It all started with the popular slogan that has circulated the horsey internet world: “Life is short, buy the damn horse.” I wasn’t shopping - because as a professional, you never are really shopping for horses for yourself, but a gorgeous 3 year-old checking all my personal wish-list boxes rolled through my Instagram feed, and I called the breeder. The stars aligned, he passed his PPE, and I wired the money. I had a whole bottle of champagne for dinner with my husband. A month later I was staring at a pregnancy test with two little lines on it, and my world tilted a little on its axis. “Two for the price of one!” I like to say...
We have always wanted children, but had only talked loosely about how and when we might start our family. The timing, not entirely planned, was hard for me to swallow at first. As a young professional with a successful client-based business and a few Grand Prix horses in my growing show string (including my own pony who is *this* close to coming out at the large tour), I slightly panicked about how having a baby that was not specifically written in my infamous planner could even happen. Spoiler alert: it all worked out beautifully. My perfect baby girl was born just three days before her due date on November 8th at 8 pounds, 6 ounces, healthy and strong. For as apprehensive as I was going into this new process, I could not be more in love with the little human that my body created.
I rode at full strength until 32 weeks, and sat on my own senior horse for one last light hack at 35 weeks. I taught a packed schedule of private lesson clients right up until the contractions-tracking app on my phone told me it was time to go to the hospital.
I consider my pregnancy to have been as easy as it could be for a career athlete who relies on intense use of her body everyday and does not have a “slow down” speed in her nature. I relied heavily on advice from fellow professionals who recently had children, keeping up with my regular pilates workouts (tailored to a pregnant body as it changed through the different trimesters), and a great OBGYN. I have every intention of paying it forward by sharing my experiences with anyone in our industry who wants to do this, but is not sure how to find the way. I believe that having a family, if that’s something that you want in your life, is so incredibly valuable to your work/life balance. I think that many women in our sport in particular cannot see how it is possible to go through pregnancy while riding or teaching or training horses. It’s particularly hard to envision for professionals and small business owners who need to work and ride to get paid. I’m here to tell you that it can be done! Here are a few of my core tenets of the success of my 39 weeks and 4 days of carrying a baby:
Have a Supportive Partner and/or Mom Group
Talk about your riding goals and risk tolerance. I am so grateful to have a husband who supported (or perhaps just knew there was no use fighting it) my decision to ride while pregnant. Long before I was pregnant, we discussed my risk tolerance and the fact that my business heavily relies on my ability to be primarily in the saddle. I always planned to ride as long as I could. I defined this - with the support of my OBGYN - by how much I could maintain my balance, pelvic floor strength, and mediate risks of falling. I am very in tune with my body, and with this being my first baby, I didn’t even start having a belly until about 6 months pregnant. I was doing advanced pilates 4 times/week, which I continued, and it really helped me feel strong and balanced in the saddle.
I stopped riding any horses who I considered to be higher risk: young horses, spooky horses, or new unknown horses to my program. I am lucky to have a string of trustworthy horses whom I know very well, so I continued to ride most everyone in my barn with ease until about 32 weeks. Without any balance struggles or major body changes before that point, I considered the risk similar to the risk one takes in driving on the highway. I also sought out the support and advice of fellow professional riders who had babies, and used their own timelines for riding as a way to help gauge my own decision. Having a “mom group” of other equestrians was a huge piece of my mental and physical health on this journey. Continuing to ride is a very individual choice to make, and I am so glad my personal path was supported by those closest to me and my clients. Listening to negative opinions or horror stories from outside voices is something I avoided in all aspects and stages of pregnancy.
