Riding While Pregnant - Expert advice on horse care and horse riding

Riding While Pregnant

Two dressage professionals share their stories.
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So you just found out you’re pregnant. How exciting! Hopefully you are able to bask in the excitement and joy of this moment for a little while before the onslaught of questions, planning and advice that is headed your way. As a rider, one of those first questions will probably be: “Can I keep riding?” The answer to this question, like almost every question concerning pregnancy, will depend on your individual situation.

Professional dressage riders and friends, Eliza Sydnor Romm and Kelly McGinn met through the annual Young Dressage Horse Trainers Symposium organized by Scott Hassler in 2005. Incidentally, they happened to become pregnant around the exact same time and they even shared the same due date. Here, they share their personal experiences of riding while pregnant. But please consult your OB/GYN or midwife to develop a plan that best suits you.

Eliza’s Story

I have ridden all my life, as my mother, Cindy Sydnor, is a dressage trainer as well. When people ask me when I started riding, I always say, “In the womb!” which is sort of a joke, of course, but my mom did ride with me until she was six months pregnant. I found out I was pregnant in late April 2013. My husband and I were ecstatic, and I had already considered my options of riding while pregnant and talked with him about my “plans.” I put plans in quotes, because any planning you do for pregnancy can go right out the window depending on how you feel. But for me, my plan worked out.

I was extremely lucky and had a very easy, joyous pregnancy. I had no morning sickness whatsoever. Honestly, the most annoying thing was how often I had to use the restroom! I had to make sure to empty my bladder before getting on the horse—not something I was used to. While I kept riding normally, about eight horses a day for the first three months, I did find myself being a little more cautious about certain things. For example, I did not get on horses that I didn’t know and I didn’t ride horses that I knew had a tendency to act up or had any history of dangerous behavior.

Of course, we all know any horse can spook, but I tried to be smart about riding ones that I knew quite well. Luckily, all the horses I had in training were wonderful, and I never felt in danger. I did have to ride a few spooks, and as I got further along in my pregnancy, I noticed that my body felt different in handling those spooks. But it was all very manageable.

I was advised by my physician to keep doing what my body was used to until I felt it telling me to stop or do things differently. Because my body was used to riding eight horses a day, I continued to do that in the beginning. I started to notice that I would be sore in different places than normal. As with most riders, I’m pretty used to being a little sore much of the time. But this soreness was different and was mostly from the stretching of tendons and ligaments in my pelvis. The round ligaments began to stretch, and I found that I would be sore more when I got off the horse, rather than while I was riding. I also found that the soreness was worse on the left side for some reason. It started to become harder for me to effectively use my left leg while riding. Again, none of this was painful, but there was just mild soreness in places that I wasn’t used to feeling sore.

In July, three months after I learned I was pregnant, I went to Lexington, Kentucky, as the chef d’equipe for the Region 1 Junior Rider team at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC). I was gone for a week and didn’t ride at all during that time. When I came home, I jumped right back into things and rode eight horses. After my last horse, I felt pretty sore when I got off.

Later that day, I drove to the feed store. When I got out of my car to go in, I found I could barely walk. I got really scared that I had hurt myself or the baby. It turned out that all was fine, but I just really overdid it that day. To deal with this, I learned to condition my body accordingly. So, the next day I rode one horse, then the next day two horses and so on and so forth. I never did get back up to riding eight horses, but I did ride three to four horses per day regularly and then I would teach my lessons without offering to get on students’ horses.

Around five months into my pregnancy I only rode two horses per day. I found that I couldn’t sit the trot anymore because it was definitely not comfortable and I couldn’t give much of a half halt. My balance still felt fine, although it did feel a bit different. 

At six months I decided to stop riding. My belly was beginning to hit the pommel of the saddle, which felt weird. I wasn’t so uncomfortable that I couldn’t keep riding, but I was beginning to feel that I wasn’t riding well anymore. I didn’t want to be up there and not be able to give an effective half halt or not help the horse to come into a better balance. At that point, the risks clearly outweighed the rewards.

My balance was changing, and it was not satisfying for me to just get on and ride around at the walk. I was still teaching a lot and felt comfortable enough to longe horses and do a little work in hand, although I couldn’t run very fast. I also definitely still made a point of getting to spend quality time with my horses each day through grooming and just generally loving on them.

I was so lucky to have two wonderful young women who work for me. They rode all the horses in training under my supervision. I decided to take the next few months to focus on my teaching. I do lots of continuing education for my own riding each year, but it is not as often that I get to work on becoming a better teacher. I also read a lot and tried to watch lessons given by instructors that I thought were exceptional teachers.

