Postpartum fitness tips for dressage-riding moms
By Amber Heintzberger
There are two days that a dressage-riding expectant mother eagerly awaits: the day she greets her new baby, and the day she starts riding again.
Getting back in the saddle after giving birth presents both mental and physical challenges. Women frequently gain extra weight during pregnancy. The pelvic ligaments, which help keep the core stable in the saddle, relax to allow the baby to move through the birth canal. Pressure caused by the added weight of the unborn baby can affect bladder control. Pregnancy causes a woman’s abdominal muscles to stretch and weaken, or even to separate. If birth is via Caesarean section, the incision must heal and the abdominal muscles must knit back together after being cut. Any of these changes can compromise the dressage rider’s goal of a strong, independent seat, not to mention an overall loss of fitness.
Avid dressage riders have an advantage, however, in that they entered pregnancy with a level of fitness and core strength superior to that of many other moms-to-be. A good exercise and nutrition plan can help new moms regain fitness and get back in the saddle to perform just as well postpartum as they did before the baby.
In our article “Baby on Board” (December 2017/January 2018), we introduced you to a group of USDF members who discussed their decisions to keep riding (or not) through their pregnancies. This month, we circle back to some of those same women, to find out what they did to regain their postpartum fitness and when they put a foot in the stirrup for the first time after giving birth.
Three Moms’ Stories
FEI-level dressage trainer and competitor Silva Martin, 37, rode until she was seven months pregnant with Nox, her son with husband Boyd Martin, the US Olympic eventing competitor.
Nox, who was born in September 2015, was delivered via C-section because Silva had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2014 riding accident, and doctors feared that pushing during labor could put unwanted pressure on her brain. The surgery meant that postpartum recovery took longer than it might have otherwise following a vaginal delivery.
“I think the first time I felt I was strong again was after we spent the winter training in Aiken, South Carolina, this past year, so it took about a year,” says Martin, who with her husband operates the dressage and eventing training facility Windurra USA, in Cochranville, PA. “Now I feel back to how I was before the baby.”
The usually slender and athletic Martin put on a lot of weight during her pregnancy, mainly from being less active, she says. “The good news is, I lost it all pretty quickly after I had Nox.”
FEI-level rider/trainer and USDF L Education Program graduate Hilary Moore Hebert, 36, gave birth to her son, James, around the same time that Martin had Nox.
Out of an abundance of caution, Hebert did not ride after her first trimester, and she says getting back in shape was a challenge. Because she grew up riding, she’d never experienced the need to get fit to ride, she says.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I threw my back out numerous times. I felt like I was made out of rubber—like a stretched-out rubber band.”
It was a humbling, frustrating experience for the dressage pro, who owns and operates Moore Hebert Dressage in Germantown, MD. “You imagine that somehow you’ve lost your feel and knowledge. You feel like you’re doing sitting trot for the first time. But I still had that feel; I felt what I should be doing, but my body hadn’t caught up. I knew how to do everything, but my body couldn’t do anything. I could no longer ride for forty-five minutes on six or seven horses a day. Everyone who has a newborn remembers how heavy a newborn feels. It’s just coming back from all of that. It’s exhausting.”
Adult-amateur rider Sara Hobbs, 30, of Whately, MA, has two children, ages four and six. An equestrian since childhood (she’s an “A” Pony Clubber and a mostly-retired event rider), she rode dressage during her pregnancies, both times hanging up her spurs in the latter half of her third trimester.
Compared to her non-riding friends, Hobbs says, her core and hip muscles kept their tone and didn’t “let go” during pregnancy and birth.
“After my first pregnancy, my recovery was almost instant,” Hobbs recalls, “but my pregnancies were close together, and with the second one it took a while for the ‘gap’ in my core to close up. I did a lot of yoga and ate a lot of clean protein to rebuild muscle fiber.”
Hobbs was back on a horse within a couple of weeks of giving birth. “It’s such a part of my mental state,” she says. “The barn has always been part of my happy place, whether I’m riding or grooming, and my horses are at home, so that makes it easier.”
