It feels really strange to revisit the topic of riding whilst pregnant now that my children are three and six. All those years ago when I first found out I was pregnant it was a burning question for me. I was one of those horsey girls whose sun rose and set at the yard, whose every waking moment was spent planning the next week of riding and the next month of competition. I lived and breathed it. Then I finally fell pregnant. This was no accident. I had been married for a while and trying to get pregnant for years, so I was thrilled to be starting a family.
I had this devil may care attitude that everything would be fine and I obviously had no idea what to expect. I was booked into a Piggy French clinic and a horse trials and was really excited. My horse Lux and I were doing everything I had dreamed of through most of my childhood. Then right before the clinic I took Lux for a gallop and he pulled up with a fat leg. I was horrified, he must have tweaked it. There was no stumbling, no indication that anything had gone wrong, but there it was a big fat leg.
This setback gave me pause for thought for long enough to evaluate what I really wanted to do with Lux during the pregnancy and gave me time to figure out what it was really going to be like. Thankfully Lux was fine after a bit of rest and TLC, but for me morning sickness had firmly set in and I felt grim. I eventually worked him in arenas, did a bit of jumping on a surface and dressage and then ‘tapped out’ at seven months pregnant. It wasn’t that I couldn’t ride particularly, it was the stitch that got me. Anything beyond a walk and I got knife like stitch in my ballooning belly. I never felt unsafe on Lux during my pregnancy, I just adjusted what I was doing to make it more low key and in the end that was fine for me. To be honest a lot of the time I was absolutely exhausted.
A few years later when I had my second child I knew far more what to expect of course and followed the same pattern. I adjusted my riding to reduce risk. No more spooky hacking and cross country jumping. Riding on a surface only. Gentle lateral work until I got too big, too tired and too much stitch to get back on. I always knew when I had had enough and handed the reins over to friends to keep Lux busy and out of mischief.
That’s the thing with riding whilst pregnant, it is a very personal choice. It’s a balance between continuing a healthy exercise, but at the same time not taking risks you are uncomfortable with. The one thing that midwives continually stressed to me was don’t lose your fitness. Don’t flake out on the sofa for nine months. Pregnancy is a long process, a lot of effort and it takes a long time to get your body back to normal afterwards, let alone the effort required to actually give birth. However for an equestrian it’s even more tricky when your gym buddy is a half tonne of horse! You have the risk side to assess as well as the fitness benefits. In the end it’s down to each individual to gauge what they are comfortable with.
In reality it’s actually the aftermath that is harder than the pregnancy and I don’t mean the stitches. I had a tonne of stitches to heal before I could get back on board and my core stomach muscles had split so far in half that you could squish an entire fist in-between them, gross and weird! Aside from the physical effects of carrying a baby, giving birth and the extra weight, I mean the real aftermath. You now have a new little person in your life that you are utterly and entirely responsible for, madly in love with and who demands vast proportions of your time (and hard earned cash) around the clock….. for years.
So how to manage that? That’s a trickier journey altogether. One thing is for sure – life is different and won’t be the same again. Unless you have really, really helpful family living around the corner (or staff) or a tonne of cash or all of the above! Then you will be like me and a mere regular Joe. Things will change dramatically and you have to be twice as determined as before to continue keeping a horse.
Here’s how you can get through it and hang on to that four legged best friend you just can’t be without.
1 . Be realistic. If you are on your own without help and have a new kid on the stable block, then everything will take TEN TIMES longer. You have to go with it. There isn’t any getting around it, you have to adjust. Mucking out is a brilliant way to get rid of baby weight so enjoy the smugness of that silver lining.
2. Be more realistic. You might not be able to compete as much as you used to. One because you won’t have any money whilst on maternity leave (or ever again), two because you won’t have any time and three because no-one will hold the baby whilst you ‘do your thing.’
I have managed to get out to competitions or better still to training days (no pressure) with very kind friends pushing my pram. I’ve spoon fed goop by the ring side whilst waiting for courses to be built and I’ve run around cross country courses wheeling a pram whilst taking photos of every fence because my baby brain was like Swiss cheese. When my son was very young, I was asked to fill in a simple form and couldn’t quite recall what year it was. You get the picture! I went to one horse trials where I despaired at how I was going to manage to jam one giant boob into my show jacket. The joys of breast feeding! It’s totally possible, it’s just a little bonkers. You can have it all. You just have to be slightly mad. The truth is that I don’t get out competing any where near as much as I used to and there is little I can do about it.