My husband was supportive of my decision to continue to ride, but he was very happy that I decided to stop when I did. He is not a horse-person, so it made him very nervous. But he trusted me to make safe choices for our child.

Update: My son, Daniel, is now almost 11 months old. I had a wonderful birth at a birthing center, completely natural with no drugs. My midwives advised me to wait six weeks to ride, but I sat on my FEI horse about two weeks after Daniel was born and just walked around for 10 minutes. 

I rode other horses at the walk a little and then at six weeks post-partum started trotting and cantering. I definitely felt wobbly and like I was made of jello, but it was great to ride again! This experience has made me more sympathetic to my amateur students who don’t have the core strength necessary for the best balance and ability to half halt. 

I gradually got my strength back and felt really good three months postpartum and then 100 percent around six months. I gained about 35 pounds during my pregnancy, and that came off gradually but easily since I was working and breastfeeding. I didn’t diet, just ate normally and chased this wild little boy around! 

Balancing my business with a new baby could be its own article, but so far it’s going well. There are definitely days that are tougher than others, but I am very lucky to have an extremely happy, easy-going baby boy and a phenomenal support system. My mom lives on the farm where I train, and she helps out a ton with Daniel. My assistant trainer, Emme Johnston, and my working student, Katie Taylor, are always willing to help and have never shied away from changing the occasional diaper. 

Daniel comes to the farm with me each day. I ride four to five horses each morning. I do not plan to get back to riding eight horses per day. I have two afternoons per week dedicated to teaching multiple lessons while one of the grandmothers watches Daniel.

Two afternoons a week I stay home with him, which I love. And one afternoon a week I take him with me to teach a couple women who love seeing him and don’t mind if I have to take a break for a second if he is upset for some reason. But he has been very happy to sleep while I teach. I think in the womb he was so used to hearing me coach that it just puts him right to sleep. We will see how things go once he starts walking, which is right around the corner. Balancing the business with being a mom requires some serious flexibility, but it is absolutely doable.

Kelly’s Story

When I found out I was pregnant in early April—I swear Eliza and I didn’t coordinate this—I had a range of emotions, from fear to apprehension to excitement: How can the idea of a tiny infant scare me when I handle big horses every day? Will riding harm the pregnancy? How much time off from riding will I have to take? When do we get to start looking at new ponies?

There were many other questions and emotions that I discussed with my husband and my friends who are in the business and have children, as well as talking with my OB/GYN. I suffered a miscarriage in 2012, so that added another level of anxiety and stress to my pregnancy. I was often second-guessing every move I made in my day: Were the jostling and movement of riding harming the baby? Did I come into contact with harmful chemicals while at the barn? 

I am the type of person who likes to educate myself so that I can make the best decision possible. I read as much as I could about riding while pregnant. Unfortunately, I discovered that there is not a lot out there on this subject. I went to some online bulletin boards and blogs and found a range of information, but it was a little scary as I would find some reassuring stories and some horror stories. I decided it was best to rely on friends in the business who have had children. I talked to my good friend, Ulla Parker, who has two beautiful daughters, and she gave me comfort and confidence to keep doing what my body was used to. 

I was riding anywhere from six to nine horses every day when I found out I was pregnant. Pretty soon after, the sickness set in. I wouldn’t call it “morning sickness” as it would come and go throughout the day. 

The good thing was that while I was concentrating on riding, I didn’t really feel too bad. It was when I was teaching and watching horses go round and round that I would feel quite sick. It was sort of like being seasick on the ground! 

I was very careful not to get on horses that I did not know and I didn’t ride the horses that I knew might be naughty or silly. In the first couple months of the pregnancy, I really felt pretty normal. It was when I got to about three or four months that I started to feel my body changing. My hips would ache, I would feel pulling in my abdomen and it would hurt to walk after I got off. I also felt my stamina was not what it used to be. I also suffered migraine headaches as I entered the second trimester. I discovered that they were related to the heat and humidity, so I had to be very careful not to get overheated and I had to stay hydrated. Needless to say, I had many days where it was tough just to get through the day. 

Like Eliza, as I got further along, I was riding fewer horses each day. I am lucky that I have some great girls who work for me who have ridden with me for a long time. So I was confident in their ability, and I was able to have them get on some of the horses and warm them up, so my time in the saddle was not as long. But I still felt like I was effective and making a difference. 

