Barbara Bergin Stays Fit in Body and Mind

Orthopedic surgeon, horseback rider, author: the list goes on.

Photography by Lauren Pape

Who is Barbara Bergin? Orthopedic surgeon, horseback rider, author: the list goes on. But ask Bergin if she could’ve predicted the directions life has taken her, and she’ll say no—she’s been discovering possibilities all along the way. 

At the age of 40, Bergin decided to learn to ride a horse and took lessons from a friend who competed in team penning, a rough and fast-paced cattle-working sport. Chasing the real cowgirl experience, she later purchased her own horse and a ranch in Smithville, Texas, a move that surprised her. “I never, ever saw myself being a country person, or a Western person, or a horseback riding person. Ever,” Bergin said. “Maybe I was going through a mid-life crisis, but I just thought ‘that sounds like something fun to do.‘” 

After six weeks of unconventional riding lessons, she was able to work a cow and run a horse as fast as it could make it down a fence line, skills she now uses to compete in cow horse competitions. Bergin has received awards in a number of competitions, including third place in the National Reined Cow Horse Championships.

While many credit the horse for doing most of the work, she said competitive riding is a very physically demanding sport where both horse and rider must stay in shape. She attends training twice a week to work on tricks that require the horse to respond to pressure from specific leg and rein cues, which take a great deal of leg and arm strength from the rider. 

Bergin said that, despite any amount of training and trust between animal and rider, horses’ unpredictable behavior has caused her several serious injuries while riding, both leisurely and competitively.  “Lots of people get hurt riding horses—good riders and bad, experienced and inexperienced,” she said. “Horses [can be] dangerous animals. If a rabbit jumps out in front of you, that horse jumps sideways, and if you’re not sitting deep in your seat, you’re coming off your horse.” 

Bergin said she once suffered a broken wrist after jumping from a bucking horse while on a trail ride with friends. Miles from home (and even farther from a hospital), Bergin saw that her wrist was shattered and decided to set it there, an act she’s performed countless times working as orthopedic surgeon in Austin for over 20 years. “I just reached down and corrected the deformity, just like I would do with someone in the emergency room,” she said. 

While many who are recovering from sports-related injuries don’t follow doctor directions or allow enough time before resuming regular movement, Bergin said her medical experience has helped her recovery whenever she’s been injured. “A lot of patients won’t move their wrists, and then they get a stiff wrist after a surgery,” Bergin said. “I know what happens, so I’m just much more aggressive about following my directions. I’ve had 100 percent recovery with all of my injuries because I’ve managed them the way I know they’re supposed to be managed.” Her patience was tested after suffering a torn ACL and MCL as well as a broken fibula after hyper-extending her knee in competition, which kept her off her horse and in recovery for more than a year. 

During that time, Bergin discovered her love for writing. She finished and published a novel, Endings, which features a female doctor as the main character. Although she had never considered herself to be a particularly creative person, she now blogs and is working on another novel and a collection of scary short stories. 

“As I’ve gotten older, I would say the right side of my brain—the creative side—is just limitless,” Bergin said. “I can see myself writing music until the day I die, as long as my hands can play the guitar. I can see myself writing short stories and books and memoirs, and blogging for the rest of my life, and those are things that could lead to a second career after retirement.” 

Bergin also enjoys public speaking. She talks with teenage groups about how to build a successful and happy career; when she speaks with women’s groups, she often discusses how to find something new to do after age 40, when many who are mothers find themselves with much more free time after the children go off to school. “A lot of my focus with people is on keeping your mind active as well as your body,” Bergin said. 

When she’s not in surgery, Bergin follows her own advice by spending time on her many hobbies and hanging out with her husband and two adult children at her ranch on the weekends. She said maintaining the ranch and caring for her many horses, cows, and chickens is a lot of work, but she enjoys the activities. 

“Forty years ago, before I started riding horses, I never saw myself doing any of the things I do right now, except for being an orthopedic surgeon,” Bergin said. 

“Sometimes you can’t predict where you’ll be later on in life, but it’s important to enjoy what you do. If you have a good opportunity, take it. If you think something sounds fun, do it.”

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