When I thought about what it would be like to be pregnant for the first time, there were a lot of things that I failed to consider. For one, I never imagined arriving at the barn sans belt, in a long, baggy T-shirt and yoga pants, looking like the “unmade bed” of George Morris Clinic nightmares. But life goes on during those nine months, and if you plan to ride for some or any of that period, you learn to make compromises.
As a dedicated amateur, I’d always planned to ride for as long as I could while pregnant, figuring that, somehow, I’d know in my gut when the moment was right to step back from showing, and then from jumping. At 15, my own horse (and the only one I ride) has always been a solid citizen, and at this point in his career, he’s seen everything and been everywhere. I’ve never felt unsafe on his back, but no matter how confident you are in your own decisions, there’s another thing I’ve learned about pregnancy: it comes complete with a lifetime supply of free and unsolicited advice.
The problem? That advice - dispensed ad nauseam by parents and in-laws, friends, barn mates, random message board subscribers, health care providers, and everyone in between - is almost always well intentioned. But I’ve observed that when it comes to riding, only a small percentage of it is also truly knowledgeable rather than anecdotal.
"...there’s another thing I’ve learned about pregnancy: it comes complete with a lifetime supply of free and unsolicited advice."
That favorite pregnancy cliché - “everyone’s experience is different” - can also apply to riding while pregnant, and (hold my soapbox for a minute) if, how, and for how long you choose to participate in your sport depends on you, your doctor, your horse and experience level, your discipline, mental and physical comfort, and about a thousand other factors.
That said, for my own sanity, I decided to track down some solicited advice from a few people who actually know a thing or two about riding through pregnancy: Dr. Deena Kleinerman, a leading OBGYN and recreational rider, and top amateur and professional rider/moms Frankie Thieriot Stutes, Alexa Pessoa, and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. Here, they share their thoughts and first-hand experiences on five aspects of riding throughout pregnancy that every equestrian-mom-to-be will recognize.
‘How long should I ride?’
Dr. Deena Kleinerman
The biggest problem with riding while pregnant is that you can fall off or get dumped. As we all know, this can happen to even the most experienced riders. Your shape and center of gravity changes, and you can’t move in the way that you normally would, and that compromises you as a rider, and your ability to adapt and move with the horse.
For those reasons, you can’t necessarily say that at 21 weeks, you should stop riding, by any means, but there are people at 21 weeks looking like they’re 12 weeks, and others that, after a couple kids, [look very pregnant by that time]. As far as any exercise goes during pregnancy, we want it to become less-impact, lower-impact, and eventually, no impact. One could start out doing a bunch of things, but then the idea is, you’re gradually winding down as you go.
If you’re on an incredibly bombproof horse and you can get on (the actual act of getting on the horse can get difficult), and you’re comfortable, someone could probably ride up to 6-7 months [some go even longer], [even if it’s] just walking around. Sometimes, that’s enough to satisfy us from the neck up - just being there at the barn with the horses.
With my older daughter, Sophia, I rode through the first trimester, and I continued to compete. I had a really wonderful mare, Madison, at the time that I had been riding for a long time. I felt really comfortable and was basically reassured by my doctor that it was perfectly safe as long as I felt that way. My 12th week of pregnancy was during the last week of Spruce Meadows, so I rode all the way through Spruce and showed, had a great tour, and then basically to the day once my first trimester was over, I stopped riding and sort of took it easy [from then on].
Photo by Noëlle Floyd
I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, Luciana, about six years later, and I had gone through a lot to get there. I stopped riding, really, even before I even got pregnant. It’s not necessarily because I was scared that something would happen, I was just in a really different place with my body.
I had friends that showed until they were 5-6 months pregnant, and others that just trail rode, or stopped altogether. You have to kind of find your own comfort zone. I got to a point where, toward the end of that first trimester [with Sophia], my clothes were kind of fitting differently, and I just sort of thought, Am I really going to buy a bigger pair of breeches? It just seemed to me like that was my body telling me it was changing, my balance was changing; you have a little passenger on board and it’s different now. So that was sort of a turning point for me.
