Saddle up: Metro Atlantans get moving on horseback

Horseback riding provides mental, physical outlet and community

A Moment in History: , Secretariat Wins Triple Crown in Breathtaking Style.June 9, 1973.Secretariat's victory at the Belmont Stakes meant the horse was the first to win a Triple Crown in a quarter of a century.He had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness earlier that year.Ridden by jockey Ron Turcotte, Secretariat broke the record for the Belmont, completing the 1.5 mile race in two minutes and 24 seconds.The horse was extraordinary from a young age.1972 was his first year of racing. Secretariat won seven of his nine races.At the Belmont, Tucotte stated that Secretariat took control of the race, making history on his own

Active Aging is a monthly column showing how Atlantans 55+ remain active in the community. Here, residents share how they stay fit and give tips on where you can get moving.

Atlanta’s senior population is finding that horseback riding is a great way to use lots of muscle groups and to foster emotional and mental health.

Denise Davidson, 55, returned to riding about a decade ago after many years away. She rode hunter-jumpers earlier in life, but this time, she decided on dressage, partially for the safety factor that the on-the-flat discipline provides.

“It’s not too demanding physically, and it’s not too dangerous,” she said. “There’s always risk involved, but in comparison to jumping, it’s way safer.”

Getting back in the saddle

Denise Davidson with Travis, the off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding she leases and rides at Ellenwood Equestrian Center.

Credit: Contributed by Denise Davidson

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Credit: Contributed by Denise Davidson

As Davidson points out, those who want to participate in the sport don’t have to own a horse. She now half-leases a 28-year-old, off-the-track thoroughbred gelding named Travis who resides at Ellenwood Equestrian Center in Ellenwood, where Davidson has regularl lessons with instructor Leah Marks.

“My daughter wanted to start riding and after watching her taking lessons, I decided to see what it would be like to ride again … and then I got really into it,” Davidson said.

“And for many years, we were just doing lessons — first one and then two lessons a week. And then this opportunity came up to lease Travis.”

Davidson is a professor of history at Georgia State University where she’s also the founding director of the Humanities Research Center. Riding at Ellenwood provides a significant shift from the workplace.

“There are animals everywhere: cats, dogs and goats, so it’s just a fun change of scenery,” she said.

“I spend most of my time, work-wise, sitting, reading, writing, grading papers … It’s just a wonderful, total change of venue. I come back home feeling totally refreshed.”

There are also social opportunities.

“With the pandemic, horseback riding has been a fabulous way to get some exercise, be outdoors, be around people and have some social contact in a relatively safe environment because it’s outdoors,” she said.

“I’ve been riding at Ellenwood … getting to know the people there now for more than 10 years, so they feel like very good friends.”

Getting to ride a horse like Travis, she said, affords enhanced learning. In the past, he has trained to the third-level dressage, which according to Dressage Academy, includes tests of walk and trot work.

“Since he’s an older horse, it’s best for him to be ridden frequently but not too hard each time, and that suits my preferences as well,” Davidson said. “I think we’re a good pair.

‘You can do it’

Jane Donofrio on her mare, Gracie, a Percheron-Arabian cross she boards at Little Creek Farm Conservancy.

Credit: contributed by Jane Donofrio

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Credit: contributed by Jane Donofrio

Jane Donofrio, 70, has long recognized the benefits of riding, and she maintains a five-day-a-week schedule at Little Creek Farm Conservancy in Decatur where she works with trainer Mark Jaglarz.

“I do it because I love the community,” she said. “It’s a great workout … I know people think the horse does all the work, and I wish she did!”

Donofrio began riding again 13 years ago after a 45-year break. She urges other older adults considering taking up the sport to do so. She mostly rides dressage.

Donofrio remembers coming back into the sport, first learning to trot once around the arena on a lead line during her lessons. She later found she could keep up on her own with the teenagers. Handling the horse on the ground was also a part of her reeducation.

“You need to be comfortable with the horse,” she said. “It’s a progression. Don’t doubt yourself — you’re dealing with an entirely different thing. It really provides a confidence dealing with a separate entity. It just kind of adds another level. What I hear is ‘I’m too old to start riding.’ You aren’t. You can do it.”

Donofrio eventually purchased her own horse, Gracie, a Percheron-Arabian mare who she named after the comedian, Gracie Allen.

“She’s smart and she’s funny,” Donofrio said.

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