Did you hear a collective wail last week? That came from 900 women around the globe grieving in solidarity with their eventing “sisters” whose eagerly-awaited competitive outlet and meet-up at USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) was canceled. Those 900 women are members of one of the most unique, supportive communities on the internet - the Physician Women Equestrians, or PWE.
Dr. Kelly Johnson, an emergency physician in South Carolina, established the group in 2015 when she recognized she was not alone in her mixed practice of medicine and horsewomanship. Dr. Johnson started the group with a handful of horse friends to pool knowledge in two challenging spheres and it quickly grew into a powerful, diverse community of strong women riders. We have members all over the world, representing every possible discipline from trail riders, to draft horse drivers, to hunter/jumpers, dressage riders, racehorse owners, breeders and trainers, fox hunters, saddleseat riders, and eventers. We have folks competing at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. We come from every specialty in medicine and we meet up with each other at various events—formal and informal, horse-related and professional—and online.
How best to describe women who don PPE all day, care for patients in emergency rooms, ICUs, operating rooms, and clinics during work hours, who trade scrub caps for helmets to ride dressage, gallop cross-country, and show jump? Badass. PWE eventers at all levels – and indeed, all PWErs – are nothing short of that. It is amazing how many of us head to the barn after difficult days in medicine to find solace in the challenge, “present-ness”, and adrenaline rush of partnering with our horses. It is also refreshing and reassuring to find so many others with a similar approach to their lives, shaped by both horses and medicine: hard-charging, fearless, compassionate, radically accepting, and delightfully, unapologetically irreverent. In PWE, I have truly found my people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit us hard as a group. A number of us were in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey during the initial shut-down in March. Many of us are in the new hotspots that popped up this summer. For months, we have done daily online check-ins where the community looks out for each other. We celebrate victories of any magnitude – with horses or otherwise. We brainstorm, problem-solve, and share knowledge of all things horse and human. And we grieve our losses together. We are brought to our knees again and again by losing patients and colleagues, worrying about getting sick, crushing work schedules, and the ever-present distress of navigating a broken healthcare system. But again and again, members of the group lend their hands and lift us up.
As things opened up in June, the group openly debated the risks of competing against the benefits. First and foremost, we wanted to return SAFELY to the sport we love. Many of our members noted their support and appreciation for the measures taken by USEA, USEF, and individual events. All equestrian pursuits are more suitable for safe return-to-play than team or contact sports. Of course, being outside and the natural social distancing enforced by being on a horse are key. Unique to eventing among the jumping disciplines is the beauty of ride times! Eventers also tend to be fairly independent – they do their own braiding, grooming, stable chores, etc. – meaning the decreased numbers of people allowed in barns has less impact than in other disciplines.
As a group, we feel that the additional safeguards by the USEF COVID-19 Action Plan to protect competitors and the agreeable nature of our fellow eventers have made events feel safe. Kathleen Bertuna, an obstetrician in Ohio, summed it up this way: "I was happy to follow all the rules to compete again. I couldn’t stop smiling at my first event back in June. While the CDC isn’t always perfect, they give some really good guidelines on how to open back up safely." She went on to heap praise on the organizers and officials at Stable View, Champagne Run at the Park, and Olney Farm (the events she's been to thus far). She says, "All of these shows were in the extreme heat, but participation in wearing masks at show jumping, dressage ring, and on the cross-country course was universal. Everyone wore masks to the port-a-potties and bathrooms and used the hand sanitizer and wipes provided. I definitely felt safe and socially distanced at all the events. I was happy with how committed the shows were to following guidelines." We know the benefits of physical distancing and wearing masks when in enclosed spaces or gathered ringside – and we see the risks of not doing so every day. We hope our fellow competitors continue to follow the USEF's recommendations so that we can continue to compete safely!
We also want to support those who rely on eventing for their livelihoods. Lynn Cronin, a cardiologist in Michigan, notes that eventing is "supported and kept afloat by people who often live paycheck to paycheck and who often have to find ways to make ends meet that we as physicians don't really think about. Grooms, farriers, feed store owners, hay farmers, coaches, etc. – that part of the horse industry is suffering badly right now, along with everyone else.” We have deep empathy for the horse industry’s essential workforce and are committed to supporting them through this crisis.
Many of us had planned to meet at the AEC, to stable together, and to celebrate each other from a safe social distance. It was an eagerly anticipated outlet to blow off some steam and compete our hearts out. We were disappointed that they were canceled, but I don't think any of us were surprised. In fact, at a time when COVID-19 is wide-spread in communities and bringing people together from 41 states would be exquisitely high risk, we fully support the decision. PWE will mourn the loss of AEC this year, regroup with the rest of the nation next year in Kentucky, and look forward to the new location in 2022. 2020 has been a year of constant schedule changes and endless lessons in adaptability. What hasn’t changed, and what won’t change, is our love for our horses and for our sport.
I want to thank my eventing friends from PWE who contributed to this article. We are a slew of pediatricians in lots of subspecialties (Ashley Miller, Joanna Newton, Ashley Shoemaker, and Lauren Azevedo), internists (Lynn Cronin and Hayley Barbato), obstetrician-gynecologists (Kathleen Bertuna), emergency medicine (Tera Call), and physical medicine and rehabilitation (Erika Erlandson). If you see any of us out competing, please say hi! For now, wear your mask, wash your hands, and stay safe.
Dr. Elena Perea is a psychiatrist at a tertiary care hospital in southern Appalachia, and adjunct faculty at UNC School of Medicine. Dr. Wendy Dean is a psychiatrist and founder of Moral Injury of Healthcare, LLC, a nonprofit addressing the crisis of clinician distress.
Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.
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