In the saddle, there are no easy riders

June 12, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

Horseback riding isn't any more dangerous than most other sports, but with paddocks buzzing these days with the thirtysomething set looking for a little challenge with their exercise routines, the number of incidents may be on the rise.

Although the fall that broke actor Christopher Reeve's neck two weeks ago has been described as "one of those freak things," sprains, broken bones and separated shoulders are not uncommon among inexperienced adults who have glorified visions of leaping over fences.

At 42, Mr. Reeve had been competing for several years and according to friends was dedicated to the sport; but in horseman's terms, he was still a tenderfoot.

Adults who have not ridden much -- or did not begin riding as children -- do not have the same reactions to trouble that lifelong riders do, experts say. On the East Coast, for example, fox hunts are a tradition.

Children grow up hopping on -- and falling off of -- horses. Learning to fall when you're young and flexible is an advantage, trainers say.

"Children are much more pliable," says Inge Schuler, a coach at her own riding academy in Banning, Calif. "And adults have more fear."

Horse-related sports such as hunting and show jumping are tempting for adults because they have grace, power and are challenging. But as with any sport, proper training is essential.

"I'm very much an athlete," says DiAnn Langer, a leading hunter-jumper trainer at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, "but if I decided to be a skier or a gymnast, I'd have a very difficult time training for that competition. It requires so much training to be proficient."

Riding horses is, in fact, much more technical and physically demanding than most novices realize, and few are going to excel at a competitive level.

Some of the familiar faces around L.A. paddocks include William Devane and Stefanie Powers, both avid polo players; Bruce Boxleitner, and William Shatner.

Mr. Shatner, like Mr. Reeve, fell in love with horses as an adult, trained hard and eventually began to compete. After dabbling in jumping and saddle-bred riding at the L.A. Equestrian Center, Mr. Shatner now competes in quarter horse reining and saddle-bred competitions.

"My expectation now is to win," he says. "I've gone from trying to stay on the horse and remembering the pattern to wanting the blue ribbon."

But the expectations of some riders may exceed their potential. "Sometimes it's hard to recognize one's limitations," Ms. Langer says. "I see it in many amateurs that I train. They get frustrated because their bodies won't do what they want to do in their hearts."

The cost of the sport is often more of a deterrent than a fear of falling. It takes at least $25,000 a year to maintain a top-flight horse for competition, says Ms. Schuler, the riding coach. But the prize money involved isn't exactly horse feed.

The Desert Circuit in Indio, Calif., one of the largest hunter-jumper competitions in the country, features a $250,000 Grand Prix. Still, Tom Struzzieri, whose New York-based HITS (Horses in the Sun) is the producer of the annual winter event, says that while the prestige of the sport and the money are attractive, they don't match the thrill.

"The thrill of the jump never goes away," Mr. Struzzieri says, "and that goes right to the top level. I hear the Olympic riders say the same thing."

So, he says, learning to jump is a good way for the average person to spend disposable income, calling it "a lifetime sport." For those who have grand ideas, he believes participation is the best equalizer.

"We all have expectations," Mr. Struzzieri says. "People don't realize how difficult this is. But once they make that first jump, those delusions are quickly throttled."

Trainers generally agree that with the right instruction, the chances for injuries are slim. Riding is part awareness, part strategy and part natural ability. Ms. Langer, a professional for nearly 30 years, says she can count on one hand the number of life-threatening injuries she's seen.

Few horses will try to hurt a rider, Ms. Langer adds, but carelessness is the biggest cause of accidents. Some people believe buying "the best" is a way to be the best. But even the Rolls-Royce of horses is an unpredictable animal.

"Horses are not machines," Ms. Langer says.

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