The recent BBC Elite British Sportswomen survey highlighted challenges and areas of concern for female athletes as they juggle their personal health and plans to start a family with their career. H&H spoke to top British-based riders from the Olympic disciplines, as well as experts from racing and British Equestrian, to find out how horse sport in the UK shapes up...
Equestrian sports have the opportunity to lead on discussing taboo topics, it is thought, as elite female athletes’ concerns over starting families and personal health have been highlighted in a study.
The BBC Elite British Sportswomen survey covered topics including whether sportswomen felt supported by governing bodies to have a baby and continue to compete, if they had delayed starting a family because of their career, whether their performance had been affected by their period, and if they felt comfortable discussing their period with coaches.
The survey included responses from a range of sports including racing, but no responses were received from equestrianism, so H&H decided to canvas opinion from some top British-based riders.
Olympic gold medal-winning dressage rider and mother of three Laura Tomlinson, 35, told H&H concerns around taking a break from competing to have a baby are present in equestrianism “more than most sports.”
“In some sports people might compete when they’re younger than an age where they may want to be having children, whereas in our sport because of the longevity, it does overlap. If you’re a woman who wants to have children, it would still probably be well within your career time,” she said.
“When I was pregnant with my first child in 2014, my top horse had retired and I didn’t have another at the same level yet so I had a different pressure because I was coming back from pregnancy and trying to find the next horse to come back to that level.”
Laura added that dressage is getting better at supporting women owing to the FEI’s freezing of world ranking points while riders take time out to have a baby, but said there are many variables in returning to top level.
“Time doesn’t stand still – things carry on when you’re out of action. You might become less relevant and other combinations will have kept competing and improved. It’s hard for governing bodies to cater for that in a sense because you can’t hinder people who are carrying on and doing well,” she said.
“It’s becoming more talked about but it’s not as simple as maternity leave at a nine-to-five job where they have to give you the job back.”
Kiwi eventer Jonelle Price, who won Badminton in 2018 nine months after giving birth, told H&H she delayed starting a family owing to her career.
“After London 2012 I was 32 and it probably would have been the appropriate time but I had just got a bit of momentum and that was the last thing on my mind so we delayed it until after Rio 2016,” she said.
Jonelle added she believes women should be able to raise concerns around starting a family if they want to.
“Often women don’t because it’s not always easy to talk, everyone has different abilities to get pregnant so it’s a sensitive subject but I don’t think there should be any reason not for it to be spoken about publicly if people are happy to,” she said.
European team bronze medallist Holly Smith, 31, who had her daughter, now 10, early in her showjumping career, told H&H the topic of taking time out can be difficult for riders to approach with their owners.
“You don’t want to put into someone’s head that you’re not serious or committed enough. It’s not something I’ve been through personally, but I can imagine people moving horses because riders have become pregnant and then horses not coming back,” she said.
“Hopefully some owners would be very supportive, but after you have the child, with showjumping you have to travel so much abroad so it’s whether you can afford a full-time nanny or you have a partner who doesn’t work so much.
“You’ve got to look at it from the owners’ side too; people don’t want their horses out of action for no reason. Horses don’t last forever and costs are high so I see the dilemma.
“With the FEI system your points are frozen if you’re off having a child so that’s a positive, and I feel you would be supported by the World Class Programme, but it’s just whether your horses are still with you.”
Women in Racing chairman Tallulah Lewis told H&H the organisation has been studying becoming mothers and mothers in the industry via its project Racing Home, the results of which will be released later this year.
“There is an overall support of women in racing but there are definitely areas that need to be looked at that could be more flexible. I would never say the sport is not welcoming for mothers returning or having children then coming back to work in the sport, but as a society careers and women having children is always an interesting topic,” she said.
“Taking a break to start a family is quite a taboo subject and we want to make it not taboo. Equestrian sport and racing having an opportunity to be a leader in looking at it differently; as a sport we are quite forward-thinking in terms of how we’re trying to be more engaging with people in the sport and how we looking at doing things. I hope when our findings come out we can be setting things in place for other sports to follow.”
Ms Lewis added that surveys on topics such as women’s health and pregnancy encourage conversations.
“You have to allow people to ask a silly question or questions they’re not comfortable with, because otherwise education doesn’t happen,” she said. “If you’re not bringing it up it’s harder for someone else to raise it than whether you raise it yourself.”
Laura agreed conversations need to be kept open.
“Women have periods and give birth and why shouldn’t we talk about that?” she said. “I coach with Belgian trainer Carl Cuypers and I can talk to him – if he says, ‘Sit up,’ I can say, ‘It’s my time of the month, I’m not very comfortable and might be a bit weaker in my seat’ – and that’s fine.
“It would help men be more receptive if we weren’t so quick to damn them for saying the wrong thing. Men who are receptive to hearing this side of the story can feel terrified or attacked – it just shuts the conversation.”
Holly said on the British Equestrian World Class Programme she feels supported to discuss matters of personal health.
“We get supported by a team of sports psychologists and a doctor,” she said. “It probably helps that my sports psychologist and doctor are women. If there was a problem it wouldn’t stop me talking to them [if they were men] but I think it does help,” she said.
British Equestrian chief medical officer Pippa Bennett told H&H the World Class Programme supports riders going through pregnancy and with personal health concerns.
“We put a bespoke programme around the rider pre- and post-partum to help them in the run-up to birth and to help them back to peak performance,” she said.
“For menstruation we try to ensure each rider has the opportunity to speak openly about any issues, for example pain or heavy flow. If required, riders can be referred to gynaecologists specialising with elite athletes.”
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