What Having a Baby Taught Me About Riding

Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher

Both require softness and strength

BY KAREN HOPPER USHER

A good canter has always been my favorite gait. Some people describe the rolling sensation as a “rocking horse” canter. A former dressage instructor of mine talked about your seat acting as an ice cream scoop.

But as a kid who grew up on the Great Lakes, I’ve always thought of the canter as riding waves.

You slide into the trough and crest the peak. And again and again and again, till your mind shuts off and it’s just you and something big and marvelously alive.

So, this summer, as my Dad’s speedboat sliced through the choppy waters on the St. Mary’s River, I was taken aback to realize my body was struggling to cope. I’ve been out on choppy days before. I rather liked them, I thought. What was different?

Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher

The difference? My baby, my second-born. As a second-time mom and someone who has been on a boat at least once every summer of my life, I thought I knew what I was doing. And yet I struggled to hold my baby secure while also absorbing the energy of the waves.

At the time of my trip to the cottage, I’d also recently started riding again. I had taken a break during pregnancy and immediately postpartum. Earlier that month, I’d thrown myself and my horse into a conditioning plan, hoping to hunt this season. I was trying to build strength, trying to build endurance, and trying to shed bad habits that have followed me around from barn to barn and horse to horse.

Horses are never far from my brain—even if I’m miles from horseback. During the months I was out of the saddle and having a miserable pregnancy, I’d spent a lot of late-night hours on TikTok consuming equestrian content and theories about Taylor Swift. One of the accounts I’d stumbled across is that of Jack LaTorre; he makes videos about equestrian fitness and he talks a lot about softness and strength. I’d also come across a slow-motion video of Silva Martin that had me thinking about ankles and knees as shock absorbers.

And so, as my body was getting hammered by the waves while I tried to give my sweet, tiny baby a pleasant first boat ride, it finally dawned on me: this is what Jack is talking about. This is what Silva Martin can do: be strong and soft at the same time.

As a fat person, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the concept of softness. My whole body is squishy and cozy. I’m reasonably strong and build muscle pretty quickly. But life and injuries and migraines have historically interfered, and so you won’t find much in the way of rock-hard muscle on my body.

When I became a mother, my relationship with my body changed again. You can say what you want about my fatness and the consequences that may or may not come due my size, but the one thing my body did was produce perfect, delightful, beautiful children. And because I breastfeed on-demand and co-sleep, I continue to have the sense that my body provides comfort and nourishment to my children. It’s hard to hate your body when it’s where your children rest their sweet-smelling little heads.

On the boat, though, I was dismayed. My body, I thought, was failing to deliver. My baby was fine. She wasn’t squawking, she wasn’t crying. She was sound asleep. But I could feel it. I was trying to keep her secure and from being jostled too much. I was trying to do the same thing for myself, to ride the boat into the trough, to ride the crest—to relax—and yet, my spine was jarred. I was stiff. I was bracing. I was holding my breath, trying so hard to keep my baby safe that I wasn’t letting my body follow the motion.

I wish I could say that I succeeded, that I got to that point where my brain shut off and I felt connected to the water and my baby alike. But the truth is, I thought hard through every pounding wave: keep my body soft, keep my body strong, keep my baby safe. Absorb the energy myself, send it back into the hull through my butt and my feet. Don’t clench my arms.

There were moments when I felt like I had it. But mostly, it was hard work.

Photo courtesy of Karen Hopper Usher

A few days later, when we returned home, I told my trainer about my epiphany; that riding requires the same softness and strength as holding my baby on the boat did. But I was struggling to do it. I complained that I rode fine while hacking if my horse unexpectedly broke into a canter. But in the ring, cantering on purpose? Forget it. I rode terribly.

The problem, she explained, was that I was overthinking it. I was anticipating and bracing. I needed to be soft and strong.

Was I doomed? I’m never going to stop overthinking things, never. It’s part of why I love a good canter—overthinking things is just how I roll. If I can turn off my brain, it’s otherworldly.

Then, I remembered Jack’s videos. Softness and strength are perfect metaphors in parenting. You want to be soft and strong for your children, emotionally. But in the body, softness and strength isn’t necessarily a character issue. It’s about muscles. 

I can build muscles. I know I can. I needed to answer this: was I going to saddle up?


Karen Hopper Usher has a Master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University and attended Mount Holyoke College for undergrad. She bopped around hunter jumper, dressage and foxhunting lesson barns as a kid and then as an adult, leasing horses as opportunity and money afforded. Karen finally bought her first horse in January of 2020 just shy of her 37th birthday.

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