Frankie Thieriot Stutes
During my first pregnancy, my horse Chatwin was at the Intermediate level and I wanted to move him up myself. I did that and then stopped competing at five and a half months. At that point, I felt it was time to stop going cross country, but was fine with the rest. I felt like if I took a few days off, that was when I’d have the hardest time getting back in the saddle, so I tried to be on at least five times a week. I rode Chatwin until I was seven and a half months pregnant and then he needed to do some competitions to keep working on his education, so my good friend and fellow eventer Tamra Smith took over the ride for me. I actually rode until 10 days prior to having [my son] Drake, because I was rehabbing my other horse at the time, but there was certainly no sitting trot for me those last couple weeks! Overall, I felt really good, and I also worked out at the gym five days a week and was really fit.
My second pregnancy was different in that I did a CCI3* with Chatwin when I was four and a half months pregnant, and then I usually give him 6-8 weeks off after. So he had six weeks off before I took him to the Dressage Championships, which meant I didn’t get on a horse for six weeks. I felt different during my second pregnancy as well. I was so exhausted and honestly, I worked out maybe six times that whole time. Having that goal of the Dressage Championships in September kind of got me back on. I did continue to jump Chatwin until I sent him down to Tamara’s on October 6, and I had my baby November 24.
"I made a deal with myself both times: if there was a time when my balance seemed really off or I wasn’t seeing the distance right, or anything that could jeopardize my ability to be safe, then I would just call it."
I made a deal with myself both times: if there was a time when my balance seemed really off or I wasn’t seeing the distance right, or anything that could jeopardize my ability to be safe, then I would just call it. My jump trainer Andrea Pfeiffer was someone I really trusted to be my eye on the ground late in both pregnancies. I knew she would be honest with me if she felt anything was becoming unsafe because my riding was changing, but we never got to that point.
Photo by Nikelle Lovaas
‘Does it make a difference that I’m only riding my own horse?’
I rode Shutterfly and Checkmate, my top horses at the time, and I continued to compete with them [early in my first trimester]. Definitely knowing those horses made a difference - I wasn’t getting on young, green horses or trying to break in horses or something. I was trying to limit the amount of risk that was going on.
I think riding a horse you know is really important. Even just the type of ride Madison was during my first pregnancy was different - the way that I rode her was sort of a low-impact ride. She was really scopey for the classes I was doing, and I actually stepped down a little bit, so I wasn’t jumping as big as I had been with her. The second time around, I had a really nice horse, but he was sort of spooky and unpredictable, and very careful, and I just had to be really on my game with him all the time. I knew it wasn’t the same situation, so that definitely made a difference for me.
Frankie Thieriot Stutes
Knowing Chatwin [the way I do] made a huge difference. I think when you’re really pregnant, you just have to be realistic about not making stupid choices. Chatwin can be certain things—I know he can be kind of naughty on the gallop hill. So if there was a day when we were on the hill, and he was really bad, I’d just get off.
‘What kind of physical changes might I experience while riding?’
Dr. Deena Kleinerman
Certainly, in the first trimester, it’s not so much a body change, but one is very tired. The body is purposely slowing things down to let the pregnancy become more established - and no, you can’t “shake loose” an intact, healthy pregnancy by riding. Often, people might feel a bit crampy at first; it’s what I call “growing pains.” It’s the uterus starting to stretch and enlarge, and that can be distracting and uncomfortable. Not that it would damage the pregnancy by riding, but it could distract you from paying attention.
By the second trimester, there’s usually a return of energy, and that’s really nice. But the top of the uterus is now coming above the pubic bone, and you’re going to start to get some changes in how comfortable you feel bending and sitting forward. Having the legs open and dangling [in riding position] isn’t really a problem—you can do exercises like squats all through pregnancy. But one may not quite feel the same, and you have to figure out how to maintain your seat.
There’s an additional feature that happens with [third trimester] in pregnancy, which is that the joints soften. The placenta puts out an enzyme that softens the ligaments, primarily, with the idea that the joints can stretch, and the pelvic girdle can open up to give more room for the baby to go through. Typically, seven months is when you might start to notice that your hip joints get sort of wobbly and uncomfortable, and less stable as you go along.
Frankie Thieriot Stutes
I think at the end of my pregnancies, having ridden the whole time, my weight changed and my balance changed consistently, but I was comfortable. It’s funny, everybody makes such a giant deal about jumping - and I understand there are more risks jumping - but to be very honest with you, if it’s a horse you know super well, from a physical standpoint, it was about 300 times more comfortable to jump than to do something like sitting trot. I never felt unsafe and, really, if I could have jumped seven days a week as opposed to real flatwork, I would have. [Flatwork] was just very uncomfortable on the bladder, mostly, for me.
