Things I’ve Learnt So Far

There are a few things you learn when working with horses whilst pregnant that no one tells you about.

So let me enlighten you …

  1. At times, cantering is like having a large stone using your insides like a trampoline. Which is not the most comfortable!
  2. Short girths become the bane of your life because bending down to adjust them gets harder and harder as your tummy gets in the way.
  3. For the same reason, it gets harder to duck under branches whilst out hacking, or leaning down to open gates. I was ever so relieved when the low branch on one of my hacking routes was cut back!
  4. For the same reason, climbing through/under/over fences gets harder so be prepared to take the long route and go through the gate.
  5. Saddles get heavier. Especially lifting them onto the 17 handers, or the fidgeters, or just the high saddle racks.
  6. Dismounting becomes less elegant. You don’t want to lean forwards for too long so it’s either a quick swoop while the horse blinks, or it’s a side-saddle style leg over the front dismount.
  7. Jumping gets harder – your life is more like to flash before your eyes when your horse sees a long stride, and you can’t fold quite as neatly as you’d like to.
  8. As with saddles, rugs seem to get heavier. Soon I think I’ll need some sort of crane contraption to lift the heavyweights on.
  9. Doing up belly straps, clipping bellies, grooming bellies and legs, and putting on brushing boots now require a crouching technique – knees bent, back straight – rather than bending at the waist.
  10. Your fitness goes. Even walking to and from the fields seems to take longer. Thankfully I’m not having problems with breathlessness whilst riding yet, but I’m definitely noticing that I’m more tired at the end of the day.

In all honesty, I may have exaggerated slightly because I haven’t had to adopt the side-saddle dismount swing yet, but I’m learning that it will soon become harder to use the traditional techniques! That time will come though, I’m sure.

My Confession

I have a bit of a confession to make, readers. I’m rubbish at keeping secrets, so can’t wait to spill the beans. Let’s face it, this post was first drafted weeks ago in excitement.

It all started a couple of months ago, when you may remember the stressful week when Matt fractured his stifle and Otis had his MRI scan. Well to finish the week with a bang, as I was driving home on Friday lunchtime feeling exhausted from a week’s work I started to put two and two together. The penny dropped. In fact I was showered with £2 coins. I was more tired than I’d ever been in my entire life, despite sleeping for ten hours each night. I was emotional. I’d felt peaky. I’m sure you’ve already solved the puzzle.

At this point you have to feel sorry for the man in this situation. Especially if it’s a surprise. The first they know of it is when presented with a positive pregnancy test. The woman on the other hand, has a couple of clues, and ultimately does the act of peeing on a stick. Which gives you some kind of warning as to the potential outcomes.

“Oh $#!+” was the first thought. I mean, you make flippant comments to yourself, “if I were pregnant I’d still do this” … or “no child of mine would be allowed to do that”. But when actually faced with the prospect of bringing a small human into the world and successfully raising it into a good person, I was suddenly very respectful of our parents. After all, we turned out okay.

So that was eight weeks ago, and I tell you what, there are many things they don’t tell you about being pregnant.

Firstly, feeling nauseated and unable to moan and get sympathy is hard work! Did you know that riding can make you travel sick? I’m very glad that I only felt sick and didn’t get to do an impression of a bulimic teenager, but even so it would have been nice to have been able to have the sympathy. So I was relieved when I felt normal again.

Secondly, you waste a lot of spare time falling asleep on the sofa at 5.30pm, and household jobs get forgotten about because your weekends are spent recovering from the week’s work.

You get asked a lot of questions. Like “are you ok, you look tired?” Or “are you going to get a project pony while Otis is off?”, “do you want to go on a sponsored ride in October?”, “why aren’t you drinking?” And it’s hard keeping track of all those white lies.

There is a lot going through your head as you’re thrown into a world of trimesters, foetuses, blood tests, and hormones. Where do you start? What do you need to buy? When do you need to start shopping? Is this symptom normal? Can you do this? Are you allowed to eat that? No wonder I forgot several things from my diary! Or had that glazed look on my face for minutes on end…

For me, I had the ethical debate about riding. Sure, I’d always envisaged riding Otis throughout, but riding your own horse is very different to riding other people’s. Just like riding four or five times a week is different to riding four or five times a day. I will admit to going temporarily deaf when the midwife told me that they advise women not to ride whilst pregnant…

I checked my insurance, and all was okay, so long as I could justify my actions. For example; I wouldn’t be covered if I got on a bucking four year old, but schooling a mature horse on the flat that I’d ridden for years would be acceptable. Initially, I found I was a bit cautious until I’d accustomed myself to the idea of being pregnant, but then it was business as normal.

In the early days I decided that I didn’t need to tell clients yet; there’s a high risk of miscarriage before twelve weeks and I didn’t want to put the kiss of death on it. If a horse’s behaviour changed then I would speak privately to that client about the situation and make a plan.

Then in this last week I’ve started speaking individually to those who’s horses I ride, to make sure they’re happy with me riding in “my condition” and to come up with a plan for lunging and working horses in hand as an alternative to riding sometimes. I have to say, that I’ve been very impressed and am very grateful to everyone who kept my secret. I am very appreciative of my loyal clients and friends because not one whisper of this secret has been heard!