My Abs Are in There Somewhere: Rebuilding Core Strength
Through her nutritional-supplement sales business, Fit2Ride, Hobbs met Katja Kreher, 43, of Oregon House, CA. A native of Berlin and the mother of a grown daughter, Kreher, also a rider, has worked as a personal trainer for nearly ten years.
“Whatever women do after they give birth in terms of exercise, it should be something they really enjoy,” Kreher advises. “If you only do an exercise five or six times, it’s not really going to do anything. So it needs to be enjoyable, whatever it takes, whether that’s something with a friend, having time to yourself at a gym, or staying at home with your baby and [working out to] a video. Whatever the routine is going to be, it needs to be sustainable and fun; otherwise it’s not going to happen.”
Whatever avenue you choose, if you want to get back in the saddle after giving birth, you’re going to need to focus on your core, Kreher says. She points out that “the core is so much more than your abs: It’s your back, it’s your obliques, it’s the whole midsection. It’s really important to stabilize this in a three-dimensional way, not just lying on your back and doing some crunches.”
Personal trainer Linda Brown, 47, of Coatesville, PA, herself both a mom and an equestrian, was already working with Boyd and Silva Martin before Silva’s pregnancy. Brown helped the new mom get her body dressage-ready again.
Brown’s postpartum fitness prescription included lots of core strengthening—but first, she had Martin do a self-test for a common post-pregnancy condition called diastasis recti, or abdominal separation: “a gap between the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscle that can result in a rounded, protruding belly,” Brown explains.
“To test for diastasis recti, lie on your back, knees bent with feet flat, and slightly lift your head, putting your chin to your chest while keeping your shoulders on the ground. Place your fingers on your navel; the gap shouldn’t be larger than two fingers.”
Exercise can help close the separated abdominal muscles. Brown suggests the “abdominal draw”: “Pull in your stomach, and hold the abdominal-muscle contraction and breathe normally for ten seconds. Do this for eight to ten repetitions.”
Caution: Some popular core-strengthening exercises, including crunches and planks, are not recommended until the diastasis has healed, as they can actually exacerbate the separation of the muscles, Brown says.
Pilates instructor and mother of three Meg Berry teaches postpartum and “Mommy and Me” Pilates classes out of her Artful Body studio in South Orange, NJ. The creator of a postpartum workout called Momcore—a combination of Tantra yoga and classical Pilates—she offers some suggestions for regaining strength in the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor.
“To heal diastasis, you need to work on your core muscles and be instructed as to how to bring those muscles back together, the rectus abdominis in particular. You could do it on a horse if you knew how to do it yourself or had someone instructing you, but in Pilates we always start with the person lying on their back because that takes gravity out of the picture and allows you simply to focus on strengthening your muscles, reactivating them and working on your diastasis. Then we put you upright, as you’d be on a horse, to see if the healing work stuck. You want to be able to heal a diastasis so that it stays not only while you’re lying on the floor, but throughout your daily life and in everything you do.
“The key to strengthening the pelvic floor postpartum is to make sure you have a full contraction of the pelvic floor and a full release,” Berry continues. “If you find that contracting is easier for you versus releasing, you want to focus on the sensation of a full contraction—like stopping yourself from going pee midstream—and then a full release. For some women, feeling the contraction is easier, and for some the release is easier. If that’s the case, you want to do the opposite. Key into the feeling, even if it feels like disengagement, and then try for a full contraction, just as you have a full release.
Next, Berry says, “You want to take that contraction and release of the pelvic floor and make sure you work with it in different planes of motion and in different relationships to gravity. If you’re on a horse, you could play with contracting and releasing your pelvic floor in different ways. As you’re trotting, say, contract when you rise and release when you sit; then switch it. It’s not going to address all the different ranges of motion and relationships to gravity that you need in order to restore full functioning to that muscle, but it’s a start.”
