Amateur’s Corner: Elena Perea

Welcome to the new Amateur’s Corner on Eventing Nation! The goal of this series is to gather perspective, experience, and advice from the hardworking and dedicated amateurs that populate our sport. We’ll be doing Q&A profiles with amateurs from all walks of life, hoping their experiences can help others working to balance horses with, well, the rest of life. Do you want to participate in an Amateur’s Corner Q&A? Send your tip to [email protected]. To read more Amateur’s Corner Q&As, click here. Next up is 41-year-old Elena Perea, an Emergency Room physician who balances work, family life, and competing in Area II with an inspiring level of enthusiasm.

Elena Perea and B.E. Isabella. Photo by Mark Lehner/Hoofclix.com.

EN: Tell us a bit about yourself.

EP: I’m 41 years old and currently live in the mountains of Western Nc., not too far from Tryon. I grew up in a working-class family, the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, outside of Philadelphia. Nobody in my family was horsey, except my grandfather, who hadn’t ridden since leaving Cuba. I started asking to ride when I could talk, but there was no money to pay for lessons. I was able to take a few lessons through Brownies/Girl Scouts at age 8 or 9; my parents made some huge sacrifices to give me a weekly lesson starting at age 10, and thereafter, the amazing woman who ran the local riding school found ways to make it work for me. I begged, borrowed, and stole to ride throughout my teens, and was always very lucky to meet amazing people who let me keep growing as a horsewoman.

I found eventing while I was in medical school. In my late teens and early 20s, I had galloped race horses, worked with a lot of OTTBs, loved going fast and jumping, and needed an escape from the classroom and hospital. I found a local eventing instructor who had a Welsh Cob that needed work, and voila!

EN: What or who gave you the “eventing bug”?

EP: I really love Thoroughbreds. LOVE them. I volunteered some with CANTER during my medical training, and found that a lot of people event OTTBs. They are GOOD at it! I watched Courageous Comet kicking ass and taking names at the Olympics and Burghley and Rolex. I rode some with Denny Emerson. At that point the seed was fully rooted.

EN: Tell us about your “work/life/ride balance”. What does this mean to you?

EP: In order for my life to be balanced, it has to include riding, full stop. There have been a couple of times over the years when I have taken a break from horses. The longest was when I was pregnant with twins and in the first couple of years of their lives. I was miserable. When the boys turned 3, in my first job out of residency, I bought a 3 year old OTTB off a picture, and life got better.

Riding is the thing I do for myself, to keep my head in the game and keep myself grounded. My time spent on the back of a horse is time when I’m completely mindful and in-the-moment—my horse keeps excellent track of me being distracted, and will try to dump me! Being with Beezie in not only the physical sense, but also mentally and emotionally, requires my full attention, without getting distracted or occupied by anything else. During this crazy pandemic, I have been really lucky to continue to ride, and some days riding is the only thing that reminds me that there is some sense of normalcy to which we will return. The best thing is that one of my sons is also riding, and turning into a badass little event rider, so I am able to spend time at the barn with him, as well.

EN: Describe a typical day in your week.

EP: Work is more than just the thing that I do to pay for the horse. I am a full-time physician in a fast-paced Emergency Room, managing behavioral health emergencies, and consulting on medically ill patients with behavioral disturbances. I’m a board-certified psychiatrist, but I won’t ever ask you about your Mom! I am also an educator, teaching medical students and residents, and an adjunct associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine.

I work a schedule of seven days in the hospital, followed by seven days at home. On a typical work day, I take my boys to school, and arrive in the emergency department before 8 a.m. In the summer, I often ride early, and stay at work later to beat the heat. I see patients, work with a multi-disciplinary team, give a lecture or two, and fill every minute of the work day. I will pick up my kid or go alone to the barn where I board my mare, aiming to be there around 5 (but sometimes it’s a lot later). If I’m on call, I take calls while I ride my horse and help my kid. We go home in time for a late dinner, and to have the boys in bed by 8:30.

I save my lessons for weekends and weeks off, often getting a series of lessons in a row the week of a show. I’m close enough to Aiken that I can do an overnight trip in the winter months, and in the spring/summer/fall, my trainer is just across town and tolerant of my crazy lifestyle.

EN: What has been a challenge that amateurs often face that you’ve found a way to conquer? Budget, vacation time, relationships, etc.

EP: Working the 7on/7off schedule has definitely allowed me to travel to shows more often! Working 26 weekends a year can be challenging for me, but I have certainly made better use of my evenings with my family. I’m really thankful for that flexibility.

I’m also lucky that my husband has time-consuming hobbies (mountain biking and golfing), so that I can be with the boys if he takes a weekend. It has been a negotiated peace in our relationship, but I encourage him to get away as much as I am able. I don’t event in June or July (except under dire circumstances) because I hate summers in the south. That gives us time to take time purely for family, while I more or less just ride my mare in the early morning, or hack into the mountains.

EN: What is your best advice as an amateur rider? How do you “make it work”?

EP: Pick good partners – human and equine! My sainted husband supports me in his way (he doesn’t like horses AT ALL) by sharing the parenting and the home responsibilities as a true partner. He travels for golf and mountain biking, I travel for horses, and we travel together for family. My trainer understands my horse and my goals. My horse is just delightful, and while it has been a non-linear journey to achieve our success together (broken wrist, picture in The Chronicle‘s Missed It Mondays, etc), I’ve been lucky to have her with me the whole way. If you find yourself in a relationship that isn’t working, don’t be afraid to make a change. Don’t get stuck.

EN: What drives you/motivates you the most?

EP: Success drives me. I’ve never been more motivated than after crossing the finish line on cross country within the time. It has nothing to do with ribbons or scores (I’m an amateur often competing against professionals on expensive horses). It has to do with have I achieved what I went to the event to do? Last summer was all about not getting so nervous in the cross country warmup. I went to a couple of shows literally only to accomplish that — and I did. I’d be lying if I said I don’t love adrenaline, though.

EN: What is the best or most impactful piece of advice you’ve gotten as an eventer?

EP: “This sport is too expensive to not be having fun.” If you find yourself not having fun (or scared, or bored, or whatever), make a change.

EN: In one sentence, what does the sport of eventing mean to you?

EP: Eventing is about a community of people coming together to do the things they love with a horse they love.

EN: What is something with the sport that could evolve to better serve its amateur riders?

EP: I think the sport could do a better job of highlighting those of us at the lower and middle levels of Eventing succeeding and living our dream. 90% of members of the USEA will never go above Training; we are the heart and soul of the sport. A little adulation and love from those at the top would be much appreciated and I believe very much noticed. We work hard and make it happen, even when we are parenting, teaching our kids to ride, working full time jobs, going to school, all of it. The Amateur’s Corner is a great start!

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