It can be empowering to understand the changes your body goes through after having a baby, and for horse riders, this is particularly important because our core and pelvic floor are so entwined in ensuring we have an effective seat. It can be mentally frustrating waiting, especially when you have already had time off being pregnant, but you need to make sure your pelvic floor is strong enough post birth before putting it under high impact pressure.
I don’t want to scare you, but it is important to not rush back too soon and this is why.
The pelvic floor muscles have to work harder during pregnancy as they have to support the additional weight of the baby. They are also relaxed by the effects of hormones, so whether you have a vaginal birth or a caesarean, the muscles are still compromised. A great way to understand what has happened to the body is to picture a hammock. You sit in the hammock every day and eventually it gets lower to the ground and has to be tightened to stay suspended and swinging. The process of tightening the hammock is completely individual, but it is imperative, as horse riders, that we dedicate time for this rehabilitation.
Having a vaginal birth especially, but even carrying a baby pre caesarean, can also result in considerable stretching and strain of the pelvic floor. Vaginal delivery can result in trauma from tearing and complications such as prolapse. Caesarean delivery results in abdominal muscle trauma. Strengthening muscles and function after birth, either way, can take anywhere from 6-30 weeks, and in some cases longer, depending on what damage has occurred.
It is still a fairly new concept to talk openly about birth trauma, but no matter the damage, with dedication and a good women’s specialist physiotherapist, you can be on your way to strength and recovery.
How soon is too soon?
Everyone’s birth and body is different so there are no set rules or guidelines. The Department of Health recommend a six week check with a general practitioner before returning to exercise. It is also advisable at six weeks to have an internal vaginal examination with a pelvic floor physiotherapist. This is expensive but an extremely valuable part of recovery, particularly pre return to high impact sports. Incontinence after you have had a baby can be very normal and it’s because the pelvic floor muscles that control urinary flow are stretched and weakened from pregnancy and birth. Incontinence is not something you have to accept or be ashamed of. Often, it is a result of muscles that haven’t been properly rehabilitated back to function and can be resolved with the right strengthening exercises.
The main factor in returning to physical activity, and in particular something high impact like horse riding, is to get the pelvic floor muscles strong enough to support the impact of riding. Commitment to daily pelvic floor exercises will contribute to how quickly these muscles strengthen and return to functional health. These muscles aren’t visible, which makes the concept of exercising them hard to grasp, but make this a habit and find a daily time that suits your lifestyle. It could be first thing in the morning before getting up, in the shower, before falling asleep at night or on the couch watching television. While you are strengthening your pelvic floor, walking is low impact and great exercise for a horse that has also been out of work. When you are physically comfortable to sit on a horse, find time to go for a trail ride and slowly build up the time in the saddle. Walk poles, leg yield, shoulder-in, shoulder-out and back up are all great strengthening and suppling exercises for the horse, and will build your body strength in using the aids with minimal impact. The body may not be ready for more than walk, but just because it isn’t, doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy your passion at a slower pace.
When the pelvic floor is strong enough, start slow and steady and gradually increase the time trotting and cantering. If you start to trot and leak urine then you are not ready and need to work a little longer on strengthening your pelvic floor. Once you are trotting, the same concept goes for canter.
My journey returning to riding was particularly tough as I had significant dysfunction and prolapse. I understand first-hand how mentally taxing having to take a step back can be when you realise your body isn’t quite ready. However, leaking is a sign that your pelvic floor has fatigued and is not yet strong enough to support the impact. Give it time.
Just the other week, I was reminded of this when I peed myself a tiny bit in between a double jump as I was holding two point and using my legs for more impulsion! I religiously do my pelvic floor exercises every day and generally have no issues, but an hour lesson had resulted in some fatigue. The pelvic floor is just like any other muscle; if it fatigues it doesn’t function properly and this is what had happened to me jumping. A great way of thinking about this is squatting 30 times in a row, by 30, the muscles are tight and struggling to hold the squat and rise, however with practice and repetition over a few weeks to months, you can build up to squatting the 30 or more with no fatigue. This is the same concept for conditioning our pelvic floor muscles. I had only been riding and jumping at home for about 30 minutes, so my body wasn’t physically strong enough for a full hour lesson.
Everybody is unique, just like all horses are different, so don’t compare yourself to others who may have been riding earlier than you. It took me 5 months of rehabilitation and only walking on trail rides to be strong enough to start trot work, but now at 14 months post-partum I am back confidently competing and jumping.
Pregnancy and birth does change your body and many women struggle with varying levels of pelvic floor dysfunction which is exasperated by high impact sport. The great news is that new research from universities in Spain and Brazil have reported the results of a study that linked horse riding activity to improving diagnosed pelvic floor problems. The research found that the horses movement facilitated the movement of the rider’s pelvis and participants showed improved coordination, range of motion, posture position and trunk control. It was concluded that pelvic floor specific exercises, combined with horse riding as an activity, had a positive effect on pelvic floor function. Download a free Foundation Core Exercises Post Baby guide to get started.
So, have faith that you will be back riding again!
If you are struggling mentally with the changes having had a baby has placed on your life, reach out and talk to a friend or professional for support. It takes nine months to grow a baby and there is a saying that floats around, that it takes another nine to return to some normality.
I went into having a baby and birth thinking that I would be back riding by six weeks post baby. I had actually planned my first competition back for 8 weeks post-partum. Oh how I was in for a shock! I was a health professional that trained safely until I was 40 weeks pregnant. I was expecting the sleeplessness and baby blues, but during the process, no one spoke about recovery, incontinence, prolapse or how important the pelvic floor was, other than to do pelvic floor exercises every day. I had a very quick birth with minimal tearing, but because my body had no time to slowly loosen, my pelvic floor was extremely stretched. I suffered with prolapse post-delivery due to this laxity, incontinence and post-natal depression which was compounded by not being able to ride. I struggled to find evidence based information that would support my return to horse riding, so I have decided to change that for other riding mums and that’s how I came to start Muscle Sense!