Though Country Ways has a long relationship supporting sponsored rider Eilidh Costelloe, it’s been a while since we last caught up and to say a few things have changed in her life since then is probably an understatement!  There is one big one in the shape of her 3 and a half month old son Felix J Born in January, he is all smiles and a total heartbreaker already! He joins us on the interview, sleeping through most of it as he snuggles in to his Mum’s chest as we settle down to chat about Eilidh’s experience of combining motherhood with being a professional athlete.

Eilidh is, as always, generous with her time and candour.  She talks openly and honestly about how her life, both personal and professional, has changed since the arrival of Felix. Because change it has.  There is simply no getting away from the fact that growing another person inside you a) takes quite a while and b) is going to change your whole body.  And whether you are a professional athlete or an amateur enthusiast, this necessitates that you will have to take at least some time off from the sport you love. Historically when sports women became mothers, there was an expectation that it signalled the end of their career, underpinned by the patriarchal assumption that a mother’s sole focus should be her children and that she didn’t actually exist as a person in her own right anymore. Thankfully this is changing (though slowly) and high profile sports women have returned to the profession they love after having children and smashed it.  Jonelle Price and Piggy French for example both won 5* events after maternity leave.

This is where I start the interview with Eilidh.  I want to know how she dealt with the fact she knew she would need to take a break from her sport and her business.  Because unlike us hobbyists, this is actually how the professionals make their livelihood as well.  She explains how planning ahead was integral to her approach.  Something she is well versed in having built her own yard from scratch (she jokes that she knows where each and every drain is!)  She downsized her own rides, took on more liveries and sold two horses.  When I ask if the arrival of Felix in winter was planned around the event season, she laughs and replies it was just fortuitous that it ended up that way!  It meant that she wouldn’t have been competing or even riding anywhere as much as she normally would during the downtime of the winter months and didn’t miss out on a whole summer season of eventing. She also made careful plans for all her horses.  Buddy for example (her top 5* ride) was given to a friend to keep fit.  Knowing him inside out as she does, Eilidh knew he would hate not having a job to do and that his physical fitness and mental state of mind would suffer had he not been kept in proper work.  Though she was still hacking him even up until the day before she gave birth.  It is heartening to hear her talk about the trust she has in him. That even though she was very wobbly and struggling with her balance, he looked after her beautifully.  She laughs, joking that he must have wondered what was going on with her riding, but that he never once put a foot wrong and that riding him is like putting on an old pair of slippers.  The trust she has in him implicit, borne from a journey to the highest levels of competition where faith in each other is imperative and all encompassing. 

Though suffering from hip and back pain, Eilidh tells me how the only time it eased was when she was in the saddle riding Buddy.  A physical relief combined with the mental comfort of emotional wellbeing we can all relate to when riding. She stopped taking in horses for breaking however, understandably not wanting to risk the unknown and unpredictability of youngsters.  All told, she was only out of the saddle for 5 weeks after Felix was born and was back at her first BE event last weekend with 2 rides at Forgandenny.  All the more remarkable when you think she was recovering from the major surgery of a C section.  I ask if she felt different when she got back on after giving birth and she tells me that the one thing she noticed most was her riding fitness.  Having been used to riding around 8 horses a day and not breaking a sweat, she was surprised at how quickly she was out of breath and reflects on how much she took her pre-pregnancy riding fitness for granted. 

She was also surprised at how much she didn’t miss riding during those 5 weeks and didn’t feel pressured to get back on quickly.  Joking that this was probably more due to the awful winter weather, when none of us really feel like riding, there also wasn’t much time to miss it during the first few whirlwind months of figuring out how to look after a brand new tiny human!  The change in focus necessitated by Felix’s arrival has surprised Eilidh.  She feels less pressure to be perfect in the saddle now because she simply doesn’t have the same time to dwell on things as she did before.  She has also been surprised by how much she is enjoying motherhood.  She talks with a frank openness about the apprehensions she had about becoming pregnant. Horsey girls are notoriously active and independent, even more so when you run your own yard.  First on the yard and last to leave, Eilidh talks warmly about knowing every horse in her stables inside out.  She worried about what the isolating effect of having a child and being stuck at home might have on her mental wellbeing.  However as with all things, Eilidh approached it head on, telling me it’s all about your mind set.  This is, after all, someone who knows a thing or two about having a determined mind set! She and Felix are up and out of the house walking the dogs every morning and he accompanies her during some coaching sessions too.  Eilidh’s Mum takes Felix in the afternoons and she laughs as she tells me about riders booking either a childfree or child-there lesson now! Before she could have taught any time of the day, but if riders want a morning lesson now then they need to be aware that Felix will be with her.  Her clients have been fine with this, more than fine in fact (no surprise given how charming Felix is already! He gives the best smushy cuddles and has a smile ready for everyone!)  She is also hugely indebted to her amazing support team, especially her Mum, without whom she couldn’t dedicate her afternoons to riding and coaching. 

