At a time in everyone’s life, we come to find ourselves in a situation where the music stops, and we must go on.  The unfortunate truth about life is that the unexpected will happen. Some of us learn from it, some of us change because of it and some of us find our life’s calling because of it. The latter was the case for me.  After our dad picked us up from middle school, we spent that afternoon like we had every afternoon that month. We went to the oncology unit at the hospital, where my brother was admitted.



I remember him. I remember the man in the dark blue sarong the same way I remember the lines on back of my own hand. He was hunched over next to a column on a dirty platform at a railway station in Calcutta, India in the middle of the harsh summer sun. His hands were withered, his fingers and toes looked like tiny nubs, and he was completely malnourished and alone. He had opaque blue eyes, as if fog had taken place of his irises and pupils.



I studied insects in college; my favorite insects were the bees (I found them diligent and so helpful to humankind).  One of my favorite classes was about medical diseases caused by insects. My professors noticed my interest in the medical side of things and connected me with a professor who did clinical research. Our work focused on a clinical trial for children with intractable epilepsy and exposed me early on to patient care and patients.


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off the track, only seeing her pretty much when I went to the farm to ride her. But then I moved to the Bluegrass and chose a mini-farm and built a riding arena and barn. You develop a different relationship when you’re the one feeding the horse, cleaning the stall, and generally looking out for the horse and maintaining the farm. Now I can’t imagine not living in the country. Nine years ago, Ella retired when I adopted The Nth Degree, another thoroughbred off the track. Starting over again, teaching him dressage in the natural horsemanship style is, to me, a physical form of meditation. (And Ella supervised – she just left me at age 34 years.)

I go to Keeneland about once a year, just to watch the athleticism of the horses. Starting in 2008, I volunteered for crossover gate and crowd control at the Kentucky Three Day Event. Since then I recruited three out-of-town friends to join me. There is nothing like being inches to a few feet away from a horse and rider that are galloping from one cross-country gate to another! For WEG 2010, I was a competition volunteer for 10 days.  It is absolutely awesome being behind the scenes. I was a dressage scorer (stationed in the tower where I could watch all the rides and verify final scores), a crossover gate and crowd controller, and a stable manager, where I could watch live event feeds, when not handing out schedules or, yes, cleaning up roads and shower stalls after horse manure.

Physicians are extremely vulnerable to burnout. Do you find that your hobby mitigates the stress?  Do you feel recharged after playing?

Indeed my “hobby” mitigates the stress. You can’t think about prior authorizations and denials while focusing on your horse’s response to your aids and requests. Being the caregiver to my horses, dogs, and barn cat is a lifestyle. They keep me active – riding is aerobic exercise! Add lifting 50-lb feed sacks, hay bales, and water buckets to the program, and I can have that bite of chocolate. I’m mentally recharged. Dressage is described as “the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility and balance.” I’d change “obedience” to “willingness.” It’s all about the relationship and working as a team of two”

What is horseback riding? Are there different types?

Horseback riding is exactly what it sounds like – riding a horse. There are a many different types. The two basic horseback riding styles are English and Western, the saddle is the biggest difference between the two. I started out as a hunter jumper. Eventing, like the Kentucky Three Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park could be termed an "equestrian triathlon." It involves working with a horse both on the flat and over fences. The three phases are: dressage, endurance (or cross-country), and show jumping. I switched to dressage (“working on the flat”) only because I didn’t have the mindset to get the horse over the jumps. Also popular is saddle seat riding which is also a form of English riding. Examples of Western riding include Western Pleasure, reining, cutting, barrel racing, and endurance. And then there are racing events, such as, steeple chasing and vaulting. The FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG), held in Lexington in 2010, combined eight disciplines – jumping, dressage and para-equestrian dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting and reining.

How did you get started?

I always wanted to ride as a child, but it wasn’t in the family budget (50 cents for a group ice skating lesson in an outdoor rink in Buffalo NY was affordable, as were piano lessons). During my rheumatology fellowship at Duke, I overheard other trainees in the lab talking about their riding lessons. I rode hunter jumper during those three years, transitioning to just dressage toward the end. We took lessons in the arena and went on trail rides through the nearby Research Triangle Park area.


Initially the two trainers thought I wouldn’t be successful. Henry the pinto, one of the horses I rode, had two trees out in the pasture – one for every time he bucked someone off, and another tree totally devoted to bucking me off. Eventually I caught up with my lab cohorts and graduated to leading trail rides.

With riding comes injury. I had massive bruising from being kicked in the thigh, a broken toe from being stepped on, delayed splenic rupture from a kick to the celiac axis, and a concussion after being bucked off. So, training with someone who helps you understand equine behavior and teaches you safety tips to avoid most riding accidents is absolutely key. It’s all about safe habits and protective gear (especially an approved helmet), and maintaining your tack (e.g., saddle girth, stirrups and reins).

Why do you continue to pursue this hobby? Many of us are overwhelmed with our current responsibilities. Where do you find the time?

I make the time. Riding is my stress relief; so is hugging my horses, dogs and cat. I competed for a couple years but realized that even that was stressful. Initially I leased a horse, until my coach called and said she’d found my horse. (I wasn’t looking – but it was love at first sight). I boarded Miss Ella, a retired thoroughbred


Tuyen Tran, MD emigrated from South Vietnam after the war. He completed his undergraduate in biology/chemistry and medical school at the University of Missouri – Kansas City in a six year program. His is currently boarded in internal medicine and addiction medicine.