Is it time to hang up my riding hat?

To ride or not to ride…and a million other questions in the first trimester.

An emotional time for Jodine as she remembers the happy times riding  Minty

An emotional time for Jodine as she remembers the happy times riding  Minty

Once I had got over the shock and elation of the big news, my initial reaction as a horse rider was to completely ignore it.  Happy as a rugless horse in a mud-off, I trotted to the stables to continue my quest to get Minty and me to Tokyo 2020.

Except you can only pretend to yourself for so long that you’re not growing a tiny person in your tummy. 

Slowly but surely, little doubts crept in, and decisions that wouldn’t have been given a second thought became choices to be agonised over.  “Should I help catch that person’s horse in from the field?”, “Will I head out on that hack on my own?” And the biggie….”How long should I keep riding?”

To ride or not to ride?

This has to be the biggest question an expectant equestrian has to ask themselves – it certainly was for me.  And, after thinking about it a lot, I really don’t think there is a perfect answer for everyone.  Every horse, rider and situation is different and it would be impossible to put a recommended deadline on it.  (Except if Minty were in charge of course, then she’d be recommending everyone stop at conception, to allow all of the horses in the world to focus on more important things, like keeping the grass short.)

But any how, this is my experience in all of its honest and hormonal blubbering glory…

After breaking the news to Minty (after my husband, she was the first person I told)…(and yes I mean person) she and I discussed our plans for the first trimester.  I explained that the strategy was to continue riding without change until 14 weeks and, if things were going well, then we would continue flatwork until four to five months.  She looked at me blankly and indicated where she wanted scratching.

At this point I just felt like the clock was ticking.  We were at the start of the summer season and I was determined to cram in as much as possible before d-day (de-horsed day) came.  So, after avidly scouring every equestrian centre and equine events page in the North East, I scheduled my calendar with all the vigour of someone on the Rolex Grand Slam circuit.  Trip to the beach?  Yes siree, we’ll be there with flippers on.  Horse weekend away?  Consider us packed.  First British Dressage? Why the heck not?!!  I had so many one-day-events scheduled in, I started just keeping my full kit in the car – why waste time taking it in to get washed?!

And one of the best parts of the first trimester for me was that nobody knew.  And so I didn’t have to deal with any of the judgement. Except from myself that is.

You see, my experience during this phase is best described as one of conflict.  If we were talking Anglo-French relations, it would probably be the Napoleonic period.  I didn’t need anyone else telling me that I should be careful, the little maternal fairy on my shoulder was already covering that just fine.  My maternal instinct was kicking in and, much as I fought it, it started to influence my decision-making.  One-day-events started to only be booked on familiar cross-country courses, while 80cm showjumping courses started to drop down to 70cm ones.  And, little by little, this tiny baby swimming around in my pelvis started to take the place of the big, 15.1hh with a scratching addiction.

Minty looked after Jodine and baby round the course

Minty looked after Jodine and baby round the course

And, the most important thing, this baby wasn’t just mine; it was my husband’s too.  My ever-accommodating, non-complaining husband who not once did he ask me to stop or judge me.  He knew how much it meant to be to spend as long as possible with my furry friend (even though he thinks horse people are weird) and had lived through the tears every time I told him how much I was going to miss her.  Nevertheless, each time I headed off in my white jodhpurs, I could see the hope in his eyes that everything would be okay as he told me “Be careful.”  And every time I replied with an airy, “Of course!  I wouldn’t do anything I thought was dangerous.” But, in truth, I would get into the car, wave goodbye, and fight away the tears because, deep down, I knew that no horse-riding was safe. 

In the end, my last ride was totally unplanned.  I’d got to 14 weeks and intended to eek that out to 16, maybe 18, with some arena flatwork while I still felt fit and balanced.  We had finished our competition season on a total high, with a first and 72% at our first British Dressage competition, coming fourth in one of the largest local one-day-events and fresh back from a lovely horsey staycation weekend with friends at Stonechester Equestrian (it’s where the Beowulf horses stay when they’re filming) where we galloped, had intensive jumping and flatwork sessions and even an equine photoshoot!!

The night was perfect, with a warm, end-of-day sun and the arena to ourselves. Just Minty and me, surrounded by picturesque countryside, having a natter and practising our walk to canters.  I’d been up the previous day, but there was a tractor in the field next to the arena; something I wouldn’t normally bat an eyelid at, but I had put my tack away and dutifully scratched for 30 minutes instead.  

That night I went to go for (one of my many) nocturnal toilet visits and could barely get out of bed due to pain in my pelvis and groin.  My pregnancy-related SPD* had arrived in super style, brought on by that evening’s dressage saddle grinding.  (In case you’re wondering what SPD (Symphysis Pubic Dysfunction) is, it is a condition where your joints move about too much because of the hormone relaxin, that your body pumps you full of, to loosen everything up for the birth.  Nice I know eh?)

