I became a mother on July 29, 2014 at 11:12 p.m. and, in addition to the myriad of expected life changes that rearing tiny humans brings, my riding career changed in a major way. In fact, it came to a screeching halt. Before I had my daughter, Scarlett, my life essentially revolved around horses. I’d been riding since I was a kid and grew up as a typical “barn rat”.
I was a working student for Nadeem and Sherry Noon while attending college, and I was fortunate enough to land my dream job as Olympic medalist Kim Severson’s groom following my graduation from Indiana University. I rode multiple times per day, traveled to shows and clinics all of the time, and never had any reason to say “no” to a horse. These days, even if Charlotte Dujardin offered me the ride on Valegro (in my dreams, I know!), I couldn’t find the time between playgroups, tantrum diffusion, potty training, and general toddler wrangling.
The silver lining, of course, is my beautiful child; the toothy toddler smiles, the sound of her tiny voice wailing “Mama, look at me!” from across the playground, her all-encompassing, cheek squishing hugs, and the chance to relive childhood through her eyes. I wouldn’t change a thing about my life and I love Scarlett more than I ever thought humanly possible, but my love for her doesn’t always make it less difficult to see my friends riding and enjoying their time on horseback while I am tied to the baby monitor or watching the same episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for the fiftieth time in a row.
Unfortunately, when you’re a mom, there seems to be this unwritten rule that you aren’t allowed to complain, and a stigma that if you attempt to cling to any fabric of your pre-mama identity, you are somehow not a good mom. It can be really isolating for horsewomen who are accustomed to doing their own thing on their own schedule.
On one particularly discouraging day, as I sat on the floor of my daughter’s room willing her to take a nap so that I could sneak a peek at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show live feed, I was reminded of something simple and powerful that Leah Wilkins, international Grand Prix dressage rider, wrote in an article that she penned for Lifetime of Love Doula Services following the birth of her son, Levi; she said “they won’t be little forever.”
For moms like me who want to give their kids the world without sacrificing their entire sense of self, Leah is a beacon of hope. She chose to forego contending for the Olympic Games in Rio because it wouldn’t have been in her son’s best interest to travel to Brazil as an infant, but she is back at the top of her game now that he’s a bit older. She continually takes the challenges of motherhood in stride and I am thrilled to share her words with all of you as she has been kind enough to share her experiences as a new mom and a professional rider.
“If there’s one piece of advice I can give that has enabled me to run my business full time,” says Leah, “it is that you need to be flexible.” “You also have to be willing to let go a little, which I’m still figuring out,” she explains. “The balance is a struggle every day. Some days you just can’t get that last horse ridden, or you have to overlap your lessons to fit everyone in. If everyone can be flexible then it works itself out.” “I’ll nurse Levi just about anywhere because I have to! When he was 3 weeks old we traveled to Ottawa so I could coach at the CDI and I ended up sitting under a tree nursing him on the ground as my riders were warming up because he was hungry and hey, you aren’t going to make the guy wait!”
To Leah, her support system is a vital part of her success as a mother and a rider. “I’m so lucky to have my mom around to watch Levi, but when she can’t, I make use of clients and staff if I need help.” “My barn manager, Sarah, has definitely assisted in diaper changes more than once and has been known to pick stalls while simultaneously entertaining Levi in his stroller,” she says. “You do the best you can. Some days I feel like I’m losing my mind and running down a hill that’s never ending, and some days I am really proud of all I can accomplish with a 4 month old! I think you need to keep it all in perspective and not be too hard on yourself. Celebrate small successes and try to enjoy each day even when it feels impossible.”
Leah also calls upon the guidance of more experienced advisors to keep her life in perspective when she is struggling. “My doula told me something while I was in the thick of labour and I didn’t think I could handle it,” explains Leah “She said ‘you can do this, you ARE doing this!’ That really resonated with me and still does today when I’m scrambling to get twelve horses ridden on 3 hours of sleep. I got this!”
Just like many other moms, Leah experiences her fair share of stress about her future in terms of both riding and parenting, but she does her best to handle these challenges gracefully. “I took the summer off of showing, and by the next Olympics my current top horse will be too old, so right now [competing in another Olympic games] is not a huge worry. I think my stress comes more so from running the business fulltime and then also trying to be a good mom and wife,” she explains. “I’ve learned that you can’t do it all and be super woman. Something has got to give. I lean on Mark, my husband, a lot for house tasks and errands when he’s available. I have my mom’s help and we also hired more staff in the barn so I can be more efficient with my time.” “It really does take a village! I am stubborn and I don’t admit when it’s getting a bit overwhelming, but I’m working on it!”
Leah makes sure to bask in the precious moments with her son and she explains how life has changed since he was born. “So far what I love most about being a mom is how it changes your perspective on life. I’ve realized how easy life was before Levi – 8 hours of sleep! Eating a whole meal sitting down! Driving anywhere anytime! Netflix binges until midnight! Going out for dinner! The list goes on. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything, as cliché as that sounds. You realize how much bigger the world is than just you and your needs.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for Leah, however, is her determination and adherence to her riding-related goals. “I’m still driven to run a successful business and achieve my goals of riding for Canada at a major Games,” she explains. “I know it’ll happen when it’s meant to. And then I will get to do it with a child (or children) by my side!”
Find out more about Leah on her website: www.aislinndressage.com.