I think one of the hardest things was that no one had any advice or information for me about clothing. I had one pair of breeches for both pregnancies that, for whatever reason, were bigger than the rest. I like to wear my breeches low anyway, so they would be, like, below my stomach, and at the very end, I’d be wearing a big T-shirt over them and underneath, my whole crotch was showing, and I’m like, “Oh my god, if people could only see me now!” [laughs].
‘How do I handle the mental aspects of pregnancy and riding?’
Basically, I was aware of the fact that I was responsible not just for myself, but for somebody else’s life. I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks, and that was in combination with trying to eat healthily and take care of myself and not put myself in any situations that would endanger my child’s life.
"...I was aware of the fact that I was responsible not just for myself, but for somebody else’s life."
Photo by Erin Gilmore
Frankie Thieriot Stutes
I went clean at [the Bromont] CCI3* during my second trimester. A lot of people that I know as eventers or show jumpers will stop competing in jumping because mentally, they can’t kind of get to where they need to be. I always made a deal with myself that if I left the start box and my head was thinking about being pregnant, I would never leave the start box.
I think it’s so different for everybody where your comfort level is. One day, with Drake, when I was seven months pregnant, I went in for an appointment and my OBGYN was gone and I had a fill-in. I was wearing my riding pants and she looked at me [and asked me if I was still riding]. When I told her yes, she said, “I don’t recommend that my patients ever do anything that dangerous during their pregnancies.”
I was like, “Well, I’m a really bad driver, should I give up driving, too?” And my husband just looked at me.
Each time, I’ve been aware of what I was up against. I think the ability to have that checks and balances with yourself is what’s important.
You definitely do get a lot of unsolicited advice while pregnant, and some of that ends up being really interesting and resonates with you, and then there’s other advice that you just don’t take. I pretty much went with my doctor’s suggestions. Both of my kids were born in Wellington, and my doctor had worked with a lot of women that were riders, so it was really nice to have him, because he wasn’t really an alarmist type. He was just like, “You know yourself, you know your body, go with your gut.”
I think [pregnancy] can be really hard, especially for people who are used to being pretty active or fit, or even relatively so. I think we can be so hard on ourselves and we can have those moments, especially early in the postpartum weeks and months, where you’re like, What is happening? What is going on? You just look totally different and you feel so different. With the second baby, I took more time for myself and I was much kinder to myself because I knew that my body had the ability to get back to where it originally was.
‘If you could share some advice based on your own experience, what would it be?’
Photo by Yasmina Bello
I personally would give the advice to not [feel like you need to] ride too long. Whether I rode those last couple of weeks or not made absolutely no difference in the grand scheme of things. I would [tell women] to listen to their bodies and not feel that have to push that last horse show, or that last ride because it actually makes no difference in the end.
Getting back in the saddle is challenging, especially with a newborn, but it is exciting and fun and so rewarding. I would just suggest that you enjoy it and not to miss out on the wonderful [gift] of being a mother.
Frankie Thieriot Stutes
I had very good labors both times, and I think that riding really helped with that. You stay in shape, and for me, toward the end of my pregnancy, the riding every day was more of a mental game [than anything else].
Everybody has so many opinions, but I was just kind of comfortable checking myself on it. I knew my parameters, and that I wasn’t going to be stubborn or pig-headed and go outside of them.
After my first pregnancy, I was just sort of nervous, like, What if I don’t ride the same? What if I don’t look the same? What if I can’t get into my old clothes? The second time I [knew], No, I’m okay.
"I think it’s so important to be kind to ourselves and to recognize what your body has been through, and that incredible thing that you’ve done."
Photo by Noëlle Floyd
I think it’s so important to be kind to ourselves and to recognize what your body has been through, and that incredible thing that you’ve done. It’s something that only women can do, and only our bodies can do, and no, your body may not ever be exactly the same. But you wear it with pride, because of what you’ve done and what you’ve created. I’m definitely much nicer to myself now after having kids.
Feature photo by Nikelle Lovaas.
This article was originally published in July 2019.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.