Should you ride during your pregnancy? Dressage-riding moms weigh in.
Reprinted from the December 2017/January 2018 issue of USDF Connection
By Amber Heintzberger
To the average woman, riding during pregnancy may seem a high-risk proposition; but for many dedicated female equestrians, there is little question that at least part of their pregnancies will be spent in the saddle.
Because riding is a high-risk sport, the official word from medical professionals is that women should stay out of the saddle during pregnancy (although many doctors and midwives are actually OK with it, as long as the woman is an experienced equestrian who was riding regularly before becoming pregnant). According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “Recreational activities with increased risk of falling, such as gymnastics, horseback riding, downhill skiing, and vigorous racquet sports, have inherent high risk of trauma in pregnant and non-pregnant women.”
Even some professional equestrians, however, elect to hang up their spurs for all or part of their pregnancies. In this article, we’ll meet four dressage enthusiasts who share their stories of juggling impending motherhood with the desire to stay in the saddle as long as possible.
To Ride or Not to Ride?
FEI-level dressage pro Silva Martin, 37, who co-owns Windurra USA in Cochranville, PA, with her husband, Olympic eventer Boyd Martin, rode until she was seven months pregnant with their son, Nox, who was born in September 2015. She had sustained a traumatic brain injury in a riding accident in March 2014, so she was careful about riding only horses that she trusted during her pregnancy.
“If something is naughty I won’t ride it, but I’m really careful since my head injury anyway,” Martin says. “It does cross my mind that I need to be careful. Boyd was also looking out for me, and if something wasn’t quiet enough he’d make me get off. He rode some of them, and the girls who work for me kept them going. So the horses had their normal day, except I was teaching the girls instead of doing the riding myself.”
It was an incident on the ground that made Martin step aside for the last two months of her pregnancy. She was loading a young horse on a trailer when he pulled her backward. Because of an eye problem from her head injury she can’t see on the right side, and she hit her head on the bucket of a tractor parked nearby.
“I was unconscious and spent a night in the hospital, and it was kind of scary; they said if I’d fallen backwards the baby could have been harmed. So I stopped riding then until after Nox was born,” Martin recalls.
It’s not just pros who keep riding as long as they feel comfortable. Amateur rider Sara Hobbs, 30, of Whately, MA , has two children, ages four and six. An “A” Pony Clubber, Hobbs has evented but opted to stick with dressage while she was expecting. Like Martin, Hobbs continued to ride through her pregnancies, each time stopping in the second part of her third trimester. As her pregnancies progressed, she did more hacking out than training: “You can’t do too much when you’ve got a beach ball in front of you!” she says with a laugh.
Other mothers-to-be take a more conservative approach. Germantown, MD,-based dressage pro and USDF L Education Program graduate Hilary Moore Hebert, 36, who gave birth to son James in 2015, did not ride after her first trimester.
“I stopped because I wanted to. I didn’t think the risk was worth it,” Hebert says. “There’s always the risk of falling off, but the more I talked to people, they said they put on weight and their balance changed, so they felt they weren’t that helpful to their horse. I’m not a doctor, but I was also worried about the constant downward pressure on the supporting anatomy that holds everything up in your body. You have to ask if it’s worth the risk. For me personally, the answer is no.”
During Hebert’s pregnancy, horses began to act differently around her, she says. “People talk about dogs treating people differently, and I had horses that behaved differently. Horses seemed cautious, and it felt different. Then I felt more cautious and even a touch nervous on some of the horses. By coincidence, my competition horses were the ones that started to feel ‘funny,’ and they were the most important horses.”
As a former event rider, Hebert has always been safety conscious, wearing a helmet before it became standard in the dressage arena, she says, noting that this tendency contributed to her decision to stop riding.
“I was already at a stage in my riding career when I started thinking about the calculated risks of things. The only guarantee, for myself, was to stop riding,” she says.
