September 09, 2021 3 min read
Years before I became pregnant, I wrote a novel about a horse-riding mother on a rural equestrian property. There is a scene where she rides for the first time after having twins. Her husband, Bass, finds her sobbing on her horse in the arena.
‘I’m like a giant piece of jelly! I’m riding like shit!’ I yelled at him.
‘You just had two babies.’ He came closer, put a hand on my leg. ‘Cate? C’mon. I’ll make you some tea. It’s natural – isn’t it? Isn’t that what the nurse said? It’ll take a while to get your core muscles back? But – ’
I threw my whip at him.
Laura, hanging over the other side of the fence, raised an eyebrow.
‘She’s sleep deprived,’ Bass told her.
‘I’m riding like shit!’ I wailed. ‘I didn’t think I’d be riding this bad this long afterwards.’ The balance, it was gone. How effortlessly I had kept my hands still, my ankles flexed, my legs strong. How easy it had been to move one part of my body without everything else following.
‘What even is this?’ I’d asked Laura, pointing at my still swollen belly.
Laura jumped down off the fence and patted Bass’s shoulder. ‘I’d watch your man bits if I were you.’
I didn’t know about pregnancy or childbirth or the true meaning of “sleep deprivation” when I wrote this scene. I also didn’t realise how much this imagined scene would haunt me as I faced the daunting prospect of getting back on my own horse, six weeks after giving birth.
My mare is quirky – prone to hotness and spooking. But she has always been good at recognising when kindness and gentleness are required of her. I did not pee myself (something more than half a dozen horsy friends had wearily assured me would happen the first time that I tried to canter). Riding did not hurt, the way that I’d feared it would after a post-partum haemorrhage and an hour’s worth of stitching. But the subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in my body meant that everything felt a little bit off - I found myself having to think about things that had once been subconscious. I felt disjointed, less effective. I was more tentative, worried that I’d no longer be able to easily sit a shy or a buck.
The videos of me trying to navigate these early rides on my mare are best watched with the mute button on: all you can hear is the sound of my refluxy baby crying from either inside the house or from the side of the arena, where my mother or husband or aunty tried to settle him.
Crying aside, my first few rides back were physically better than I’d thought they’d be. I was not in agonising pain or covered in wee. I had not been tossed off. What I actually struggled with was something that I’d never really given much thought to – the sleep deprivation. I’d figured I’d ride when the baby slept – easy! Not factoring in a very unsettled baby who would generally only sleep on one of us for 40 minutes at a time. Sometimes, going outside to tend to all the chores that come with having horses was an escape back to the life I’d had, before. In these moments, they made me feel like me. Mostly, I was so tired that the idea of having to mix feed or walk the short distance to the paddock and put on a rug – let alone catch my mare and groom her and tack her up for a ride – was enough to make me cry. The possibility of a good ride was always enticing – there’s so little on this earth as invigorating and cheering as a good ride on your horse. But a bad ride was not so easy to shake off when my reserves were zero.
I think of that story I wrote so many years ago – of what I both understood and did not understand about the reality of riding (and caring for) horses as a new mother. Things are easier now; my little boy is nearly three and the shocking wonder of his arrival has faded into a comfortable daily rhythm. My body feels familiar again, no longer so tremulous and exhausted. My little boy feeds the horses with me, now. He takes great pride in helping to mix the feeds and clean out the stalls. There is an unexpected, flaring joy when he strokes their cheeks, whispering secrets and stories into the cups of their flickering ears.
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