As we continue our chat it becomes apparent that what Eilidh has become really good at is working smarter.  Her time, much more limited than it used to be, needs to be used efficiently and effectively (and not just for chatting as I use my time at the yard for hahaha! Anyone who knows me is nodding their head right now!) Interestingly, she reflects on the fact that she now realises she was probably working too much before having Felix.  For the longest time she was single minded in her pursuit of reaching 5*, which she did at Pau in 2019.  She tells me of the relief she felt when she finally achieved this, a huge weight lifted from her shoulders.  I ask her if this is something she still wants for the future and she explains that though she would love to do it again, she doesn’t feel the same pressure. There is a freedom in this that is compounded by the fact that her priorities have now changed. She talks of how much she enjoys breaking and producing youngsters, especially seeing them go on to be so successful with their new owners.  She feels less focused on competition results now and wonders if that is partly to do with her focus being broadened to include everything that comes with being a new Mum.  This includes making different decisions about where and when to compete, the priority at the moment being competitions closer to home with less travel – not easy when Scotland suffers so chronically from a lack of BE events.  Even more so for her top ride Buddy. With not much on offer in Scotland for a 5* horse, she has changed focus just now to showjumping, where it’s possible to get many more outings closer to home at his level. Her aim is to qualify Buddy to showjump at the Royal Highland Show and Blair, telling me how she still gets a huge buzz from jumping the big fences.  If anything you have to be even more accurate she explains.  Though it might be a slightly different challenge for just now, it is still a challenge none the less.

Eilidh will still continue to event her other horses and was back with two rides at Forgandenny where both mares placed.  I asked how it felt to be back at her first event and she explains she did feel nervous and a little rusty.  It was not so much a confidence loss as a wondering ‘where am I at now? What stage is are my body and mind at on this journey?’ Eilidh’s worries of having gone ‘stale’ however were unfounded as soon as she got out on to the course.  ‘You have no option but to get on with it, this isn’t training, this is real life and the fences are flying at you thick and fast’.  I actually saw Eilidh in action and it was lovely to see her cross the finish with a great big smile on her face and her husband, Mum and Felix all waiting for her at the end J

Watching the collecting ring however, it is easy to think how life has dealt us an unfair hand with our sex.  Men who choose to become fathers do not have to take a break from their sport, something the FEI has been grappling with. Provision for maternity leave is not available in all disciplines, but currently only in dressage, showjumping and driving.  In December 2022, the FEI changed the rules governing maternity leave to allow female riders to return after a minimum of 3 months and still retain 50% of their world ranking points. This was largely in response to a number of high profile cases, where female riders who had recently given birth had wanted to return earlier than the mandatory 6 month leave period (the previous rule) and still retain their points. Previously if a rider wanted to return any earlier then they forfeited their ranking points.  When double Olympic dressage champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl wanted to return to international competition after the birth of her daughter sooner than the 6 month period, she was denied the ability to. She and others, especially from EqualEquest, an initiative for more equal opportunities in equestrian sport, have been instrumental in campaigning for greater flexibility in FEI maternity leave regulations. Though this might be playing out on the international stage, the concept of being forced into a decision between a rock and a hard place is a familiar one for women. Herein lies another part of the problem, that this is an entirely personal experience and that each and every person will make a decision that is right for them and their circumstances.  Eilidh told very few people when she was expecting and only really then after 6 months, fearful of what people might say, however well meaning.  ‘These things way on your mind after all’ she explains. She was also concerned about what her owners and sponsors might say. Would they be annoyed that one of their sponsored riders was going to be out of action for a period of time? Thankfully they have all been incredibly supportive, but that us not to say that there isn’t still a stigma among some people that women should not ride whilst pregnant. But this decision is an entirely personal one and dependent on a myriad of circumstances which is up to each individual to weigh up.  There is enough judgement in the sport without adding more.

Chatting with Eilidh has been a joy as always. Her openness and honesty in sharing what is a very personal experience is so important in creating greater transparency in the conversations around the role of motherhood within sport. They are part of a greater dialogue that underpins patriarchal assumptions about the role of women and the challenges these pose for professional and amateur athletes alike. I have absolutely no doubt that Eilidh will continue to smash things as both a professional rider, and now as a Mum as well. I’m already looking forward to my next cuddle from Felix…


May 04, 2023 — Rosemary Michie

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