When it came down to it, a long-awaited pregnancy combined with a couple of early scares, made it obvious to me that I needed a hiatus from my sport.
By Victoria Spicer
Why do I do it? I’m repeatedly asking myself that question as I drive to the stable, about to ride for the first time in over a year. In 30-odd years of horse ownership, I’ve never had more than a month or two away from riding in all that time. But I spent the best part of the past year growing a new human, and riding simply wasn’t worth the risk.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those ‘THOU MUST NOT RIDE WHILE PREGNANT’ zealots. If you’re fit and well and you trust your horse, then go for it, if that’s what you want to do. I’d always imagined being as nonchalant as Mary King, who famously competed in the European Championships while five months pregnant with her daughter, Emily (who is now a four-star event rider in her own right. Now that’s what you call being ‘born in the saddle’.) My own mother was still riding in the weeks before giving birth to me, and I’d imagined I’d do the same thing, albeit with less jumping and more flatwork.
But when it came down to it, a long-awaited pregnancy combined with a couple of early scares, made it obvious to me that I needed a hiatus from my sport. Riding was no longer going to be my main hobby. My free time would now be spent sitting on the sofa, eating cookies and just generally feeling sick.
I missed it, of course. How could I not, when my job is writing about horses and watching the best riders in action, week in and week out? But gradually I suppressed that part of me. I found a lovely loan home for my Thoroughbred mare, who would be spending the summer going show jumping and on fun rides. My equipment was stored in the garage, my breeches folded away, and I stopped perusing show schedules and planning out my season. Browsing tack shops was replaced by trips to Mothercare storefronts, and I cared more about decorating the nursery than adding rosettes to my string. And while my decision wasn’t financial, I have to admit that a few months off from paying stabling fees was a relief, especially since I was working fewer hours than before.
I’d given myself until the fall before I’d start riding again. It seemed a million miles away back in June when I was in the final stages of pregnancy and was so vast I could barely tie my shoelaces, let alone put my foot in a stirrup. Nor did it seem any closer in those blurred days I spent in hospital, recovering from a less-than-straightforward birth while a heatwave raged outside. Or during those timeless, sleepless disorientating nights that followed. When I saw old pictures of me competing, it looked like someone else, another lifetime altogether. Now I had this tiny, helpless being to care for – how could I dream of doing anything as risky as jumping or galloping when he needed me so much?
I have one eye on the road and another on the clock, wondering if I’d have enough time to get there, tack up, ride, untack and make it home before my baby started yelling for his next feed.
But as my baby boy grew and filled out, and started to sleep more and cry less, that urge to ride began to return. I spoke to my loaner, and she agreed to continue the agreement with the provision that I would start to ride once or twice a week, when time and a demanding baby allowed.
And so I found myself driving to an unfamiliar stable yard, further away than ideal for me, but handy for my mare’s loaner. I’m squeezed into my too-small breeches, all the while asking myself why I’m putting myself through it. I haven’t lost enough baby weight. My core is non-existent. I have one eye on the road and another on the clock, wondering if I’d have enough time to get there, tack up, ride, untack and make it home before my baby started yelling for his next feed. Would my long-suffering partner be happy to look after our son while I sauntered off to prance round fields on my pony for a few hours? Would I even remember how to ride? Would my horse be sharp and unruly? What if I fell and was injured?
My mare looks surprised but pleased to see me, though I dare say the carrots probably helped on that front. I begin going through the familiar processes, taking off rugs, grooming, putting on boots and tack, a little slower and more clumsy than before. Then I’m on, and we head out to the fields, as the arena isn’t quite finished – though how I long to be in its safe confines instead of this open paddock. The grass is wet and I haven’t put studs in, so I have a flash of concern about her slipping, us falling. I shake my head and try to relax, but my shoulders are up around my ears somewhere.
Her walk is active and swinging, her ears pricked. I’d forgotten how long her stride is. Then we’re trotting, and the muscles in my thighs are firing for the first time in 12 months. I’m recalling that familiar rhythm, and gradually we’re falling back into sync. A short canter on each leg, my (excess) weight off her back, all that power and speed contained underneath me. I’m beginning to enjoy myself. We do changes of rein and transitions to walk, we leg-yield and try a few walk pirouettes, and it’s all still there. Loads to like and a thousand things to improve on. That itch of ambition, that urge to improve is returning. I pat her and walk to cool off, and I’m smiling.
On the drive back my head is filled with shows I want to go to, of plans and goals for the coming year. I adore my new role as a mum, but for a few hours I was my old self again. My limbs feel tired and heavy but I’m lighter than air. And I think – this is why I do it. This is why.