Unlike many of the horses she has ridden over the years, University Place’s Claudia Pennington, 74, isn’t about to be sent out to pasture after retirement.
Pennington’s competitive spirit continues to burn, and last year that meant competing in the U.S. Dressage Federation Region 3 Championship against riders from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.
She said she is hoping for a return trip this year, which means doing the work necessary to qualify for the event.
“As long as I have two legs on my body and two hands, I’ll keep riding,” Pennington said.
She rides four to five times per week, practicing her skills in dressage with Lucky, an Oldenburg warmblood horse.
Last year at the Region 3 competition, Pennington placed fourth among the 17 riders in her class.
Competitions so far for this year have been canceled due to COVID-19, but Pennington hasn’t minded the lack of events because it has allowed her to do more training.
Sarasota’s Deb McCabe, Pennington’s trainer, said she isn’t alone when it comes to senior riders who still love competition.
“It’s what gets them up in the morning,” McCabe said. “You know when you’re little, and you grow up, and your parents say, ‘I hope they outgrow this horse thing’?” Some of us never do because it’s a passion that you just can’t give up. You’re willing to do whatever you must to continue to ride.”
Pennington has been riding horses since she was 6 years old but took a break for 20 years to focus on her career. When she retired in 2013, she was determined to begin riding again.
The first day she went back to riding, she thought it would be like she had never stopped.
“But the next morning, I go, ‘Oh, my God, how did I ever do that?’” Pennington said.
It didn’t take long before she felt comfortable again.
“It came back,” she said. “I was so passionate about riding that even though I was sore and had rubbing blisters on my knees, I still wanted to do this.”
Although Mote Ranch’s Glo Reber didn’t start riding at a young age like Pennington, she shares her passion for the sport. Reber, 71, began riding at age 30 when a coworker invited her to go fox hunting.
“I’ve always been fascinated by these beautiful, beautiful animals, and I’m an athlete,” Reber said. “I just knew that was the perfect sport for me, and it was. … I never broke a bone until I started fox hunting.”
The experience launched her into a love of raising horses, fox hunting and volunteering at a therapeutic riding school.
Both women say riding horses has given them some of the greatest experiences of their lives, with more on the way.
In 2000, Reber and her friend Paul Brooks rode horses from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., to the White House. They rode past the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument on the way. Once at the White House, the two had their photo taken with the horses.
“It’s my favorite picture in the whole world,” Reber said.
Reber has taken a break from riding to recover from a knee replacement, but she said she is ready to get back in the saddle for leisure rides. She said she won’t compete in dressage or fox hunting anymore but wants to regain her bond with horses and enjoy riding again.
With winter coming around, she said it’s the perfect time to ride.
“As long as you’ve got your health, why not?” Reber said.
Both women said riding is a great activity for seniors — as long as the riders stay fit.
Reber walks and swims to stay in shape, and Pennington enjoys Pilates.
Pennington said riding keeps her mind fresh because she has to memorize routines and directions. She said riding a horse is a workout on its own because of the muscles needed to control and guide the horse.
“It’s not like going to the gym and working out,” Pennington said. “It’s like you have a partner in your workout, and it’s your horse.”
Riding has given Pennington and Reber a new community because of the camaraderie among riders. They might not see one another every day, but they support and cheer for one another.