“You can’t have it all.”
It’s a sentiment that often comes up when discussing whether a woman can successfully balance her personal and professional lives without sacrificing mightily in either category. Dr. Karley Koch says she has often heard the same sentiment when she tells people she’s juggling riding with her second year as a medical resident at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
“Throughout my whole life people have been telling me that I can’t ride and be a doctor, that I won’t make it through medical school and have time to ride,” said Koch, 27, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “I’m happy to say I’ve kind of proven these people wrong.”
In fact, Koch has owned her 10-year-old Holsteiner Silvia through much of her pursuit of becoming a family medicine physician. After flipping a few off-track Thoroughbreds, she was able to save enough money to buy Silvia as a 3-year-old while she was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University.
As a pre-med student Koch lived above a barn, taught beginner lessons, and braided at horse shows to work off board, before deciding to lease Silvia out for her first two years of medical school. It was tough to watch other riders succeed in the show ring with her horse, but she knew Silvia was receiving exemplary care. After two years, one of the leasees offered to buy Silvia, presenting Koch with a dilemma.
By this time, Koch had a sense of how special Silvia was. She grew up begging her parents for riding lessons and eventually owned a series of free or inexpensive horses who taught her the ropes. Silvia was already proving to be more talented than any other horse Koch had worked with, and her sweet, willing personality had improved Koch’s riding, too.
“It would have made a lot of sense financially to sell her at that point,” she said. “I was actually talking to my mom about it, and I kept asking ‘What do I do? Do I give this up?’ My mom was the one who said, ‘This is what you’ve worked for your whole life. You’ve dreamt of having a horse like this. You’re never going to have another one like her. Don’t give it up. Go for it.’ She’s been my dream horse, really. She is so sweet, so loving, so kind. She jumps her heart out for me.”
Though it hasn’t been easy, as first-year residents often work 80-hour weeks in shifts ranging from 12 to 24 hours with just one day off, Koch decided it was worth a shot. Sufficient sleep is rare, but for Koch, being without horses was more damaging to her well-being than a few lost hours of shut-eye.
“Looking back, when I leased Silvia those first two years of medical school, I don’t think I really realized just how miserable I was and how hard I was making things on myself,” she said. “I didn’t have an avenue for exercise or anything for my mental health during that time, and it was really hard.”
The mental downtime from a couple of hours at the barn also renews her energy for her work. As demanding as the field is, Koch says she loves it and some time away helps her keep perspective.
“This is what has allowed me to stay passionate; it’s what’s allowed me to be a good doctor and be there for my patients,” she said. “Riding is what helped me live through medical school and now residency. I’m able to handle all the bad outcomes and all the uncomfortable conversations, angry patients, grueling hours, everything; I’m able to live through that because I just got to spend an hour with my horse.”
Silvia isn’t always an easy ride. Koch said she’s a typical mare in that she has a lot of opinions and working with her means you have to pick your battles.
“Sometimes she can be a fire-breathing dragon, and I say, ‘It’s OK. I have these days, too,’ and on those days, I let her be a fire-breathing dragon, and tomorrow we’ll come back and try again.”
Overall, though, Silvia’s scope and kind heart have strengthened Koch’s confidence. After solid performances in the high adult jumpers, they’re looking to move up to 1.20-meter classes, something Koch never imagined would be in the cards. Due to her work schedule, she doesn’t have much time for showing. She gets three weeks off per year and has restrictions on what time of year she can use her vacation time. She gives her schedule to trainer Sarah Trepagnier at Arcadia Hills Equestrian, and they hunt for shows that can fit into those weeks. It means Koch doesn’t have any time for beach vacations, but extra afternoons with Silvia and catching up with barn friends work just as well for her as a Caribbean cruise.
Koch says it wouldn’t be possible for her to keep up with her professional and riding lives if not for the support of her husband, Ben Koch. While he doesn’t ride, he’s always there for shows and as many lessons as possible as her videographer.
“He always knows to get Silvia carrots every time he goes to the grocery store. He knows how to pick out the feet and bring her in from the pasture, so he’s embraced the horse show husband life,” she said.
Karley has two pieces of advice for other equestrians questioning whether they can, or should, try to keep one foot in the barn and one in their chosen career path. First of all, never take the bond with your horse for granted, and second, don’t give them up without a fight.
“I really think you should never stop doing the thing that makes you happy,” she said. “Sometimes you have to put things on hold, and sometimes it does not work out the way we’d dreamed it would. I thought I’d be at the Olympics by now when I was a kid, but don’t stop doing what makes you happy. Do the thing that you can’t stop thinking about. Do the thing that makes you smile like a child.”