So, that was that.  My days in the saddle were done.  And do you know what?  That wasn’t the point that I cried.  Yes I felt sad, but actually, I was ready.  Lots of tears had already been shed and, in a way, I had already grieved for this moment.  With every last competition or hack we did, a little bit of horsey life had already eked away, and the decisions not to ride had become more frequent than the other way round.  Without even knowing it, my priorities had changed.  I spoke to Minty at great length about it the next day over a bowl of chaff and explained that I still loved her and how much I’d appreciated the effort she’d put in at the last few events for us to finish on such a good note.  I’m not going to lie readers, I think she actually sighed at one point.

So, the only advice I can give on this supersonic question of how long to ride for is, just let your body and mind decide themselves.  You'll know when it's time to take the decision and, if something feels wrong, it probably is, and you should trust your instinct.  Which leads me nicely on to another thing to deal with during the first trimester…..other people’s opinions!

Dealing with Judgement

Word of warning guys - everyone will have an opinion on when you should be riding.  It doesn’t even have to be vocalised, you'll see it by the reaction in their eyes.  I dealt with this by not telling anyone for as long as possible, but by 11 weeks the word was out – and I still had a good three weeks’ worth of competitions in me. 

At this point, you may find a distinct split between the views of horsey and non-horsey folks.  My advice is to cut the non-horsey ones a bit of slack and think about it from their point of view.  Faced with a half-tonne hulk of flailing hooves we may not think twice of waving our hands and telling it to “back up” but that’s a pretty scary concept to most.  So, when I had all of the expected, “So you’re still riding then?” queries (team that with raised eyebrows and eyes drawn slightly in alarm) my standard response was always the same, “Yes, but not for much longer now and nothing out of our comfort zone!” (while patting my tummy and Minty simultaneously and giving a nod of reassurance.) 

What I was not quite so prepared for, was the judgement of other riders.  And, actually, it wasn’t all great. Advice varied wildly from “Well I never stopped riding the whole way through, what are you worrying about?” to “Just trotting can damage the baby you know?”  And, because they were riders, their comments stuck with me a little more.  A particular low point was at our final one-day-event.  It was a big event and it felt like most of the North East unaffiliated community was there.  I knew I was pushing it at 14 weeks and had been wracked with guilt all morning, consoling myself that it was a cross-country course we had been round many times, I’d dropped a class lower and that I would take stock at each phase to decide whether to continue to the next. 

Jodine show jumping her honest friend Minty

Jodine show jumping her honest friend Minty

We had just finished warming up for show jumping and were waiting to go into the ring.  Out of nowhere someone came over and gave me their exact thoughts on why what I was doing was entirely inappropriate and that I should reconsider.  (Just what you need before a full set of fillers, water trays and three doubles!)  I was completely taken aback and went round the course in a blur – only going clear because I had such a superstar underneath me.  But, when I’d finished, my little cheering squad of friends and family gave the biggest hooray and (once again) I was in tears for all the right reasons. 

All three of us then went and flew round the cross-country course that day and I couldn’t have been prouder of me and my little horse.

Physical Changes

There’s no getting round this – your body is going to change dramatically, even at this early stage.  For the lesser-bosomed varieties of us, those smart little show jackets may start to gape a little at the seams; those jodhpurs will start to take the strain in more ways than one and, well, let’s not talk about the sickness and exhaustion…

If you have ever been pregnant, then you will understand the tiredness of the first trimester.  If you haven’t and think you might one day, then I would advise going to bed now, and not getting up until the moment comes. 

For me, just getting up to the stables was a mammoth task that I had to psyche myself up for.  Breathing through waves of nausea I would pick that manure out of her hooves and pretend to myself that it was just soil.  I would hoist that amazing, yet weighty dressage saddle from the car and onto her back.  And, (I’m not ashamed to admit), I once lay down on her bed of fresh sawdust for a rest.  This, of course caused much curiosity with her ladyship, who promptly came over and started grooming my head. 

But then there were all the days that I didn’t make it.  When a day at work just wiped me and it was all I could do to lie on the sofa and think about how I should have been at the stables to pick her feet out.  And this leads me onto my most important piece of advice.  If there is one thing that I realised, it's that you're not going to be able to do everything you once did.  Cut yourself some slack and don’t beat yourself up every time you don’t make it.  A horse is a horse - as long as they have their basic needs tended to they will absolutely not mind that you haven’t been up to groom the tats out of their tail.  I’m lucky that Minty is on full livery but, if even your horse isn’t, then this is the point to ask for help.  If you can afford it, book in some extra livery.  If not, then now is the time to call in some favours.  Make an illness or other excuse up if people don’t know yet and beg, borrow and steal time from friends and other liveries.  It’s not an admission of failure – hey, you’re growing a person in there, what’s everyone else doing today?

So, that brings us to the end of the first trimester.  I am now a non-rider with a fully fit and competing horse wondering what to do with her stud holes.  And it is making me wonder what to do with them too…

Drop by for next month’s update to see how I deal with the next major decision – what to do with Minty while I am pregnant - and meet all of the people who will become permanent characters in her life (and her saddle!) while I am out of riding action.