In a particularly horsey corner of Pennsylvania, just a mile or so away from one of the best-known equine teaching hospitals in the country, two rival gangs of veterinarians have started gathering once a year to rumble. Instead of the Jets and the Sharks, they’re the VMDs and the DVMs; instead of lab coats and stethoscopes, they come armored in hard hats and crash vests; and instead of fighting with weapons, they let their horseback riding skills—and a whole lot of group-text trash-talking—speak for them.
It’s the annual Penn We Cup, held the past three years as part of a late October unrecognized starter horse trials at Plantation Field in Unionville, Pennsylvania. The brainchild of Dr. Steven Berkowitz, VMD, the event attracts nearly two dozen large- and small-animal vets for a team competition that pits those trained by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—mostly equine practitioners from Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, just down the road from the show—all of whom receive a Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris (VMD) degree unique to the school, against vets trained everywhere else in the nation, who receive the more universal Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.
Elizabeth “Didi” Callahan, DVM, who won the competition last year, explained the genesis of the name:
“The rivalry is the ‘Penn We’ thing,” said Callahan, who herself attended the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. “The legend is, when you talk to someone at Penn it’s always, ‘At Penn, we do this…’ All the other vet schools give the [doctor of veterinary medicine] initials in English, but they do theirs in Latin so they think they’re superior—but we know differently!”
Callahan, a longtime sport horse breeder who previously competed through the intermediate level in eventing, won last year with a stand-out performance at beginner novice. She said the competition is a chance for hard-working, “type-A personalities” to let off a little steam.
“We all have pretty stressful day jobs, and our own animals are secondary to taking care of other people’s pets and large animals, but it’s fun to go to the event and spend time with other vets,” she said. “A lot of us don’t get to ride every day. It’s such a fun competition, we’re all colleagues and it’s fun.”
In the Penn We Cup, the participating vets can compete at any level offered at the schooling show, intro through training, and their scores count equally. To determine the winning team, organizers took the six best scores from each group (there were about 10 vets on each team) and added them up, with the lowest overall score winning, Berkowitz explained. The prize? Bragging rights.
“I had noticed that a lot of vets ride in the starter trials; we have a lot of vets, both equine, small and large in the area,” said Berkowitz, 67, who usually works or attends the Plantation Field horse trials series through the year. “There’s always been a little friendly ribbing between the two groups … they’re always saying they’re the best vet school. So I said, let’s see who can win the bragging rights.”
The individual winner, however, goes home loaded with swag, including a trophy, brass halter and nameplate and a veterinarian’s rectal sleeve filled with horse treats for their deserving partner.
And, in the light-hearted spirit of the competition, there were prizes for the worst ride as well as the best. Olympic eventer Boyd Martin, whose Windurra USA is down the road from Plantation Field, donated a free cross-country schooling pass to the veterinarian with the worst cross-country round. (That turned out to be Mary Davis, DVM, who “unfortunately had a few stops and an unplanned early dismount out on the course,” according to Berkowitz’s social media recap of the competition.)
This year’s overall individual winner was Katie Whisenant, DVM, who studied at the University of California-Davis and now is a surgery resident at New Bolton. She rode her trainer Jennifer Kelly’s mare Outspoken in the starter division, and the pair finished on their dressage score of 27.
“It’s a really collegial atmosphere; most of us know each other from work, either as referring vets or working at New Bolton,” she said. “People are borrowing horses, cheering each other on—it’s a good time for all.”
Whisenant, who is from Pasadena, California, competes mainly in eventing and dressage these days, but she grew up riding Western.
“I switched to dressage in college, and Jennifer taught me to jump. It’s really fun to learn,” she said. “This is my last year as a surgery resident at New Bolton, but if I’m still in trailering distance next year, I’ll compete again.”
Plantation Field organizer Dr. Bonnie Kibbie, who also happens to be a VMD, is responsible for the venue’s annual slate of horse trials, ranging from unrecognized introductory level to advanced and the FEI-recognized Plantation Field International held every September. The Halloween-weekend show with the Penn We Cup is her favorite competition of the year.
“We finish September and all the stress, and running the starter trials seems very easy in comparison,” she said. “Everyone’s happy to be there, lots of people wear costumes, and it’s a lot of fun.”
When Berkowitz came up with the idea of the Penn We Cup, she was on board to add it to the Halloween starter trials.
“I figured we could rope in enough vets [and] it was a huge success,” she said. “Some were planning to come anyway, some borrowed clients’ horses, and we had the two teams competing against each other.”
Some vets also dressed for the event’s Halloween theme. Whisenant, the individual winner of the vets’ competition, got in the spirit as a pink fairy princess with a tutu and wings. Her horse wore a unicorn horn, winged Pegasus saddle pad and “a lot of pink body glitter.”
“Overall, it’s an absolutely wonderful event geared toward everyone having a safe run and having fun,” she said. “The costumes are fun and all the competitors really get into it, and the vet competition strikes another level of competition.
“It really builds on the camaraderie that the vets in this community have with each other and strengthens that in a fun, out-of-work way,” she added. “It’s our highlight of the year, I’d say, for all of us.”