3. With that in mind… Even though you might not get out competing as much as you used to, you can still ride, which is my absolute respite in all the chaos of family life. I still ride around four times a week and have done since my eldest was born. I have two children now and I work albeit part time. I genuinely don’t think I could afford the childcare to work full time anymore, nor would I want to lose the time with the kids whilst they are young, so I feel lucky to be able to squeeze so much in week to week.
4. Set small goals. Let’s say like me you can no longer aspire to riding at a 1* International event because you simply don’t have the time and money to even think about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to at least in the first instance get back into shape and back to where you were in the saddle. I found it quite a shock getting back on to my horse after having a baby. I was a little like a lop-sided sack of flour plonked on the saddle. I’ve always loved jump lessons so my next goal is to be able to have fairly regular jump lessons. I’ve always felt that my horse is a blessing in many ways and not just on the competition circuit. I appreciate being able to let my hair down and go out for a gallop on a nice day and blow of some steam. It does beat screaming into a pillow when motherhood gets erm… trying!
5. Be flexible. In order to get stuff done you have to change tactics every few months. It may seem like a lifetime at the time, but in reality babies rapidly develop into crawlers, then toddlers and eventually willing helpers.
Here are some top tips:
Go with your routine. So time yard visits with naps for young babies and children.
Get a second hand travel cot from eBay and stash it at the yard for when your baby is sitting up and playing. This beats being strapped into a pram and they can (hopefully) entertain themselves a little, somewhere safe where you can keep an eye on them, whilst you get stuff done. Not having to hoof a cot back and forth every day is a blessing. Your back will thank you for it.
It will be hard, oh yes it will be murderously hard, but don’t let bad days set you back. Nothing worth having is easy. Keep going.
If the yard has wifi and you have an iPad in a ballistic style case then you can turn to the little pink peril Peppa on Sky Go or whatever your current cartoon poison is to entertain your little charge for a while. Sky Go was always useful for me, but to avoid too much TV we also have Leap Pads. I feel a tinier bit better about Leap Pads because most of the games are vaguely educational. A LeapPad2 console is very easy to pick up second hand on eBay and very inexpensive.
Look out for simple activities that will keep your little one happy for long enough to ride. This isn’t just colouring books. I went through a short period when my daughter was obsessed with apples. It would take her at least half an hour to munch through an apple stalk and all, so I would pop her in her pram by the school (safely out of the way and obviously in eye sight), then give her an apple and get on with riding.
If you can get hold of a second sturdy pram via eBay or a hand-me-down then you can also stash that at the yard so you aren’t lugging too much kit about. I grabbed a hand-me-down pram like this and it made life quicker and easier.
Never, ever go to the yard without your arsenal of entertainment and snacks. Choose snacks that take a long time to eat like the aforementioned apple or boxes of raisins for example.
Potty training is a necessary evil. You can invest in a Potette and make life somewhat easier. To be honest I used to get on and off Lux like a yoyo taking my daughter to the loo. It’s not forever. My son is potty training right now and the old Potette has been dusted off. Being able to easily leap on and off horses in my mid forties after two kids is my party trick!
If you can’t manage to ride as often as you would like and want to keep your horse fit and flexible, then now might be the time to learn to lunge if it’s not something that you already do. I found it easier to add a lunge session in whilst the kids were very young.
Probably the number one thing is to teach your child about safety from the minute they have any comprehension of what the big four legged beasts are on the yard and up until that point keep them at a safe distance and always in eye sight. This requires a massive amount of time and effort, but you can’t let young kids run amok at yards. Firstly because they could be seriously injured and secondly because they may well drive all the other people and animals there mad. I recently saw a video on Instagram of a toddler wobbling about behind the back of a horse easily within kicking or stepping on distance and it gave me chills. To be honest just a tail flick in the face is painful let alone being trampled. No matter how many times I tell my kids to watch themselves, it has to be reinforced non-stop. I am happy to do that and the kids are well behaved (most of the time). That means, no running, no shouting and being respectful towards others and safe around the horses. These cannot be bad lessons to learn. They know the rules and they get plenty of time where they can run wild in more appropriate places.
What can I say. It’s really hard work having kids and horses together, but the thing you have to ask yourself is: are you willing to make it happen or go without either having kids or having horses. If you genuinely want both, then it can be done, but you have to go the extra mile. Whilst you are going that extra mile you might as well enjoy the journey or at least laugh at your own insanity.