Doctors on Board
Dr. Melissa Delaney, Silva Martin’s obstetrician, has had a lot of horse people as patients, Martin says. Add the fact that Delaney’s own daughter is a hunter/jumper rider, and the doc was comfortable with Martin’s continuing to ride while she was expecting.
“My doctor never said ‘Don’t ride,’ because I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Martin says.
Similarly, the team of midwives associated with Hobbs’ local hospital, who attended to both of her pregnancies, also were OK with Hobbs’ saddle time—again, because Hobbs is an experienced equestrian who had been riding regularly before she got pregnant.
“They didn’t see it as more dangerous than driving a car,” Hobbs says. (Admittedly, “Motor vehicle crashes account for four of five deaths that occur among unborn babies of pregnant women who experience trauma,” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association—so clearly some risk is involved.)
Hebert says her doctor, like Martin’s and Hobbs’, was also supportive: “I have a group practice where there are six OBs who work together, so you never know who will be on call. In that practice, they all said to do everything you were doing before; just don’t do anything new.”
Still, Hebert was “concerned about the daily effects of riding with the extra weight and that it would alter the way I rode, and my body physically from riding while pregnant. I don’t know how much people have studied that because it’s such a small sport, but it would be interesting to know how many [riders] have pelvic prolapse” and similar complications.
At the 2017 California Dressage Society and Great American/ USDF Region 7 Championships in September, Frankie Thieriot Stutes, 31, of Occidental, CA, rode Chatwin to the Third Level Adult Amateur reserve championship, and to third place in the CDS Third Level Horse of the Year adult-amateur competition. She was 32 weeks pregnant with her second child, a boy. Stutes also competes Chatwin in advanced level eventing, and at the time she was also still jumping once a week.
Stutes’ longtime doctor is the mother of an event rider, she says, and as a result “she’s never been unsupportive. But I went in once and she wasn’t there, and I was in my riding pants, and I got a full-blown lecture from the doctor who was working that day. My doctor never felt like there was a tremendous risk to the baby, but she did caution me to take care of myself because I’m the baby’s lifeline.”
Growing a human being can be exhausting: Women gain weight, their blood pressure changes, their center of gravity shifts, and their energy levels may drop. Not to mention the nausea that comes with morning sickness, aversion to foods and smells, heartburn, or the inability to find a comfortable sleep position with an ever-expanding belly.
“I won’t sit the trot any more, but jumping is completely fine,” said Stutes, who was 32 weeks pregnant at the time of our interview. “The thing that I have a hard time with (when I ride) is actually the pressure it puts on your bladder; that is really uncomfortable for me. That’s honestly the worst part about riding; canter is a little better, but trot is really difficult. Your core is basically gone, and your legs don’t work as well as they do naturally, so you really have to think about putting your leg on. I think you just have to really try to get not too much in your hands. When your core and leg aren’t working like they usually do, your first instinct is to balance with your arms.”
Stutes, who owns and operates an equestrian-sports marketing company and who also recently launched a line of handbags, evented until she was six and a half months pregnant with her first child, son Drake, now age two. The second time around, she says, she felt more tired. “This time, I felt like I got run over by a Mack truck. Lifting buckets around the barn and stuff, I just don’t have the same strength.”
The normally slender and athletic Martin put on a lot of weight during her pregnancy, she says. “I don’t think I ate any different, but I always eat a lot; I just wasn’t as active. The good news is, I lost it all pretty quickly after I had Nox!”
Her brain injury left Martin with balance issues, which her pregnancy exacerbated, she says. “I was a lot bigger, obviously, and I had a pretty easy pregnancy; but I couldn’t really get that much done, so to take a break was kind of nice.”
About a year after she gave birth to her son, Hebert was a speaker at the 2016 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, which is aimed at fledgling dressage professionals, most in their twenties. As a former editor at Dressage Today magazine, she had originally planned to discuss how to interact with the media, but instead she decided to talk about balancing life with a dressage career.
