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Passion for horses leads Vanderbilt surgeon to national championship in dressage event

Bethany Gallagher and her horse Fabiola have been a dream team since Fabiola was four years old

by March 1, 2019

Bethany Gallagher and Fabiola at the United States Dressage Federation National Championships in October. The duo took home two first-place titles. Photo courtesy Bethany Gallagher.

On a normal day, you can likely find Bethany Gallagher, MD, in one of two places: caring for patients with foot and ankle injuries in Vanderbilt’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation or riding and competing with her 8-year-old horse, Fabiola.

On occasion, you can find her in both places on the same day.

“Dressage is based on the relationship between the horse and rider, with the horse being so in tune to the rider that it’s able to respond with just the slightest shift of movement or the slightest breath the rider takes.”

When she’s not in surgery or educating residents, Gallagher, who began riding horses when she was nine years old, competes in dressage, a form of riding that emphasizes harmony, precise movement and balance. Dressage has been an Olympic sport since 1912.

“Dressage is based on the relationship between the horse and rider, with the horse being so in tune to the rider that it’s able to respond with just the slightest shift of movement or the slightest breath the rider takes,” said Gallagher, an assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabiliation. “When you watch it, the rider doesn’t move, but the horse is performing all the fine movements — going sideways, going forward, going in a circle, etc. You have such control over your body movement that just a shift or a breath lets the horse sense what it needs to do.”

Bethany Gallagher, MD, keeps a busy schedule in Orthopaedic Surgery in addition to her training in her sport. Photo by Joe Howell

Gallagher and Fabiola have been a dream team since Fabiola was four years old.

“We did really well during our first few competitions, and then she had a catastrophic injury that took her about two years to recover from,” Gallagher said. “We came back in 2018 and made a big push to develop and compete her and qualify for regionals and nationals.”

That hard work paid off in October 2018 when the pair took home the first-place title for both the Training and First Level classes in the United States Dressage Federation Regional Championships. A month later, the duo claimed both of those same titles at the national championship. Both competitions have roughly 40 riders in each class.

“Each competition has a series of tests. The competition classes range from Training Level to Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is the highest level, so that’s where the horse is trotting in place, flying changes or doing pirouettes where they turn based on one foot. We’re just starting out, but we have to start somewhere,” said Gallagher.

To qualify for the regional championships, riders must obtain high scores from two separate judges at two different events. Only riders who place either first or second or achieve a high score at the regional championships qualify for the national championship, which draws riders from across the country.

Gallagher and Fabiola are a great team, and have fun competing. Photo courtesy Bethany Gallagher

“I’d like to see this horse be successful all the way to the top — all the way to the Grand Prix. And she can do it — she’s super athletic and talented and beautiful,” said Gallagher. “I made some glaring mistakes in both the regionals and nationals, and I think she just hypnotizes the judges because she’s so beautiful. It’s like they don’t even know what happened.”

While dressage is the competitive discipline in which Gallagher landed, it’s not the only type of riding she has tackled. Beginning her competitive years at age 11 in the hunter/jumper discipline, Gallagher has since also tried her hand at sidesaddle, eventing (a three-discipline competition) and western riding.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” said Gallagher.

With a busy clinic schedule, Gallagher has learned that to keep up with her competing, she also has to prioritize taking care of herself and accepting the help of her friends and — most importantly — her trainer, Carrie Harnden.

For Fabiola, as long as the treats keep coming, she seems pretty content.

“That’s what keeps her running — sugar cubes,” said Gallagher. “She’s super spoiled.”

Bethany Gallagher, Orthopaedics