A new start after 60: ‘I was in a bleak hole of grief – then I found love, horse riding and confidence’

I’ve probably put my horseback riding behind me (Brits find it intriguing that in the US this is ‘horseback riding’ whereas in the UK we can’t think of how it would be otherwise so just refer to it as horse riding!)

My first experience was as a teen in Wyoming where I was persuaded by a real live cowboy to go with him and ’roundup’ horses that had been ridden out by tourists and needed to get back home. He was completely and utterly unfazed that neither I nor my friend Tim had ANY experience whatso ever. It soon became clear why, these horses knew the trail and weren’t having any deviation from it. I remember pulling so hard that I was literally facing my horse looking back at me whilst sticking to HIS path! It was less riding than being taken for a ride! As an adult I took up riding again but being a townie I took lessons on Wimbledon common and this was in the main rather pedestrian. A trot here and there and the occasional canter, galloping was forbidden and there were police around on horseback to keep us in check. However now and then it would pour with rain, the police disappeared and we galloped and galloped! In the summer it was occasionally allowed if the ground were firm enough!

My favourite ride was in Northumberland when we finished the ride galloping along the beach and then taking the horses for a swim to cool down! My letteral downfall was being thrown by my horse in Richmond Park going head over horses head as he stopped and I didn’t. Fortunately only my pride was hurt and I stood there slightly dazed dressed in all the gear but with no idea, when a patrol car pulled up – “Have you lost a horse sir?” A somewhat rhetorical question given my attire, but yes I had. I was driven to the park gate where lo and behold my horse was waiting nonchalantly – he too like the Wyoming horse knew his way home but had admittedly been up to that point had indulged me somewhat. I always wanted to jump but never found a horse that would do anything but stop in front of fences! This was 1995 and Christopher Reeve had his tragic accident – I did get back on a horse but excuses or otherwise my job was getting busier and I never found the time or had the inclination so just stopped. Maybe I’ll take it up again one day. 

Paula Cocozza  @CocozzaPaula  Writes another entertaining and insightful piece on the peace found by Khadija Mackenzie who after her husband’s death in 2015 felt there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Then she tried a sport that gave her freedom and a deep connection to nature.

Khadija MacKenzie in Singapore
‘I have become confident with age’ … Khadija Mackenzie in Singapore. Photograph: Courtesy of Khadija Mackenzie

As a child, Khadija Mackenzie saw a horse only if she happened to pass the polo club. “It’s very urbanised in Singapore,” she says. “We don’t have much wildlife … I think every Singaporean would associate horse-riding with a certain demographic.” Yet horses rescued her from a deep slump.

In 2015, Mackenzie’s husband, David, died suddenly of a heart attack. “There was no time for goodbye … I felt very bleak. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.” Three years passed. She realised: “Either you are going to dig a deeper hole or you are going to find a way out.”

Feeling she was in a “void”, she began to cast around for something to fill it. Friends took her to lawn bowls, yoga, Zumba. “None caught my fancy,” she says. One day, browsing Stitch, a companionship website for the over-50s, she was intrigued by a photograph of a man on a horse with a pride of lions behind him. She thought: “Who’s this guy?”

The guy was Shai, who was pictured on a horseback safari in Kenya. They soon started seeing each other and later got married, in 2019. With Shai’s encouragement, Mackenzie, then 60, discovered there were riding schools in Singapore. She told the friends who had suggested bowls and Zumba. “They said: ‘Are you mad? Horse riding! Why don’t you do something sensible?’”

Mackenzie’s first lessons were terrifying. But, as she rode, something began to change for her. “I felt so exhilarated that this magnificent animal was allowing me to ride on his back, in the parts of Singapore you don’t normally see. It gave a connection to nature that I never had as a child, a sense of freedom.”

Mackenzie was not daring or sporty as a child. No one in the family played sport. She was born in Mumbai, home to her mother’s family, but grew up in Singapore: “A simple childhood – swings, seesaws, climbing trees, tag.” But Mackenzie now thinks she was “a closet rebel”. She eschewed an arranged marriage to “some nice Indian guy”. David was from New Zealand, while Shai is Indian, but has spent most of his life in the UK and New Zealand.

When her two boys were young, Mackenzie, 63, says she was “a helicopter parent” – but as they grew, and she grew, they all became more adventurous. “Believing in your abilities, capabilities … motherhood does that to you.” On one family holiday, she and her youngest son parachuted.

Mackenzie’s type of fun, of course, comes with risk. One day, she invited three colleagues from the technology company she works for to join her on a guided horse riding trail. “They were given a guide; I was on my own. We went up a slope and I don’t know what spooked my horse, but he started to gallop. I had to throw myself off. My glasses hit my face. I had bruises, a hairline fracture to my ankle.”

Horse riding had given Mackenzie freedom and strength – but now she felt physically vulnerable. “I did have doubts: am I insane to be doing this at my age?”

Shai told her: “Every sport has its risks. Does it give you joy? If so, learn how to do it properly. The risk will never go away. It’s about whether you can accept it.”

So can she? “I can,” she says. “I had a very conservative, protective upbringing, so I wasn’t confident to try new things. But I have become confident with age.”

Mackenzie is back in the saddle. She hopes to ride trails with Shai on their travels. When her sons see horses, they send her pictures. “I am pushing the boundaries of my own comfort zone. When I hit 50, I felt transparent. You don’t see women of this age in the media here … It would be easy to give up on trying to live your best life and look your best self. So this is also part of the decision: I am not going to allow myself to become transparent.”

Horse riding has no room for transparency: you need forthrightness, the will to assert a physical presence, to impress your body upon a powerful creature. As Mackenzie says: “Horses need a leader before they will follow. You have to be very present and to feel your presence.”


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