Planning ahead, Hebert told her audience, was essential in ensuring her peace of mind before she took the big step of starting a family. “A lot of the reason that we decided to buy our own farm was that I wanted to have job security. I’m kind of a worst-case-scenario person, so I made sure I had people on staff who were reliable and who could ride for me. I know not everyone has that luxury, but it made things work for me because it took longer to get back in the saddle than I thought it would.”
Hebert was frank with the program participants about the choices involved in becoming a mom: “I had a horse that was going really well, and I had to give up the ride on him. As much as I planned, you can’t plan everything. You’ll have to make sacrifices. You have to decide if you’ll have a child or if you’ll ride. Not all careers require that you make that choice.”
Like most event riders, Stutes accepts the fact that galloping and jumping cross-country are physically risky—but she’s also aware that she can’t ride well if she’s thinking about anything other than her performance.
“I kind of have a deal with myself, now that I’ve done this twice: When I’m on Chatwin, if I ever feel uncomfortable, I’m pulling the plug. Once I leave the start box, though, there’s not a second I’m thinking about being pregnant; I’m just fully focused on riding my horse. If I hadn’t felt one hundred percent mentally, I wouldn’t have gone out of the box.”
Stutes also has a deal with her close friend and fellow event rider Tamie Smith, herself the mother of two older children: “If I ever seem ‘not right’ to her”—meaning not up to the task, either physically or mentally—“she’ll say something to me, kind of a little checks and balances.”
Do What’s Best for You
Hebert is confident that she made the right decision for herself, and she urges mothers-to-be to do what makes them comfortable.
“I try to find ways to talk about not riding [while pregnant] without being preachy,” she says. “There are a lot of people who want to be validated that riding is safe, but there really isn’t science behind its safety. You have to do what’s right for you.”
That said, Hebert admits to feeling some disapproval from her peers and colleagues of her decision to take time off from riding. “I didn’t have any issues with my pregnancy, and I didn’t really ‘show’ until my third trimester, so it wasn’t obvious that I was pregnant. My clients were supportive, but a lot of people asked what I was doing, and it put a lot of stress on me.”
Nevertheless, Hebert stood firm. “I feel like what is really important for anyone who hasn’t gone through this before [to know] is, it’s such a short amount of time. It seemed like forever, but it was only about six months.”
“I would say it’s a very individual decision,” says Hobbs, “and it depends a lot on the horse available to you, the situation you’re riding in, and your experience level. My husband was on board with it, too, but if you have people in your family who aren’t comfortable with it, consider that, too. Because, honestly, it’s just a couple of months.”
One safety precaution that Hobbs took during her rides: “I did always let someone know when I was getting on and off. I live near neighbors who can see me, but I just made sure someone knew I was riding. That was my husband’s safety thing; he really insisted.”
Like many women, Hobbs “got opinions from every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street” during her pregnancy.” She advises other equestrian moms-to-be: “For your own sanity, you might keep your choice to keep riding off social media because you’ll get people who say you’re endangering your child and all that nonsense, but that goes with any part of child-rearing. You have to know what’s important to you and your family, and hold those values.”
Kick on, or don’t; the choice is yours—assuming Mother Nature doesn’t put her foot down and make the decision for you. With a little luck, in not too long, baby will be watching from the sidelines as Mom gets some much-needed saddle time.
The Pregnant Dressage Competitor
National and international equestrian competition rules do not address the subject of riding during pregnancy. A number of well-known women riders—among them Dutch dressage star Anky van Grunsven (who was five months pregnant when she won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics), British eventing legend Mary King, and US Olympic jumping gold medalist Laura Kraut—have competed successfully while they were expecting.
The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) offers guidelines for women who are considering continuing to ride during their pregnancies at https:// inside.fei.org/fei/your-role/medical-safety/pregnancy. The FEI does advise a mom-to-be who wishes to take part in FEI events to inform her national federation of the pregnancy because “fitness to compete” is part of the athlete-selection process.
Equestrian and mother of two Amber Heintzberger is an award winning journalist, photographer, and co-author of two books, most recently Modern Eventing with Phillip Dutton. She lives with her family outside New York City.