By Justine Griffin
Photography Erin Wheeler and Mackenzie Pearce
Dressage trainer Andi Patzwald was accustomed to riding multiple horses a day before she became pregnant with her son. Training horses was her livelihood. So she continued to ride well into her first pregnancy, and even after she was thrown from a young horse when she was four-and-a-half months along.
“That was very scary for me,” said Andi, a 31-year-old trainer from Wadsworth, Ill., who has brought horses along to the Grand Prix level. Her son, Henry, is now seven months old. “I sent the young horse to another trainer to ride for the duration of my pregnancy. But I continued to ride the horses I felt comfortable with and safe on.”
“I’ve only been pregnant the one time, but to be honest, I think I would be more conservative the second time around now that I have my son and it’s a little more ‘real’ what a miracle he was growing inside of me,” she confessed.
Riding while pregnant has been a hot button issue for women equestrians in the past. But the stigma around it seems to be softening, thanks to top riders who have embraced the balance of being a soon-to-be mother but still a professional with a job to do.
Two-time Olympic event rider, Jessica Phoenix, rode through almost the entire length of her two pregnancies.
“I was the worst pregnant woman in the world,” she joked. “I never felt so bad for eight months straight in my life. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, sitting on a horse was actually the most comfortable place I could sit.”
Jessica, 33, said riding kept her sane and focused during her pregnancies, even when she was feeling sick and weak.
“When you’re sitting on a horse you have to give 100 percent focus to what you’re doing. So I didn’t think about how ill I was feeling while I was riding,” she explained. “It kept me strong and fit and made my pregnancies and labour easier. Mentally, it was huge.”
Officially there’s no safe period during which to ride when you’re pregnant. But somewhat unofficially, riding during the first trimester is pretty darn safe.- Dr. Gabby Ledger
Show jumper Georgina Bloomberg was still competing at Grand Prix level when she was five months pregnant in 2013. Dutch Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven was four months pregnant when she competed in individual dressage at 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. British dressage rider Laura Tomlinson competed in the Oldenburg CDI last year in Germany when she was five months pregnant. Australian show jumper Edwina Tops-Alexander continued to jump well through her pregnancy last year.
That’s a stark comparison to when veteran eventer Mary King was five months pregnant with her daughter Emily, (who now is also an equestrian) during the 1995 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Mary chose to hide her pregnancy instead of talking openly about it for fear of judgment or possible elimination.
“Officially there’s no safe period during which to ride when you’re pregnant,” said Dr. Gabby Ledger, a physician in Ontario, Canada, who has been a family medical care practitioner and a child psychiatrist. She’s also an equestrian who competes at the intermediate and one-star level in eventing. And she has two kids. “But somewhat unofficially, riding during the first trimester is pretty darn safe. The uterus is in the pelvis, which is basically a bony cage. A break would put the pregnancy at risk, but that would only happen during a really tough fall.”
“For whatever reason, sitting on a horse was actually the most comfortable place I could sit.” – Jessica Phoenix
Most physicians adhere to the recommendations set by medical associations like The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which says some exercise is healthy during pregnancy, but activities that could result in a fall, like horseback riding or downhill snow skiing, should be avoided completely.
A 2016 study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined pregnancy in Olympic athletes. The study said women should avoid horseback riding because of its inherent risk.
But Dr. Ledger said there are plenty of physicians out there who are also equestrians, who probably don’t follow these guidelines for themselves. Dr. Ledger rode through her own pregnancies until she could feel her balance in the saddle shifting around the five-month mark.
When weighing whether or not to ride, she said it comes down to an individual person’s risk tolerance.
“When you have this discussion with your doctors, you must weigh the pros and cons,” she explains. “It comes down to how much riding you do. If you’re a trainer and this is your business, then you must consider how you’re going to put food on the table otherwise. If riding is an essential part of your existence, it’s a much bigger cost to you to stop than someone who is pregnant and considering a horseback riding excursion during their vacation to Cuba.”
Andi said it was difficult to balance her riding career and being pregnant at first. She said she learned to be kinder to her body and to know when to take it easy.
“My whole life had been centered around riding and training horses,” she explained. “My doctors were great and said since my body was so used to riding multiple horses every day for so many years, that I could continue as long as I felt safe.”
Dr. Ledger says the equestrian community has come a long way to support women as athletes, which can be seen in how equestrians care for their children at horse shows or ride while pregnant. For example, the show jumping world ranking list is frozen when a female athlete declares she is pregnant, according Will Connell, director of sport with U.S. Equestrian.
“Overall, I say riders are quite accepting of other riders riding during pregnancies. Every once in a while there’s a critical voice that makes everyone feel worried about the optics of it,” said Dr. Ledger. “But we’re more progressive and accepting of women having a life while pregnant. It makes me think about how I was at an event in Ocala, Fla., and there were three of us breastfeeding our babies together in between phases.”
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