Take Really Good Care of Yourself
Stay active. Drink more water than you ever have in your life. Listen to your body and do whatever feels good. I was so impressed with the female body’s powerful capabilities during pregnancy more than ever. If you listen, your body will tell you what to do at every stage. Sometimes, my body wanted me to eat ginger cookies for every meal. Other times, I craved nutrient-packed salads and felt compelled to add in additional cross-training workouts to my week. More than occasionally, I found myself in a McDonald’s drive-through pounding a crispy chicken sandwich and large fry. I gave up coffee alongside the normal pregnancy diet restrictions, and found that a lot of my anxiety left with the caffeine. I did as much extra “self care” as the next horse trainer...which is basically none. But it feels good to feel good, and while you’re pregnant, that’s more important than ever. I was consistently encouraged by my prenatal appointments where my low weight gain, healthy blood pressure, and perfectly healthy-looking ultrasounds told me I was doing the right thing for the baby. She turned out very large and healthy!
Do As Much As You Can for As Long As You Can
As a professional in an industry where it’s exceptionally hard to take time off, and as a small-business owner without any roadmap for “maternity leave”, I struggled to figure out how to plan for this. Again, I relied heavily on the experiences of others in the industry who had successfully navigated having a baby while riding and training. I took the “make hay while the sun shines” approach, adding in tons of extra lessons and training rides all summer and fall. I started earlier and ended later than ever before - feeling grateful that my pregnancy was easy enough to support this physically - telling myself that I would rest more when the baby arrived and I would have to be at home (HAHAHAHA as I write this in 15 min work segments between all things postpartum and newborn care).
As far as maternity leave was concerned, I had a few main goals to feel more relaxed about the impending unknown. First, I drove myself to add in extra training and lessons and any other side hustle I could fit in, like industry consulting and blog writing, for as long as I physically could. My goal was to make and bank enough extra income to cover at least six weeks of being away from my regular full-time work. Secondly, I hired a really great assistant rider early enough before my due date that I could have her very familiar with my program, horses and clients by the time I needed to step away.
Having someone to carry on the daily training and lessons in my place, alongside my extremely strong barn management and horse care team, was crucial in preparing my ship to sail without me. All of this preparation gave me as much peace of mind as I could have going into uncharted waters.
I fully recognize and am grateful that I had a pregnancy that allowed me to keep this pace, and I know that is not the case for all women. I don’t mean to advise that anyone should push themselves physically or otherwise while pregnant, and I know each person’s capabilities are different which has no relationship whatsoever to your worth. In the equine industry, overworking professionals runs rampant; if anything, I’d like to contribute to the movement of demonstrating a better work-life balance even as a professional rider and trainer.
This section of advice applies mostly to other women who might wonder when to push and when to fold while navigating the demands of riding professionally while pregnant. Whether it’s five days or five months, any extra movement, saddle time and income were all things I appreciated more than ever. In the future, I would love to find avenues of educating and sharing ideas among professionals in our industry that better allows women to step back for a proper maternity leave. I only mean to emphasize that it helped me personally to do more for as long as I could, and I was fortunate to have that ability. (Side note: to acknowledge the yin and the yang of the universe, I paid for this “easy” pregnancy with 27 hours of labor, episiotomy and 3rd degree tearing that made me even MORE grateful for every extra moment of work I banked ahead of time!)
Pregnancy and riding is so individual, and so unique. It is something that any equestrian should look at with some thought and planning, but I don’t think it is as completely impossible as we are often made to believe. I was fortunate to have many aspects of my pregnancy go smoothly, but I also worked very hard to prepare and give it all the best possible chance for success.
I hope my journey and experience can at least provide one version of light on a path that many are afraid is too dark to go down. The resulting baby that I have in my lap now most certainly makes any challenge worth facing, one hundred times over!
Photos Courtesy of Michaela Kirby
Written by Lucy Courchaine
Lucy Courchaine is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist and the owner/trainer of Sapphire Sporthorses in Brewster, New York. She is currently developing her own New Forest Pony mare to Grand Prix, raising her young Dutch gelding alongside new baby human, and training a wide range of horses and clients in the sport of dressage. Find her on Instagram @lucyintheskywithsapphires or at www.sapphiresporthorses.com