Reaching for the Eventing Stars After Age 40

Bunnie Sexton and Rise Against at Rolex 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Some days I think it’s too late. Maybe I should hang up my vest for the last time and pick a different passion. I know, the sport of eventing is full of highs and lows. But as I get older it feels that I don’t have enough time to battle back from the lows. Or I don’t have enough resilience. You’ve only got one shot, so they say, and what if I’ve already missed it?

In society emphasis seems to always be on youth — Young Riders, Young Horse competitions, 30 influential people under 30. But is there hope for getting to the TOP of the sport after 40?

My path to eventing started out more typical of the weekend warrior. While I have been riding on and off since I was 12, I did not own my first horse until I was in my mid-20s. I did not become serious in the sport of eventing until I was in my 30s. At that point I had a full-time job, a full-time farm, my second marriage, two stepchildren and an elderly mother-in-law who lives with us.

I am now 36 and trying to make my way to the stars. I hope to compete at a one-star this year but keep coming up empty-handed. This weekend after a fall with my horse at Preliminary I began to doubt myself. Is this a silly dream? Is it too late to get started?

Not according to these riders.

We all remember the story of Japanese rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who first went to the Olympics in 1964. He returned after a 44-year hiatus to compete in dressage at the 2008 Beijing Games. He was 67 years old. He returned four years later to compete at the 2012 London Games at 71.

Kevin Keane and Fernhill Flutter at Rolex 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

In 2014 we watched as Dr. Kevin Keane, a full-time veterinarian and amateur rider, went on course at Rolex for the first time at the age of 59. When asked how he found the time to be a four-star rider when he also had a very demanding and time-consuming job, Kevin replied, “The eventing community is very fraternal, and even though we are all competitive, we still want each other to succeed. You have to have people around you to help you through a journey such as this.”

Bunnie Sexton and Rise Against at Rolex 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Then there’s Bunnie Sexton, who completed her very first three-star and four-star after the age of 50.   We cheered her on at the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and EN had the chance to ask her a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

EN: For those looking to reach their dreams after the age of 40, either by going to the upper levels of eventing or even just going eventing for the first time, what advice would you give them?

Bunnie: “Get excellent instruction, which means going to people who don’t just tell you that you are great, the ones who are willing to be honest even when it hurts at the time. Then work like the devil to fix what is not good enough and continue to seek those who challenge you to be better.

“Eventing is full of ups and downs. The ups are great but the downs are where I have to dig deep and learn the most. In the end, set your own goals. There is great beauty in being the best partner to your horse at Beginner Novice. It should be no one else’s decision on what each pair’s ‘four-star’ truly is!”

EN: What made you decide to go for a three-star and then a four-star after raising four children?

Bunnie: “It was only when Bea di Grazia told me that Ecko and I should just keep going and that we were capable of whatever we set our minds to. It never occurred to me that it was OK to pursue a four-star after I was no longer in my 30s!”

EN: What is something you learned through competition that a younger version of you might not have picked up on?  

Bunnie: “I now know that every moment is a gift and that issues that come up are opportunities to work on weaknesses in my program. It becomes less about making the teams and more about getting the best out of each horse I am lucky enough to ride. Taking each horse to their own peak is a thrill, whether that is Rolex or creating the horse that at 25-years-old is still winning Training on scores of 25 with their person.”

EN: Do you think it is easier to reach the higher levels of eventing as a young rider or as an adult?  

Bunnie: “As a young rider, you have less life experience but often more financial support, a less worn body and usually a less complicated life situation. You have momentum that adult life often interferes with. As an adult, I feel much more solid in knowing that it’s about the process and enjoying the ups and pushing through the downs.”

EN: Was there a time you thought about giving up your four-star dream?  

Bunnie: “There have been many bumps in the road. In my 30s I thought I would never go further than Advanced as I couldn’t travel with my family obligations. In my 40s I had figured with back and neck surgeries my window had closed. In my 50s when we fell at Jersey Fresh, I doubted that I had what it took.

“Then after fellow trainers kicked me in the shins and told me to go to Bromont, where he finished sixth, I rallied. Then his feet got cut short and I doubted he would be able to get back to competition when he had to sit out Rolex 2014. This was all while I found I was ill and would be dealing with a chronic condition for the long-term.

“The point is, we keep working and striving. The journey has to be the point. The achievements are just the cherry on top of the joy of partnership with your horse.”

So, is it too late for me? No. Is it too late for you? No. Setbacks will happen. There will be bumps in the road. But the cross country course doesn’t care how old you are, and eventing is about the journey, not the destination.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, Illinois. She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables. She competes with OTTBs in upper-level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover. Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer.