A New Mother’s Journey to Getting Back in the Saddle

Written by Sarah Hickner

Sometimes motherhood is hard, and then sometimes there are magical moments where your horse meets your baby for the first time. Silas poked his head into the baby carrier to sniff his new tiny brother. My husband lunged forward to protect the baby, and I held him back. JJ squirmed, raised his little stubby infant fingers up towards Silas, and Silas whooshed air across JJ’s chubby flushed cheeks. 

Then there are the hard moments when your baby cries a lot, and you feel guilty asking for help because sometimes you don’t even want to be around your own baby. As a new mom, I carried around a lot of emotional garbage. In hindsight it seems so simple — take that garbage to the dump and leave it. But as a new mom, I didn’t know it was garbage. I just knew it was how I felt.

My family was a thousand miles away, my husband was at work, my body felt ruined, all my goals in life seemed impossible, and little JJ just kept crying. Every high decibel release from his lungs felt like a reminder that I wasn’t enough. 

Sometimes I just wanted to sit and cry and maybe give up. 

But that’s not really an option as a mom, which is good and bad. It makes us feel a little extra trapped, but it helps us get to the part where we see the sun again, realizing we can drop the baggage at the dump, and smile at the world, our family, and our new life.

In my first lesson after having a baby, my friend Caitlin and I trailered to our trainer’s barn, with babies, horses, and a couple of helpers in tow. We unloaded our already-tacked-up horses, and put on bridles as Silas swung his head from one side to the other, ears forward, and adventure ready. Once on, I jammed my heels down to secure my seat on this very alert and forward version of my horse. Before we were even done warming up, my trainer unleashed her frustration with my lack of fitness. My pulse pounded in my ears as she pointed out that one of her other clients had twins and was back riding just fine. I heard the implication clearly: You’ve had plenty of time to get fit since the baby, and you’ve obviously been lazy! But she didn’t know my body didn’t heal properly, and it took six months to get back in the saddle, and it felt too personal to share at the time. So instead, silent tears streamed down my face when her back was turned, as I tried to be the rider I was before and consistently came up short.

My friend Caitlin was making life with horses and babies work. Her parents lived on the property and mine lived one thousand  miles away, but she was determined that I could be a mom and a horsewoman. So I parked my baby in a pack and play in the middle of the arena and rode circles around him while he cried. Or if he fell asleep in the car on the way to the barn, I’d tack up in record speed, park the car by the arena with the windows cracked, and try to ride before JJ woke, each turn craning my neck to get a peek into the truck and make sure he was still sleeping. We kept a baby carrier in the tack room, and Caitlin wore him while she cleaned stalls if it coincided with my riding. 

Eventually, I found a homeschooling mother of two girls who met me at the barn so they could babysit in exchange for ride time. I will be forever grateful for that little family.

I was slowly finding myself again, and was itching to get back to showing.

I love competing. My horse became a different animal away from home, and I never knew what to expect when we marched into the arena. Would he be spooky and require a ton of leg? Would he gallivant around bravely at 100 mph and need to be checked? Would he throw a buck or refuse a jump? In that moment, when I didn’t know what to expect from my horse, and ribbons, prize money, and pride were on the line, I often rode my best. There’s no time to second guess, no trainer in my ear — it’s just me and the horse.  

My heart longed for that moment. If I could get around a course of jumps at a show, I was sure I would regain the part of me that seemed stripped away.

When a Thoroughbred show in Lexington, Va. was coming up, I put it on the calendar. As it grew closer, we realized Caitlin wouldn’t be able to make it. I decided to go anyway, found some roommates on Facebook for the weekend, and lined up baby help for the time my husband needed to be at work. 

The week of the show was like packing for a family vacation with formal riding attire and half the barn. Plus my horse still needed to be schooled, business still needed to be run, and the baby still needed to be kept alive. When Thursday came, I was leaving for Lexington the next day and there were still things to do and I simply couldn’t make it out to the barn. As I put on my makeup and high heels for a work event, Caitlin casually told me over the phone not to worry about it.

