Equestrian Supermoms Are A Special Breed

Jan 16, 2011 - 7:00 PM
Dressage superstar Anky van Grunsven and son Yannick.

After the recent baby boom in high performance equestrian circles, how do these mothers balance feedings and diaper changes with competing at the top of their sport?

Sometimes, it starts with a secret. Dutch Olympic gold medalist in dressage and international reining competitor Anky van Grunsven was four months pregnant when she competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

“I didn’t tell anybody because it was so hot in Athens, and I didn’t want anybody to worry!” said van Grunsven, who is now mother to 5-year-old son Yannick and 3-year-old daughter Ava Eden. “The second time, my sister-in-law said, ‘Don’t start trying for a baby so early’, but I was three months pregnant in Aachen for the WEG [in 2006].”

Eventer Gina Miles, Creston, Calif., individual silver medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, planned her pregnancies with son Austin, 10, and daughter Taylor, 4, around her competition schedule.

“I was really fortunate that I had Austin before [my Olympic horse] McKinlaigh’s career and we started doing a lot of traveling,” she said. “I knew a winter baby was good because I could ride through the spring and summer, and when I’d get too big to ride would be around the end of the fall season, and I’d be ready to ride again in the spring.”

She planned for Taylor’s birth to be in the gap year after the 2004 Olympic Games. Things didn’t go exactly as planned though: Miles fell off a young horse when she was 15 weeks pregnant and broke her leg, which kept her from riding during her second pregnancy.

Timing was also key for one of van Grunsven’s biggest rivals in the arena, German Olympic gold medalist in dressage Isabell Werth. She gave birth to her son Frederik in 2009, at age 40.

“It was a dream to become a mother, and I became older and older, and it was time!” Werth said. “I think it’s normal that there’s a natural limit, so I had the feeling that it was the right time; we were lucky that it worked!”

Riding Through Pregnancy

While most doctors discourage women from taking up riding during pregnancy, most professional riders are physically fit and experienced enough to continue spending time in the saddle. After discussing the risks with her doctors, dressage rider Lauren Sammis, South Orange, N.J., rode until she was five months pregnant, but only at home on her longtime partner and FEI horse Sagacious HF.

“I was very comfortable on him physically and mentally,” added Sammis, a 2007 Pan American Games gold medalist. “There was a lot of trust there, and it was amazing to see the horse totally take care of me, 100 percent.”

Even the best in the world can fall off, so van Grunsven also opted for quieter horses during pregnancy. “With my daughter I rode into my eighth month, but I only rode the quiet ones, not the wild ones. I never had a problem with my belly, but my balance wasn’t good,” she said. “Salinero can jump, and I didn’t want to take that risk.”

American-born show jumper Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, 41, who competes for Germany alongside her husband Markus, gave birth to a baby girl in February of 2010. At the advice of her doctor she stopped showing early in the pregnancy, but she kept schooling her famous mount Shutterfly indoors, even jumping him over small fences once a week for the first few months. A three-time World Cup winner, Michaels-Beerbaum quickly returned to competition and helped Germany secure the team gold medal eight months later at the Alltech FEI World Eques-trian Games riding Checkmate.

All Natural—Or Not

Perhaps it’s the nature of horsewomen that many of them opt for natural childbirth.

“It was all natural, no drugs, and I had a birthing pool,” said Canadian dressage rider Denielle Gallagher-LeGriffon, who gave birth to her daughters at home in Suffern, N.Y. “There were no complications; everything was fine.”

Things don’t always go as planned though. With her son Yannick, van Grunsven developed preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension) and had an emergency cesarean section at 30 weeks.

“I went to the doctor, and they said they had to do a cesarean right away,” she said. “My horse at home was being tacked up to ride!”

This experience didn’t discourage her from going through pregnancy again. “With my daughter everything went fine,” she continued. “I had some extra checkups and things like that, but it was fine.”

Both of Miles’ children were born naturally, though with one difference: Austin was drug-free, and with Taylor she opted for an epidural.

“With Austin I wasn’t sure about drugs. I didn’t want an epidural, but with Taylor I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna have an epidural,’ and wow, it was great! I didn’t like the idea of a needle in my spine, but I would definitely do it again,” Miles said. “All through labor I was sitting there watching show jumping on TV, chatting with my husband and doctor and watching contractions on the monitor until it was time to push.”

Werth kept riding until a few days before the birth and was back in the saddle just two weeks later. She delivered via a planned cesarean, which she explained, “My doctor said that because of the muscles from riding he was worried that it was too tight for the baby to come out in the natural way.”

Explaining her recovery plan, she said, “I started slowly, just walking in the beginning, and day by day I got stronger. I think it’s normal that it needs time for everything to [heal].”

