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Equestrian and physician Emily Dolan won’t be in the audience at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, but the competitive rider has a trusty steed at the ready should she opt to swap her stethoscope for the reins.
Dolan, an internal medicine doctor at Gundersen Health System, was mounting horses long before she began seeing patients, taking up riding at the age of 6. An animal lover, she felt drawn to horses, and while the rest of her family didn’t share her interest, Dolan was a natural from the start.
Monthly sessions increased to weekly, and Dolan’s trainer recognized her innate skill. Within a year, Dolan was traveling to compete, and at age 9 she was surprised with Annie, a gray pony gussied up with a giant purple bow.
When it came time to pursue an undergraduate degree, Dolan enrolled at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, with the east coast offering more competitive riding opportunities than the La Crosse area, where she was raised. Dolan balanced her biology studies with competing in the hunter jumper division, where a rider enters a ring and the horse completes several jumps over a course.
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Making time for both coursework and competitions might seem overwhelming, but for Dolan the pressure didn’t manifest.
“When I go to the barn, it feels like an escape. Somewhere where I can turn off work, turn off my studies and recharge,” Dolan says. “I feel very fortunate to have a tool, to really be present with the horse, which in my eyes is one of the most beautiful, powerful animals that there is.”
Senior year of college, Dolan rode at the highest level and earned the most points in her region, which qualified her for a national competition. Out of 37 collegiate riders from across the country, she placed seventh.
“It was the most validating experience I’ve had in my life so far,” Dolan says.
Dolan chose to return to Wisconsin for medical school, and opted to complete her residency at Gundersen, where her father, Michael Dolan, is also an internal medicine physician. It wasn’t a difficult choice — she noticed “the residents had this glow to them, it seemed like they were enjoying life.”
During medical school, Dolan volunteered with the nonprofit HorseSense and helped rehabilitate one of the horses, Bella. When she learned Bella was being sold, she didn’t hesitate to pony up some money.
“I had such a deep connection that we developed that summer that I actually ended up buying her, which from a financial position and time commitment position was not a very good idea,” Dolan says. “But I knew in that moment it was going to be the best decision for me.
“To go through med school, to go through residency without a horse in my life — it was going to be terrible,” Dolan continued. “Horses are such a big part of me, and I needed to have that companion, that outlet, in order to be successful and in order to be happy.”
Dolan competed with Bella in one show post college, and currently rides other horses in competitions, including a recent event in Florida. Now a practicing physician, riding — both competitively and for leisure — remains Dolan’s escape.
“I think everyone in medicine has to have some outlet — it’s a mentally taxing job,” Dolan says. “If you aren’t able to recharge that is a recipe for disaster.
“After a long work day if I can get out to the barn, spend some time with my horse, spend some time in the saddle, I know I’ll be able to show up for my patients, my colleagues, my nurses, as a happier and healthier version of myself,” Dolan continues. “If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of other people.”
Horses serve as a link between Dolan and her Gundersen colleagues, several of whom she goes trail riding with, and her patients, who sometimes ask how a competition went or request to see a photo of Bella.
“(Health care and horses) are two huge pieces of how I identify as a human being,” Dolan says. “They don’t necessarily overlap in a visible way, but it’s funny that they blend so well together. It’s a really special way to connect with my patients — they want to know what I do outside of work, what makes me tick, and horses are a big part of me.”
Emily Pyrek can be reached at [email protected].
“When I go to the barn, it feels like an escape. Somewhere where I can turn off work, turn off my studies and recharge. I feel very fortunate to have a tool, to really be present with the horse, which in my eyes is one of the most beautiful, powerful animals that there is.”
Emily Dolan, doctor