These instructions may sound a bit complex, but don’t overthink it, Berry advises, as many of the muscle actions are more automatic than conscious. “A lot of people start to tune into their pelvic-floor muscles postpartum and get alarmed at how little they can feel. It’s not so much about feeling as using your imagination. If you’re looking for a sensation when you want to contract your pelvic floor but have none, squeeze your hand into a fist while imagining contracting those muscles. Relax your hand when you want to release. The sensations in your hand will satisfy your mind’s need to feel something.”
Baby, You’re Heavy: Counteracting Upper-Body Slump
New moms may delight in holding their little ones, but the resulting round-shouldered posture can be murder on the neck, shoulders, and upper back. Strengthening and stretching work is essential, says Kreher.
“Many women get neck problems [after giving birth],” Kreher says, “and if you’re large-chested and breastfeeding, it’s important to strengthen the upper body, as well.”
Strengthen your shoulders and upper back with Kreher’s “Y’s, T’s, and I’s” exercise series—actually, these moves are great for anyone looking to improve posture, in or out of the saddle. The only piece of equipment you’ll need is an exercise ball, ideally sized such that your legs are at a 90-degree angle, feet flat on the floor, when you sit on it.
Start by draping your torso over the ball, face down. With your hands in thumbs-up position, keep your shoulder blades drawn together as you straighten your back, keeping your neck in line with your spine, and lift your arms shoulder-width apart to form a “Y” shape. Next, extend your arms out to the sides, perpendicular to your torso, to form a “T.” Finish by drawing your arms back by your sides, just above the level of your hips and buttocks, to form an “I” shape. Keep your core muscles engaged by thinking of lifting your belly up and in, away from the ball, and “wrapping” your torso muscles to cinch your waist. If these exercises start to feel too easy, try holding one- or two-pound hand weights.
“I like using the exercise ball because you can slip your body a little more forward so your chest is not compressed,” says Kreher. “You can also do these exercises on the floor, but most women who are breastfeeding are not going to like that because it’s pushing against their chest.”
Advantage: The Active Equestrian Lifestyle
Hobbs finds that fitness is actually easier now that she has kids. The family enjoys hiking together, and “my kids are really active, so I’m really active.” But she’s never been a gym rat.
“I’ve never gone to a gym; I’ve always lived in the middle of nowhere or just found ways to do it at home. There are great workout programs online, and books. There’s definitely a need for a gym if you need weights and stuff, but that’s never been important to me.”
Hobbs enjoys yoga, and “I’ve also got a book on Pilates for equestrians that I’ve pulled stuff out of. It was great—and a lot harder than it looks! I grew up as a dancer, so I tend to be drawn more to gentle strength and flexibility.”
The Nutrition Component
Kreher reminds new moms that nutrition plays a key role in getting back in shape and staying healthy.
“If you are breastfeeding, you need to be careful what you put in your body and make sure you get enough calories,” she says. “But really, the right amount of nutrition—really high-quality foods—is going to be important to give you the energy to exercise and to bounce back faster and have your cells regenerate.”
Hobbs agrees: “I was already a huge ‘clean’ eater and have always been nutritionally conscious.” She says she used some of the protein shakes and other products she sells, by a nutrition company called Isagenix; and “I also love cooking in my Instant Pot: I have a batch of raw-milk yogurt going right now, and I do a lot of lentils and rice. I’m also into herbal medicine and do a lot of wildcrafting [harvesting plants found in nature] and that kind of thing.”
Mom, Give Yourself Some Time
After son James was born, “I was so tired, as every parent is,” says Hebert. “He just constantly needed things. If you think most riders only need six weeks off and everything will be back to normal, that’s where people have a struggle. It always takes longer than planned. Here my son is, two years old, and I’m really just back into the swing of things, meaning the energy I can put into my own competition goals is really just returning.”
Patience, time, and listening to your body will help you to achieve your goal of successfully returning to the saddle. And as children grow, staying fit is beneficial for keeping up with them!
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.