Getting Back In The Saddle

Most professional riders don’t have the time,finances or patience to wait the recommended six weeks after delivery to get back in the tack. Sammis started riding again five weeks after her twins were delivered by cesarean.

“It was really an interesting process,” she said. “I started to ride again, and I was weak and heavier than I’d ever been; it was really intimidating! I have a whole new respect for people learning to ride as adults.”

She also noted that once she started to ride again after becoming a mother, she wore a helmet.

After each of her births, van Grunsven started riding again after six weeks. “My doctor never hada problem with me riding to the end, but with the cesarean he said six weeks of no riding,” she explained. “I thought my child’s and my own health was worth taking it easy.”

Since she had an episiotomy with the birth of her son Austin, Miles took a couple of weeks off and waited until the stitches were removed, but she didn’t waste any time hopping on a horse again.

“It did hurt, but I got in the tack a couple weeks later and went to Ram Tap [Horse Trials (Calif.)] six weeks later,” she said. “My mentor Lisa Sabo had done it, so I was determined to do it too, but in hindsight I think it was crazy. What’s the rush?”

Still, the second time around, with daughter Taylor, Miles only took 10 days to start riding again. “Since I’d been laid up for my broken leg, I could only post like one time around the arena,” she recalled. “I was so out of shape, and it hurt so much! It was really frustrating to have been able to go around a four-star and then barely be able to trot around the arena.”

A major competition can be an inspiration for getting back in the saddle quickly. Only seven weeks after giving birth to her son Konstantin, Princess Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg of Denmark competed in the 2010 Alltech FEI WorldEquestrian Games. She kept riding until the end of the seventh month of pregnancy, and then her groom and a full-time rider kept Digby and her other horses in training while she sat on the sidelines.

“There was no problem riding again,” she said. “I got on the horse eight days later. I started with only 20 minutes; my bereiter had warmed him up for me. The next time I rode half an hour and then 40 minutes, with her warming him up, then I started riding him straightaway. After that I also rode another horse that she warmed up for me, so I rode ‘one and a half’ horses two weeks after giving birth and went to my first show in four weeks.”

While this may sound like a rigorous schedule, she said with a laugh, “When you can give birth to a child, you can do anything!”

Lifestyle Changes

Though horsewomen tend to be the ultimate multi-taskers, even without children in tow, it’s impossible to compete with a kid strapped into the saddle.

Sammis has a full-time nanny to help with her twins Ryan, a girl, and Aidan, a boy. Her partner Melanie Summer, who works a “regular job” for Viacom, travels from New Jersey to Florida each weekend to be with the kids during the winter.

Werth plans to have a nanny in the future, but she said, “Now it works really well and Frederik is very helpful: he’s very easy and very polite. Of course my family and my team here keep an eye on him when I’m on my horse.”

Frederik’s arrival has meant some big organizational changes in Werth’s life. “Before Frederik I woke up, and my whole life was arranged around horses; now my whole life is arranged around Frederik!” she said. “In the morning I have to organize his feeding and make sure all is well before I go to warm up. He comes to the show grounds, so it depends on the facilities. You train and organize and get the routine.”

She also said, laughing, that more than once she’s driven down the road with a truck full of horses only to turn back for extra baby gear.

Like Werth, Miles credits her family with helping her stay on top of her game.

“You can at least get an hour or two to go ride, either a spouse or somebody at the barn who you can trade babysitting with,” said Miles. “I found a working student who had nanny experience: She loved babies and could tack up the horse while I fed the baby, and then I could hand her the baby. She filled either role. My sister, grooms, friends and students have all helped out.”

Things don’t always go as planned, of course. “When you have a sick child maybe you have daycare lined up, but the child has to come to the barn; everybody has pitched in,” said Miles. “I have to say, for my children growing up at the barn or in the arena, they have super immune systems!”

Being involved in the high-risk sport of eventing, Miles emphasized that keeping her competitiveedge is essential. “I think our sport can be dangerous if you’re too cautious,” she said. “You have to ride aggressively and forward to do it well. If that element of trepidation trickles in, you have to back down. You can actually make mistakes being too careful. Maybe I don’t hang on to the less talented animals for quite as long now that I’m a parent, but I think that’s maturity in the sport, too,” she added. “As you move along in your career you becomemore selective anyway.”

And when it came to nursing, Miles had a weaning experience that only an eventer could imagine: While her son Austin went back and forth between breast and bottle, for her daughter Taylor, only Mom would do. A three-day event finally forced Taylor to kick the breast milk habit.