On Friday morning, I delivered JJ to a friend who would keep him until my husband was home from work. I thought of how much he would cry and the rough day I assumed she was in for, and the guilt ate my insides. I took a deep breath and continued on. Caitlin met me at the barn. As we packed the final feed buckets in the trailer, she told me a friend had come out and pulled Silas’s mane, and another friend had ridden him for me the previous evening. As a person who struggled to ask for help, I couldn’t believe the number of people who were giving their time to help Silas and me get to a show.

For nearly three blessed hours, I listened to the radio and had time to myself. I checked the side mirror every few seconds to glimpse the horse trailer safely behind the truck, and sucked in deep, fulfilling breaths. Silas and I were on the road together.

At the showgrounds, people smiled and chatted. It was what I loved most about the Thoroughbred shows. We all are comrades in our love for giving these magnificent horses second careers. 

I ducked into the dressing room of my trailer to get all my show attire on. It was strange to prepare without the chatter of friends around. We would be competing in 2’6” hunters for our first class. I chose my grey coat because the navy one was a bit too snug, and grabbed a rag for my tall boots, praying I could get them off without help. As I warmed up Silas and gave the ingate person my number to get a spot in line, JJ was never far from my thoughts. Eventually, finally, it was our turn.

We walked into the large arena at the Virginia Horse Center to start our canter circle. Silas’s head lifted and his eyes bulged as he took in the mountain of multicolored seats surrounding us. The grandeur of the building and bright colored seats stole his attention from the approaching jumps. We were lined up perfectly, five strides out, three strides, one stride, and then he realized there was a jump, and we awkwardly lurched over it. The sloping turns and long straightaways gave him lots of time to worry about the upcoming jump and change his mind a few times on approach, each time met with a squeeze of my leg and a cluck. We made it through both 2’6” hunter courses, the second better than the first, but neither magnificent. The class was huge, and I don’t think we pinned. 

After a dinner break where I awkwardly chatted with a couple people while eating pizza, I ducked back to Silas’s stall to prepare for our final class of the day, my favorite, the handy hunter. I studied our course and committed every nuance to memory, and made a plan. Once we had warmed up, I stood by the in-gate and visualized our course — what it would feel like, where I would need to sit up extra tall or use more leg, and this time when they called our number, I was prepared. 

We set off at a confident trot and floated into the arena to pick up a canter. Again, I could feel his attention shift to the large grandstands, and I applied my inside leg, demanding his focus. We approached our first jump with a forward pace, jumped the first jump with six ground eating strides to the next jump. We landed that one and made a large sloping turn to the next jump. At this one, we jumped into a line but as we landed I sat up tall, half halted and did a rhythmic and steady left roll back to the next jump. A few more jumps and another rollback later, we trotted at x, did our trot jump, stopped and with the lightest, nearly invisible, pressure on the reins, backed up five steps. I reached forward and patted him as he proudly rounded his neck and then stretched his nose down, and we exited the arena at an energized walk to light applause. 

We were both proud and exhausted. There was no one waiting to pat us on the back or help pull off tack and cool down my horse while I changed boots. Instead, as Silas and I walked back to his stall, I opened my phone and dialed Caitlin. Then I called my husband, and then with tears of gratefulness threatening to spill, I texted the rest of my friends who had helped us get there. I felt a little bit like an Olympian. Not because I’m some amazing rider, but because the top riders always say they wouldn’t be there without their team. Neither would I. I remember winning some ribbons that weekend. I don’t recall the colors, the numbers, if we pulled a rail or placed in a division. 

I do remember that for the first time since becoming a mom, just me and Silas together at the showgrounds, I didn’t feel alone. I had a team of friends and family who loved and supported me, and I couldn’t have made it there without them. I didn’t leave the show grounds the person I thought I would — the girl I was before kids. I left a new empowered woman: a mom who could still compete on her horse with a foundation of friends who held me up. ML

Published in the May 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.