the students learn timing and feel, and how much pressure to give the horse to get him to stop on cue. They find they can be in total control of the horse’s movements. There are many little things they didn’t think about before, and now they understand the why and how.

“They are all loving it, getting a better relationship with their horses,” she says. One student was so excited about how her horse’s manners had improved. He used to run over the top of her whenever she went to his pasture to catch him and now he stands and lets her open the gate without running over her.

It’s simple little things that help them control the horse, or help them feel more confident when handling their horses. “My students learn the importance of consistency. They can’t do it one way today and another way tomorrow, or not do it for 2 weeks,” she says.
The students are starting to understand, if there’s a communication problem, whether it’s the horse or them. Rather than saying, “My horse won’t do this,” they are realizing there may be a reason. Instead of thinking it’s the horse’s fault, they are asking what they themselves did wrong, or realizing that what they do makes the horse do something different. It opens the door for real communication, which is something many of them didn’t have before.

If the horse knows how to do a certain thing, why isn’t he doing it? “It may be something as subtle as how the student moves or stand, or what her emotions are that day. Sometimes our emotions get in the way; we have family, jobs, and all the things that pile up in our lives, and if we bring all this with us when we ride, the horse doesn’t know why we are uptight. It helps for students to realize they need to calm down, relax, and let this other stuff go for awhile and work with the horse on the horse’s time—rather than hurry-hurry,” she says.

The students are having fun, and realize they can accomplish something. Working with horses/mules also gives them a break—doing something away from home and family and all the concerns in their busy lives. It gives them a chance to get lost in another world awhile, and enjoy themselves. If they accomplish something in the process, this gives them even more satisfaction.

Dudasik always has students trying something different, expanding their horizons. “I may have them ride bareback. I’m not so much working on their equitation as getting them comfortable. If they’re squeezing with their legs to hang on, I get them to realize they don’t need to do that. They can relax and not be tensed up all the time—and keep breathing!” she says.

“I had them standing up in their stirrups walking and trotting, to help get their balance. This is a great confidence-builder. Suddenly they find their balance, and it clicks. It’s been interesting to watch them overcome various little fears.”

They are getting over their fears and finding a way to communicate with their horses. “It’s been interesting for me, too, feeling my way in how far I can push them, and be successful,” says Dudasik.

“I used to take lessons, as a kid, and sometimes I’d leave the lessons bawling. It was not my idea of fun, but I was determined to ride and didn’t care what the guy yelled at me. I was still going to do it. But his method would not help with fear issues—yelling at you, telling you to make the horse do such and such. An instructor should explain things. If something doesn’t work, we get on the ground and I push the student around like she was the horse, and we figure it out,” she says.

She also uses a big ball the students can sit on and feel their balance and discover how to use the body for balance. “They also ride together and are getting to where they can critique each other, and give each other ideas.”

Some of the older students have arthritis and have to work past pain, and their hands don’t have the same feel on the reins as they used to. Cold weather can be an issue. “Some instructors don’t think about these things. Riding is good exercise, however; these students are becoming stronger and more agile.” Horses are good for keeping older riders more physically fit, and it’s also good exercise for older horses in the program, so they can keep working longer.

Dudasik’s old mule John is a great example. He can’t do much because of his arthritis, but he’s useful for the easy work with these students, and good for improving their confidence. He may refuse to do something at first, or turn his head and try to walk away, but they feel more comfortable about getting firm with him because they know he isn’t going to run off or do something silly. “He moves slowly, and in his own time, and the students learn to deal with that, too. They also figure out when he’s playing his little games and when he isn’t.”

Her students are always eager for the next horse show, wanting to participate. “We’re fortunate that the show at our Fair offers a walk-trot dressage class, and the Whitewater Therapeutic program also offers walk-trot classes. We’ve also been playing around doing some drill team exercises, riding as pairs, and they enjoy the camaraderie. It’s all been fun.”


One of Susan's students taking Rawhide over the bridge.
One of Susan’s students taking Rawhide over the bridge.

STUDENT PROGRESS – Carol Anderson came for lessons because her husband wanted her to ride with him into hunting camp. “I did a little riding as a small child, and my daughter was in rodeo and we loved her horse, but I was too timid to ride her horse. I needed someone to help me,” says Carol.

“My husband Loren cooks for Rawhide Outfitters and during hunting season he’s at their camp at Cow Creek. They go in and out on horseback, and he’s always wanted me to go with him. This was my purpose in learning to ride—to get over being scared so I could go to hunting camp and help him set it up,” she explains.

Dudasik has some hills by her place. “I took Carol up and down the hills, and had her stop the horse on a hill, back up, go through a ditch, etc. to give her an idea of what would happen out on the trail. When she was riding to hunting camp, there was one spot where her horse made a detour. I talked with her husband later, and he said it was straight down, on the other side. He was holding his breath, but his wife handled the situation just fine,” says Dudasik.

“It was quite an experience!” says Carol. “It was beautiful up there and I was so thankful I’d taken lessons. Otherwise I would have been hysterical in some of the places we had to ride. Loren was glad I’d taken lessons because he could see it really helped me on the ride up there—and I intend to do it again!”

Carol is still taking lessons because she loves learning something new. “Susan is a fantastic teacher. She is so patient with me. Even though she is an excellent rider and has done it for so long, she can understand what some of us are facing,” says Carol.

“She started me with ground work, with an ex-BLM mustang from Colorado named Rawhide. He got his early training in a prison and came here some years back and was a Whitewater Therapeutic riding horse. Then Susan got him, and is retraining him and training me. We have both learned together, he and I, along with several other students who use him,” she says.

