For her 94th birthday this past September, Val Willis of Ottawa, Ontario, did just what she did when she turned 93— she rode a horse. The horse was Joy, a quiet bay mare owned by Val’s friend Susan Allan of Willaway Farm (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”) in Almonte, Ontario.
“There’s a saying that, ‘In riding a horse we borrow freedom,’” Val said in a television interview back in June, when she was filmed riding Joy for a segment called “Never Too Old” for CTV News Ottawa. “It’s not that easy,” she admitted, “because at 93, your body is not what it was when you were 23 or 33.” Nevertheless, Val did appear to be free of all worries as Joy carried her around the outdoor ring. She is an inspiration to riders like me who, at a mere 65, might think twice about mounting up.
Val’s love for horses and riding goes back to 1965, when she was in her 40s, and the private children’s camp she directed opened a riding department. “It became my big responsibility to choose horses and qualified staff,” she says. “To become familiar with feeding, grooming and horse matters in general, I took a clinic from a former Olympic team member, Robin Hahn, who is still in business in Lumby, British Columbia.”
Val also became a “horse show mom” for her late daughter Kenra Willis, who went on to compete in show jumping at the national level. “I went to show after show in the Ottawa and Toronto area, watching Kenra win over a hundred awards,” she says. “These included Champion and Reserve Championships at shows such as the Royal Winter Fair [in Toronto]. I was an observer and anxious mother.”
Throughout her life, Val has always found it hard to sit still. During the 30 years she directed the children’s camp, she said in her television interview, “I was always running. I still find it hard to walk normally and not run.” The camp was open year-round and operated as a cross-country ski center in the winters. Val was a marathon skier in her younger days, and she still cross-country skis and golfs. And, she says, “I never lost my love for horses.”
Val now rides mainly on her birthdays—a relatively new tradition. Willaway Farm had been Kenra’s stable, until her death from cancer in 2003. “When Kenra died, I sold her farm to Susan Allan, and she was the one who suggested for my 89th birthday I should get on a horse,” says Val. “This was repeated the next year on my 90th birthday.” And every year since.
To prepare for her 94th birthday ride, Val says, she “did exercises like mad.” When the day came, she had some help getting into the saddle, but once on board she rode independently about the ring. She looked perfectly at ease.
“I just walk around the ring now doing diagonals and circles,” Val says. “Yes, it’s a feeling of accomplishment being able to mount at age 94, but I’m not the supple person I once was. Once mounted, I find it easy to stay on and walk around. I pretend I’m taking a lesson, when, long ago at the camp, I could act as substitute riding teacher when our instructor had her day off. It’s still fun to feel like you can just get on.”
Just mount up and do diagonals and circles, Val? You make it look so easy. I’m going to work on some of my own yoga exercises, and then I’m off to the barn to try to keep up with you!
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, December 2014.