By Ashley N. Burnett
My core! Where did it GO? What HAPPENED?! Why are my stirrups suddenly too long, and why can’t I put my heels down?! My hands! Why are they so unsteady?! Why am I hunched over; what happened to my seat?
The initial months of getting back in the saddle after the cesarean birth of my precious son Wyatt were HARD. I had decided to stop riding my four-year-old horse, Aquino, during the term of my pregnancy because I thought the risk of riding such a young, highly sensitive horse far outweighed the benefit. In June of 2015, I handed over the reins to my incredible coach, Erika-West Danque, for training. I had my precious son on March 31, and resumed riding, per the doctor’s orders, mid-May after an incredibly long, agonizing 10 months and terribly hard pregnancy.
Saying I was out of shape would be a severely modest statement. I could ride nothing straight. Transitions were a joke. I had gained a whopping 45 pounds in nine months, and although I lost 30 of that in the first two weeks of having my son, the extra fifteen pounds did not help anything. It was over a month before I could make it through an entire 45-minute lesson without running out of steam. Aquino was trying so hard, putting his body in all sorts of weird shapes and directions, while trying to please my terribly crooked seat. But Erika’s patience and good humor got me through those three to four months, and after a good equine chiro and saddle flocking adjustment, Erika suggested I send my entry into a September regional qualifying show, one of the last of the season. She then proceeded to tell me that she thought we should try to qualify for the Great American/ USDF Regional Championships at First Level. I thought she must be losing her mind; we had only ever done Training Level, and that was when we were in shape and harmonious, not crooked and popping lead changes every other stride!
But as I’ve always done, I trusted my long-time coach Erika, and I signed up for our First Level debut together. Turns out, we had an outstanding show and fully qualified ourselves for the championships at First Level. We even earned Show First Level Reserve High Point. My sweet son Wyatt was almost five months old by this time and, although I thought a weekend away at a horse show would be good for me, I was a complete hormonal mess and missed him more than words could possibly do justice. I cried more that weekend than I think I have in my entire life.
A horse show five months postpartum is not easy. It was far more difficult than I imagined. My body was still recovering, and I was 100% mentally and physically beat. And I still needed to care for my highly energetic, teething five-month-old, who barely slept when I got home. It was hard to make sense of why I was putting myself and my family through this during these exhausting times, but my husband kept encouraging me. He has heard me talk about going to the regional championships for years, and knows it has been a dream of mine since we met. Without his love, support, and commitment, I probably would not have proceeded to head to my very first regional championship three weeks later.
Boy, am I glad I went. Aquino was superb; we ended up SWDC Reserve Champion and 4th place in our Great American/USDF Region 9 Championship for First Level, with a score placing high enough to earn an invitation to the prestigious US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® at the Kentucky Horse Park. I was in disbelief and awe. What an outstanding opportunity and complete honor, only made possible by the belief and support of my coach and family.
I decided that I had to bring Wyatt along with me to Kentucky if I was going to go to Finals. I just wasn’t ready to be in a different state from him quite yet. Thankfully, my selfless mom was thrilled when I asked if she wanted to make the road trip with Wyatt and I, to help out. Even more, my ever supportive and loving husband took more than a week of vacation to make the sixteen-hour journey with us. We made the road trip over two days, and although the trip took nearly twice as long with a baby, I think we would all agree that it could have gone much worse.
The atmosphere at the US Dressage Finals was incredible to experience. Everybody was so honored to be there, and there was so much excitement and thrill in the air. The Kentucky Horse Park was gorgeous, the footing was perfect, the arenas were beautiful, and the climate controlled stalls were simply luxurious. It was first class all the way around. I couldn’t believe Aquino and I were there, surrounded by such talented horses and riders from all over the country. But what made the trip extra special was having my mom, husband, and son there to experience it all with me. I felt (and still feel) so thankful and so blessed. We ended up 10th place in our First Level AA championship class, which was just the cherry on top of an absolutely perfect trip.
With hard work, belief, and support, I now believe any dream is possible. Adult Amateurs have it hard; we are all identified by so much more than riding. We are technicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, doctors, accountants, students, mothers/fathers, wives/ husbands, grandmothers/ grandfathers…it’s easy to say there is no time to be a dressage rider, too. But personally speaking, even though “mother” was added to my identity, I wasn’t ready to drop “dressage rider” quite yet.