“When I see Susan ride, she makes it look so easy and it’s beautiful to watch. This gives me a goal. I was in my first show in July, after I’d barely learned to ride. I was in the introduction to dressage, and the in-hand trail class. Rawhide didn’t pay much attention to me—because this was all new to him. Susan told me afterward that she had no clue how he would do, but she must have had confidence in me, thinking I would be able to handle it. Rawhide and I came in last in the dressage class, but that didn’t matter. It was great to be able to give it a try. This gave me more confidence, because I am not a very confident person,” says Carol.

She also showed in the Whitewater Therapeutic horse show October 29 and got a first place trophy in the in-hand class. “I came in last, again, in the dressage class, but I did better than the first time!”

“Susan is so good at explaining things, and showing us the big picture as well as the small details. She has an incredible amount of knowledge about horses and mules, and we also have fun.”

Carol thinks the most important thing she’s learned is how to be the boss, not intimidated by the horse. “In all the places Rawhide has been, he’d been allowed do what he wanted. So I had to learn how to be firm, and that makes a huge difference. I now have more confidence in my own role in this relationship. Susan had me be the boss at one point and then let him be the boss in another instance, to show me the difference. I still have to work on it, but I’m making progress.”

Dudasik’s oldest student, Getta Bradley (65), came to Idaho from North Carolina. She’d never been around horses. Getta started riding 3 years ago for the first time, and was looking for help after being bucked off and badly hurt. She met Susan and asked for help. “She started me out with lots of groundwork, and talking about horses. I didn’t realize horses are timid, too, until they learn to trust,” says Getta.

She started lessons in May 2009 and by October that year she rode Susan’s old mule John in a horse show put on by Whitewater Therapeutic. “It was wonderful to actually ride in a trail course competition. I must have been Susan’s most challenging student because I had so much fear, and no prior riding experience—just a bad experience. But by the time I’d worked with John for a long time on the ground, I felt that he and I knew each other, and he’s old and harmless.”


Carol Anderson and her Morgan filly.
Carol Anderson and her Morgan filly.

Getta has now gained enough confidence that she purchased a Morgan filly and is training the filly with Susan’s help. The filly, named Vicki, was 2 years old when Getta bought her, but had some serious problems to overcome. The original owners donated the filly to Whitewater Therapeutic Riding, to resell, and Susan Dudasik was working with the filly. “I was asked by Whitewater if I could get her to where someone would want to buy her—because she was an absolutely beautiful filly,” says Dudasik.

“At first, no one could touch the filly; someone had to rope her to bring her into the pen for me to work with. She had some major phobias. I have no idea what had been done to her, but the former owners had a young person working with Vicki and something bad happened. They could not get near that horse.”

Dudasik spent a month playing around with her in the pen to get her to where she touch her and pet her and walk up and catch her without her running off. “I worked with her for about 3 months before I took her out of the pen because if she got away from me out there I wasn’t sure I could catch her again. It was nearly time to auction her off at the Cowboy Ball, and Getta came over and watched me working with Vicki. She walked up to the filly, and Vicki put her head on Getta’s shoulder.” It was an instant bond.

“Getta came to see the filly a couple more times, then I brought Vicki over to my place to do more work with her. When the time came to take Vicki to the auction, Getta asked if there was any possibility she could buy her and work with her. I said Vicki was just a baby and had all these issues, and we talked about it and discussed all the pros and cons, but Getta still wanted to work with the filly.”

So Getta bought the filly, and they have been working together and coming along nicely. Getta showed the filly in her first show, in late September 2011 all by herself. “Conquering fear was an issue for both of them. Usually we don’t recommend a green rider starting with a green horse, but sometimes it works, and Getta is in no hurry. She lunges, ground drives, and takes her through all the trail obstacles, and we are starting to pony her. Vicki and Getta are learning to do all of this together and becoming more confident. Vicki no longer has any fear of people and that’s a big change.”

When Getta led her through the trail course, over all the obstacles, Vicki followed her through every one. She was totally trusting, and walked over the bridge the very first try. “I am purposely not doing some things with Vicki myself. I’m letting Getta do these things with her filly, working through everything together. She can be proud to be the first person on her own horse.”

Getta and her filly went to one of the Whitewater shows October 1st. “Getta was scared because it was the first time she was going to handle Vicki all by herself in a new situation. They had to do a rope gate, trot over logs, go into a turn-around box, etc. When she suddenly saw herself in the mirror at the turn-around box, Vicki just stopped and backed up. Getta got nervous, but the filly didn’t. Getta then took Vicki through the rest of the course and they did fine.” They placed 3rd in their class.

“We’ve been through a lot of steps to get to where we are today,” says Getta. “I haven’t ridden her yet, but that will come. Someone else might have been riding her by now, but I have to do this slowly. I’m looking forward to riding her, but I don’t want to rush it.”

Getta says she doesn’t think she would have ever gotten on a horse again if she hadn’t met Susan Dudasik. “She’s working with several other students who are trying to overcome fear. She also works with people who bring their horses or mules to her that they are having trouble with. I’ve watched some of these problem animals and what she does to help the rider understand why their horse/mule is acting the way it is. She has a very gentle way with animals; she’s quiet and calm, and keeps everyone else calm, too.”

“I love the way Susan has been working with me and my filly. I’ve found the training is something I can also use in my everyday life, away from the barn. I told Susan that I would have been a much better mother if I’d trained a horse first!”

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Heather Smith Thomas
Heather Smith Thomas grew up on a ranch near Salmon, Idaho. She is the author of 20 books and thousands of articles on animal health care. Her books include Essential Guide to Calving, Getting Started with Beef & Dairy Cattle. She and her husband Lynn Thomas have been raising beef cattle and a few horses on their ranch in central Idaho since 1967.