I’ve not really come to a decision about when to stop riding. My body is used to it, so I think going cold turkey could do more harm than good – both physically and psychologically. It’s hard at the moment because I feel so well, but ultimately I’m going to listen to my body and keep as active as possible for as long as possible. I have a vague idea of timings, but I don’t want to set things in stone. I can reduce the hours I ride, and reduce the level of riding I do as I see fit. Teaching can continue until due day, and I can be at the end of the phone if anyone has any stumbling blocks, before picking lessons up again when I’m ready and have got the hang of this whole baby thing.

But now we’ve nearly reached week thirteen – the second trimester – we can shout our news out loud, reap the compliments about pregnancy “glows”, and pick people’s brains freely about which cot is best and what colour should the nursery be. And we can start to plan this next chapter of our lives.

To Ride Or Not To Ride?

The cat is out the bag, and I can finally blog about this subject. For weeks I’ve sat deciding on a blog subject, and this always came to mind. But my lips were sealed and I couldn’t write.

Should you ride whilst pregnant? Do you ride whilst pregnant? 

And before anyone gets any ideas, it is not me I’m talking about!

I know a few horsey women who are pregnant or have been pregnant in the last year, so it’s a topic that has been covered, dissected and rebuilt.

Once you find out you’re pregnant you don’t tell anyone, just in case. No one can tell by looking at you. But you feel different and you’re more aware of your body and risks you’re taking. So what do you do?

I know some people who have found out and immediately given up riding. It’s personal choice, and I guess if you aren’t comfortable with the situation then the best thing is to stand back. However, for many women horse riding is the drug that enables us to function at work and at home, so it’s a big ask to give it up.

One of my clients told me she was pregnant a couple of weeks after I’d given her a gridwork lesson and whopped the fences up high. She knew in the lesson she was expecting, but I think if I knew I wouldn’t have jumped her so high. 

Another client told me, to explain potential “wimping out” situations, and the knowledge definitely made me back off the lesson plan. But over the next few weeks I got used to the idea and I think she did too and started to relax back into riding, and now we’re up to speed and jumping normally. I do think it’s important that an instructor knows about your pregnancy so they can adapt lessons, and are aware if you need first aid. 

Having not been through this myself, I’m no expert, but I have heard that whilst falling off is to be avoided (I’m sure doctors think we purposefully hit the deck!) it isn’t really a problem until you start to show. Oh, and you shouldn’t fall off onto hard ground or at speed. Or have the horse fall onto you – seriously, do you think we ask for this to happen?

So I guess what you do depends on how confident or safe you feel with your horse. And your riding may change during those nine months to accommodate your physiological changes. 

I’ve known a couple of women who have ridden throughout their pregnancy, but the last couple of months were steady hacks in dressage saddles (apparently more accommodating that jump saddles). These women also didn’t have a large bump, which was the reason a client of mine stopped riding.

Some say that the horse’s behaviour changes towards you when you’re expecting a baby. I guess that you smell different because of hormones, and perhaps they can hear the heartbeat? Geldings seem to get really cuddly and gentle around pregnant women. I think mares can be hit or miss. Someone I know rode her mare before she knew she was pregnant and the mare tried to throw her off. It was like she had a vendetta against her. But when they knew the reason it made sense. Interestingly, the mare in question has always had problems with her seasons and has since had her ovaries removed – would her behaviour be any different around a pregnant woman now? 

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to stop riding immediately, or to stop any of your usual activities because your body would need to adjust to that as well as what’s growing inside. By losing fitness and muscle tone you could cause other issues, such as fluid retention and less fatigue. But you can start to pick and choose which equestrian jobs you do. For example, skipping out may be fine, but you don’t want to be lugging heavy wheelbarrows around. Someone I know skipped out each day until the baby arrived, but left the stacked wheelbarrow on the yard for her husband to empty on the weekends. She also clipped and regularly groomed all the way through.

This has led me to wonder whether you can compete whilst pregnant. Mary King competed at Pau in 1995 whilst five and a half months pregnant. There was uproar at the time, but I don’t think it did Emily any harm – except perhaps giving her an unfair advantage over her peers in that she’d already jumped a four star course by the time she was born?

I have seen a heavily pregnant woman competing at a riding club dressage competition, but there must be rules to cover everyone’s backs.

I looked it up and the FEI do permit it, however you have to inform the medical team and it’s very much down to your doctor to give you permission – here is their statement about it. 

I’ve also been told, on a hack with a pregnant friend with a story I’ve sworn never to reveal; that once you start to show, it upsets your balance, which makes riding trickier. Which is also worth bearing in mind for anyone planning to ride whilst expecting. I guess the size of the bump and it’s effect on your balance is the main limiting factor in the length of time into your pregnancy that you can ride.

All in all, should you ride whilst pregnant or not? It’s all down to personal choice, really. I guess the most important thing is to listen to your body and your gut instinct. Just do what feels comfortable and make sure your horse is happy with the situation too. I’m not one for sitting still, yet I don’t think I would be going round Badminton, but dressage and hacking would certainly be on the cards. 

For a bit of light reading, Horse and Hound did this amusing article about the problems encountered riding whilst pregnant.