My plan was to ride up to the sixth month of my pregnancy, but I ended up making it to about five and a half months. I still felt pretty good while riding except that my balance was not what it used to be. Normally, I am a very confident rider, but when my balance changed, I started to feel that if a horse spooked, I may not be able to stay with him. 

When I no longer felt confident and effective, that was a sign to me that it was time to stop. One of my students said, “You know, you only have this one pregnancy and you have the rest of your life to ride.” This sounds like simple common sense, but it hit me like a brick on the side of the head! Duh, I thought. That is so true. 

As I spent more time out of the saddle, it was interesting to watch everyone else ride. It made me realize how much I love riding and how I couldn’t wait to get back to it. On the other hand, not being able to just hop on and fix a horse for a student or get on and show her how to do it, made me become a more creative and determined teacher.

I had to figure out different ways to explain a theory, movement or a feeling so that the student gets it. I feel the time out of the saddle has made me a better teacher and coach to my students. 

Another tool that became invaluable was long-lining because I was able to feel the horses without actually getting on them. The long lines actually allow me to feel the contact and I can feel if the horse is straight, more dependant on one rein or the other and if they are supple and easy to bend. 

Not riding also allowed me to develop other aspects of training that have made me a more well–rounded trainer. But I was stll eager to get back to riding and running my business after the birth of my little girl. I like knowing that she will see her mom working hard in a business and sport she is passionate about and loves. She will have a positive role model to look up to. Plus, pony shopping will be fun, too!

Update: Our little girl, Louisa—we call her Lulu—was born January 11, the same day that Eliza had her baby, Daniel! I had a fairly easy pregnancy and was expecting an easy delivery, but that wasn’t the case. At 41 weeks, I showed no signs of going into labor, so my doctor suggested I be induced. After a very long couple of days, our little girl was finally born via C-section. I was so happy to meet her, and she was perfect! 

I had to stay in the hospital a couple of extra days because of complications following the bith, so, needless to say, my recovery time was longer than I had expected.
I started riding about mid-March. I definitely felt like I had to get my “sea legs” back, as I was so surprised how little control I had of my body in the saddle. I have ridden my whole life and had never been out of the saddle for so long. I knew what I wanted my body to do, but just wasn’t physically able to do it. I took my time and listened to how I felt each day, adding more riding as I felt able. I also walked and ran to try to get fitter faster.

I’m back to work full-time now, and having a baby has been an amazing experience. I think it’s hard for women in this business to feel that they can do both by having a family and being a good trainer or rider, but I think becoming a mom has made me better at what I do. I am more patient, but also more demanding. I feel more effective in my teaching because I focus on the important things and don’t get caught up in the little things. 

Most of all, I feel very proud to have made a little life and have the ability to see the world through her eyes! She truly is my biggest accomplishment.

A Clinician’s Perspective 

By Lindsay Paulsen

Dr. Lisa Gorsuch, a USDF silver medalist and board-certified OB/GYN based in Huntersville, North Carolina, explains that when it comes to riding during pregnancy, all women should first consult a physician to develop a plan that best suits their individual needs. Although many riders safely continue riding through their pregnancy, it is still important to have a frank discussion with a personal physician about the potential risks of working with horses. 

“It’s really just a matter of what sort of risks you are willing to take,” Gorsuch says. “You never know what’s going to happen when there’s a horse in the picture. If you get hurt or if you get kicked, it can affect the baby. However, you can’t make yourself miscarry from riding and you can’t make yourself go into labor from riding. The biggest concern would be trauma to the abdomen.” 

The good news is that it isn’t unusual for many women to continue riding during their pregnancy, especially in the early stages. Plus, maintaining a fitness routine will help make labor easier. During the first trimester of a pregnancy, the uterus is actually protected by the pelvic bone, and riding isn’t as risky. But after about 15 weeks, the uterus loses some of the bony protection, meaning that the fetus is more susceptible to blunt trauma, she says.

In addition to safety concerns, Gorsuch explains that comfort often plays a big factor in a woman’s decision to ride. “Many of my patients continue to ride up until about 24 weeks,” she says. “Some riders find that as the abdomen grows, they become more off-balance and begin to feel uncomfortable sitting on a horse. So it might just not be as comfortable to continue riding.” 

For women who choose to take a hiatus from riding, physical activity is generally encouraged. “We normally tell our patients to continue to exercise," Gorsuch says. "We recommend at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity about five days a week. It will make their labor easier.” Whatever your status as a rider, make the best decision for you and your baby.