For better or worse, Zara Phillips is now the poster girl for riding while pregnant. Her announcement that she’ll keep competing at upper level eventing and riding in polo matches has been all over the popular press.
Predictably, her decision has drawn criticism and concern. “She’s selfish”, writes one; “She’s risking her life and her unborn baby’s life” says another. “Is Zara Riding into Danger?” states a headline.
I would not compete at advanced levels of eventing while pregnant, but then again, I wouldn’t do it at all, even when not pregnant — which is where most people sit on the issue. In fact, I’d venture to guess that most people commenting have never sat on a horse at all, they just know it’s “dangerous”.
I rode during both my pregnancies, so you know my bias on the subject. During my first, I rode until the week before my son was born. Okay, “rode” is a misnomer. I sat on my horse while he ambled along and I tried not to think about how much I needed to pee. With my second pregnancy I stopped at around seven months because I was uncomfortable and my horse was less predictable.
I took precautions. When I found out I was pregnant I stopped jumping. I lunged my horse before riding. I stayed in a ring. I slowed down. Everything worked out and I have two healthy children (now teens). Does that mean everyone should ride while they are pregnant? Certainly not! It’s a very personal decision and it depends on your health, the decision you make with your partner and the advice of your doctor. Neither of my doctors told me that riding was forbidden; they did tell me to be careful. But then again, they told me to be careful driving, too.
I will admit that when pregnant with my first child, I had a fall very early on — maybe at about 8 weeks. I was riding someone elses horse, a horse that was “recovered” from EPM. He fell with me when we were trotting. He fell so fast I never knew it was coming. My doctor cheerfully told me there was no problem because at that time the embryo is very well protected by the mother’s abdominal wall and pelvic girdle. In retrospect, I wonder why I felt so determined to keep on riding. I was convinced that nothing bad would happen if I rode only my own, trusted horse, who didn’t have a buck or a spook in him. I’m still not sure that my trust in my ability and my horse were justified; had something happened, it would have been very difficult to get over.
Certainly, there are risks associated with riding while pregnant. After about 12 weeks, your fetus sits higher, above the pelvic girdle and is no longer as protected. If you fall, there is the chance of placental disruption which is very serious. Horses are unpredictable and when your center of gravity changes, even the most accomplished rider can feel unbalanced. However, just riding, without a fall, is not such a big deal. You are unlikely to jostle your fetus loose just through the motions, although I will testify that it becomes uncomfortable — and ungainly — after a certain point. Mounting and dismounting are certainly not graceful!
Certainly, in Zara’s case there are precedents. Her mother, Princess Anne, rode while pregnant. Eventer Mary King competed at the European World Championships while five and a half months pregnant (and won an individual bronze medal) and eventer Tina Cook competed during both her pregnancies.
As riders we probably all know people who have ridden while pregnant. And also people who decided to stop. It is a personal decision that needs to be made by the woman, her partner and her doctor — not played out in the media.
What do you think? Should Zara Phillips keep competing? If you’ve had children, did you keep riding or take the time off?