Since 2017, Chelsea Smith has been living through a struggle that few women talk about but one in four will experience: infertility.
Smith, 31, and her husband, Mark Smith, started trying for a baby in 2016. They had recently purchased a small farm in Paris, Kentucky, and Chelsea had launched her own equine marketing agency, which she operated from her home office. A lifelong eventer, she rode through the ups and downs of early adulthood and was on her way to training level with her then 7-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding, Brew.
It seemed like the perfect moment to add a child to their family.
But after months without conception, Chelsea learned she had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common hormonal disorder that can enlarge ovaries and cause cysts on their outer edges, making it much harder to get and stay pregnant.
Harder, but often not impossible.
“PCOS is really related to nutrition and stress—those are the biggest things,” said Chelsea, adding the disclaimer that she’s not a medical professional. “To try and manage it, you have to be really mindful about how you’re eating, how you’re sleeping, whether you’re living a lifestyle that’s balanced or not.
“I’d always just been that scrappy eventer who did what I needed to do to get by, ate ramen noodles if I had to,” Chelsea continued. “Taking care of myself first and foremost, that was kind of a new concept.”
Chelsea grew up in Paducah, Kentucky. She started riding at 6 years old after winning a free lesson in a stick horse race.
“I had a brother growing up who had cancer, and we were in and out of St. Jude Children’s Research hospital quite a bit,” Chelsea said. “He died when I turned 6. As a young kid dealing with all the emotions that came with that, riding was exactly what I needed.”
Chelsea evented through high school and brought her passion for the sport to the University of Kentucky, where she and a few friends founded the eventing chapter of UK’s equestrian program. She studied equine science and management, then went on to intern for the U.S. Equestrian Federation and work in the education department at the U.S. Dressage Federation, both in Lexington, Kentucky.
She earned a master of business administration from Midway University (Kentucky) before launching her own brand, Smith Equine Media.
“To think it all started with a stick horse race!” Chelsea joked.
Following her diagnosis with PCOS, Chelsea began a series of infertility treatments. She started taking medications in the summer of 2017 and had her first intrauterine insemination, or IUI, in January of 2018. It took, but she suffered a quick chemical miscarriage.
She had two more IUIs before summer while continuing intensive hormone therapy, including a daily stomach injection.
“Each IUI runs about $2,500, and my monthly supplements were around $150 a month, plus the running back and forth to clinics for ultrasounds,” said Chelsea. “I stopped showing for the most part and really had to go back to treating riding like therapy, getting out when I could but not stressing about it when I couldn’t.”
Brew, an “amateur’s dream,” still came out every day like he’d been worked for three days prior, even if he’d been hanging out in the pasture for a week. That, combined with his goofball personality, made each visit to the barn a highlight in Chelsea’s weekly calendar.
But after four IUIs in 12 months, even the barn couldn’t fix everything.
“Honestly, I am someone who tries to find the bright side on every damn thing, but finally I had to be like, ‘This sucks, and that’s OK,’ ” Chelsea said. “I needed to be able to say that. It’s part of the healing process. When you’re going through infertility treatment, you’re not just trying to get pregnant. You’re also taking care of yourself, and so often you just don’t have time to do all the things you want to do. It’s important to take that pressure off yourself. It’s such a hard time.”
The toughest moment for Chelsea came in October of 2018. After moving to Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, for Mark’s work, Chelsea started bleeding at what should have been the six-week mark following her second successful IUI. They rushed in for an ultrasound just as Hurricane Michael spun towards the city.
The obstetrician couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“We were here, we were excited, and then all of a sudden we were sitting in that room, and there was a mobile on the ceiling and baby pictures everywhere. What got me most was I could see it on the ultrasound, but the life was gone—that moment of not seeing that little heart beating like I had before,” Chelsea said. “It’s devastating. It’s trauma. I tried to push through it, rush home, feed the horses, prepare for the storm, act like it was no big deal. But I needed to feel it. I needed to cry. It’s so hard.”
Chelsea’s doctors explained that her chances of getting pregnant were higher after her miscarriage, so they tried an IUI again six weeks later. By December, the combined effects of the heavy hormone treatment and repeated IUIs caused all her hair to fall out. And still she wasn’t pregnant.
“Finally, I said, ‘I’ve had enough,’ ” Chelsea said. “I’ve taken exactly one year off since then. I work with a dietician, I take supplements, and after a lot of hard work and a lot of lifestyle changes, I’m starting to see changes in hormones. I don’t mean hippy-dippy changes—I mean numbers on a blood test.”
Those lifestyle changes have included returning to the show ring. Only instead of traveling to recognized events, Chelsea became a regular at the War Horse Event Series hosted by the Carolina Horse Park in Raeford, North Carolina.
With help from her trainer, Amanda Miller, Chelsea and Brew (Shakespeare—Excedent) debuted at novice this spring.
“I don’t think you could wipe the smile off my face that show,” Chelsea said. “Running through those flags after having gone through so much, with my husband there supporting me, it meant the world. Just to know that horses are something you can always go back to, if you need to switch your priorities to a growing family, a growing business. It’s always there for you.”
Chelsea plans to take Brew out at training level this year, although she admits that she’s far less concerned about level goals than she used to be. She also expects to try another IUI soon. With a more balanced lifestyle and more balanced hormones, she hopes she’ll have better odds of success.
But even if she doesn’t find it, all the changes she’s made and emotions she’s worked through have made her confident that she can handle that, too.
“I want people struggling with infertility to know, searching for help does not make you weak,” Chelsea said. “There are support groups, dietitians, books on infertility; you can find so many resources. There’s also nothing wrong with taking a break from treatment. I needed that time, time to heal and navigate my feelings and adjust to the fact that these are the cards I was dealt.
“Now, I feel so strong,” she added. “I have energy, I’m happy, and I’m at peace with where I am. Sure, I have bad days, but I don’t wake up and stress about the fact that I’m not pregnant or that I have to work so hard at it. I feel like a badass, like I can get through anything. And it’s honestly the best feeling.”
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