“Austin weaned at 10 months, but at 13 months Taylor was still nursing, and it was time to go to Fair Hill [CCI*** (Md.)],” recalled Miles. “I was so tired because she was keeping me up at night. My mom, bless her heart, said, ‘You’re going to Fair Hill and Taylor is staying with me, because it’s not safe for you to go in this state.’ When I came home Taylor was weaned. Mom gets stars for that!”

On The Road

The barn can be the ideal place to raise children: They get plenty of fresh air and time outdoors, learn about animals, and if it’s a busy barn they meet all kinds of people. If they spend time traveling to shows they also learn to adapt to new situations.

Gallagher-LeGriffon said, “Sofia has a pony, and she makes him trot and canter. He’s a therapeutic pony so when he canters he practically stays in one spot! She loves the ponies and horses. She loves to feed them treats and brush them; she just wants to do everything with them, which is lucky for me.”

She agreed with Miles that the key is having agood support system. “My husband and my grooms are a huge help,” Gallag-her-LeGriffon said. “When she was an infant I took Sofia everywhere with me. She went to Florida, and we put the Pack ‘n Play [portable crib/playpen] in the tack room. At shows she just came with me; since I was nursing I couldn’t leave her with anyone. With the second one I think I’ll need to have more help though. I have a girl who comes to my house to take care of them while I teach, and I think she’ll come to shows with me for a while, because it’s a lot.”

Van Grunsven travels frequently, but she brings her children—and their nanny—with her. “I don’t want to travel all over the world and leave my children at home,” she said. “At home I work from 9 to 4, which is when they come home from school, and Saturdays and Sundays. I think it’s always important to have a supportive partner.”
Van Grunsven, who grew up in a horsey family, keeps the horses a family affair and balances showing with fun for her children. “We had a holiday with the children when we went to Wellington [(Fla.) to compete at the World Dressage Masters]. We had a day at the beach, and last year we went to Disney World,” she said.

In a typical day around the farm, Yannick goes to school in the morning, and when he comes home van Grunsven has lunch with him. Her husband Sjef Janssen takes both children to school. The children go to bed around 8:30, after which van Grunsven checks email and takes care of things at the office.

Once in a while, she said, Yannick wants to be a cowboy and sits on the Quarter Horse. “They have a pony, and I think it’s important that they have fun with it,” she said. “It’s fine if they ride or not.”

Changed Perspective

Even the toughest world-class competitor finds her outlook on life altered by motherhood.

“The thing with having children is that it puts everything into a different perspective,” said Sammis. “I get to ride and really enjoy that, and it’s such a bonus. Even if things didn’t go exactly as you hoped on that day, you go home and have a family. It takes a little of the stress of the every day and trying to be perfect off a little bit.”

Family life has also changed her viewpoint in the saddle. “I can ride from a totally different place in my head—it made me relax more into it,” she said. “I’m so fortunate that I have as much help as I do and that I get to ride for a living and have two healthy children. It doesn’t get any better.”

While she loves her children, Sammis is no less focused on her competition goals. “I am definitely as competitive—when you make a commitment, you have to be,” she said. “I have a wonderful horse and owner, and I know what I have to do to achieve that goal. It puts you in an area where you have to make sacrifices. For me it means a lot to see my children every day and put them to bed at night. When I have to be at a show and miss that time with them, I’d better make that show count. They grow up really fast, and you never get those days back!”

Van Grunsven has seen her priorities change as her children get older. “As babies they sleep a lot, and you don’t have the feeling they miss you as much when you’re not there,” she said. “Now there’s more of a bond, and they want to spend time with you.”

Though she said she’s never been one to ride the wild and crazy horses, she emphasized that it’s important to listen to your instincts. “If you don’t think it’s good, don’t do it,” she said. “You have to follow your own feeling; if you want to work less or more or take care of your children, the most important thing is that everyone’s happy, not what anybody else thinks about it. It’s different for everyone, but you have to do what’s right for you.”

Motherhood has put everyday problems into perspective for Werth. “Since Frederik was born all bad things are relative,” she said. “It’s not so hard. Last week I had a bad day: one horse was really strong and not supple, and I was really frustrated, but when I took Frederik in my arms, all was well.”

Princess Nathalie agreed: “If something goes wrong in your test, your baby smiles at you and it’s…whatever!”

Miles said that motherhood keeps her grounded through the ups and downs of being a professional horsewoman. “Going into the Olympics was the most important moment of my career, but it’s not who I am. It allowed me to have my best sporting moment,” she said. “The horse business has so many extreme highs and lows. Having a family life outside of that lets you keep it in perspective,” she added. “They’re the biggest joy and bring meaning to the world.”

Category: Lifestyles
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