Veterinarian-jockey breaks the mold on and off the racetrack
Updated April 3, 2023
Dr. Ferrin Peterson has been on the back of a horse since she was practically a baby. As a veterinary student, she traveled the world to assist at horse races as part of her externships. But treating horses isn’t enough for this equine veterinarian. She has always wanted to ride the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby, and she has never been closer than now to achieving her dream.
Dr. Peterson not only works as an equine veterinarian in Lexington, Kentucky, but also rides as a jockey at numerous racetracks, most recently at Turfway Park. She’s had a total of 1,135 starts, including 102 first-place finishes, 122 second-place finishes, and 133 third-place finishes.
When she’s not racing, she’s busy making house calls, scrubbing in for surgery, or doing whatever else she is needed for.
“Being in Kentucky, you see it all. There are so many things I’ve read about, and you see them right in front of you. The pace is so quick. Even as we’re suturing, we’re moving on to the next case,” Dr. Peterson said. “I thrive off that sort of pace. That’s the way I pace my whole life—taking in as many learning opportunities as I can fit into each day.”
She said being a veterinarian has helped her immensely as a jockey, as has training horses using the philosophy of natural horsemanship.
“It takes so much time to develop horsemanship and gain trust from trainers, who then start to (put you on their) better horses,” she said. In the mornings, Dr. Peterson is now breezing Grade 1 winning horses that have raced in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. She hopes one day she can be in those races, too.
From dream to reality
Originally from Sacramento, California, she started riding on her mom’s pony from a young age. At age 8, she got an Arabian horse named Saheeh, which means “true” in Arabic, and learned English riding before taking dressage lessons at 10.
Dr. Peterson attended undergraduate college at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo on a pole-vaulting scholarship. She took her horse with her to college and took up waitressing to pay for his care.
When she attended the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, she lived with Flora, a woman in her 90s who had dementia, whom Dr. Peterson cared for to help pay her student loans.
Dr. Peterson knew she wanted to be a veterinarian in the horse racing industry, so she spent as much time as she could getting hands-on experience, at home and abroad. She did externships everywhere from the breeding shed at Coolmore in Versailles, Kentucky to equine practices and racetracks in Japan, Hong Kong, and Dubai.
It was always a dream of hers to be a jockey, so in her second summer of veterinary school, Dr. Peterson got her license to be an exercise rider. The process takes three months of riding, seven days a week, and trainers as well as outriders—who supervise training and racing—must sign off that the rider is safe and experienced enough to receive the license. Even though she was a busy third-year veterinary student, she continued as an exercise rider to make some money. She called it her jockey scholarship.
Often, she’d leave the house at 4:30 a.m., driving an hour to Golden Gate Fields while listening to podcasts of her classes’ lectures. She’d gallop horses, then be back in time for her laboratories, which started at noon. Any other lectures she missed, she would listen to in the evening.
“I kind of kept gaining experiences as an exercise rider and more trust from riders, and they said, ‘Why don’t you ride races? You’re there on weekends anyway,’” Dr. Peterson said. “That was my dream and something to check off my bucket list. It would be one more thing that I have credibility behind me, to say I won a race.”
Before the start of her fourth year, Dr. Peterson had five wins and became more in demand by trainers even though she could only ride part time. She also started getting noticed by agents, who would talk to her about riding for them after graduation.
“I wanted to know what I could do as a jockey full time,” she said.
So, following graduation in May 2019, Dr. Peterson went professional and moved to Southern California to pursue her dream. When she wasn’t riding at Del Mar Racetrack, she worked at an integrative equine practice owned by Dr. Kevin May.
Mentoring her was Julie Krone, one of the most successful female jockeys in the sport. Krone was the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, achieving that aboard Colonial Affair in the Belmont Stakes in 1993, and the first to be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, in 2000.
“You have been trained so well to understand Thoroughbreds,” Krone told Dr. Peterson once. “You’ve proven your passion for this, I want to see you be successful.”
The two relocated to the East Coast to go back to where Krone got her start and to get Dr. Peterson ready for the summer. Dr. Peterson made it all the way to second in the standings in 2020 at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, New Jersey, as a full-time jockey while still working as a part-time veterinarian at a small animal clinic. She had wanted to practice equine medicine, but she wasn’t able to work many hours. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic began, so many clinics were already operating in a restricted manner.
Dr. Peterson found early on in racing barns that, as a petite woman, they assumed that she would be weak and advised that she try weightlifting.
“I would nod and smile and think to myself that I just finished a highly successful college career as a Division I pole vaulter,” Dr. Peterson said. “I always held my tongue and knew I would just have to prove my strength to them.”
Dr. Peterson had always aspired to ride in Kentucky since first visiting in veterinary school, so finally in the fall of 2021, she made the leap. She was mentored by Dr. Robert Hunt, who does surgery Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. She said they approach clinical cases similarly.
“He understands the full picture and has the same drive I have to understand the horse on their back and on the ground,” Dr. Peterson said. “He told me, ‘Now is your prime time to focus on your jockey career, but veterinary medicine is always developing. To do both is very important.’”
She enjoys breeding season when it gets to its peak, “and it’s chaotic, and the hours are long, but that comes to an end, and you transition to a new thing. In the summer, you get busy in surgery and getting horses ready for sales in the fall, then medicine picks up. And in the following spring, it’s busy with breeding season, so there’s hospital work and field work at the same time.”
She has gained confidence as a veterinarian after working more than one breeding season. She has contended with a Clostridium difficile outbreak and not only delivered twin foals but also a few red bags, or premature separations of the placenta prior to or during a mare’s foaling.
“To see so many foals on death’s door, and to realize what they can come back from, that has been really encouraging,” Dr. Peterson said. “There are cases you can’t save and illnesses you can’t fight through, but it is pretty amazing what these horses can recover from.”
Dr. Hunt said she’s certainly one of a kind, especially as someone who is trying to fulfill two full-time professions that are very demanding and require 100% focus.
“Certainly she has the aptitude for it. She’s a very talented person, and I think she excels at both,” he said. “She has one of the best sets of people skills I’ve ever encountered, especially for someone as young as she is. She’s just as humble as could be—or more humble than she should be. Just tremendous humility. She does everything she can to get along with everybody.”
He also pointed out that as if working two jobs weren’t enough, among jockeys, women are still not universally accepted. Further, being a jockey in the first place is hard work, physically and emotionally.
“You’re going to take lumps, whether you’re pulled off a horse for no explanation, even though you think you did the greatest job, or you’ve been breezing the horse, and suddenly you’re not the rider for the race,” Dr. Hunt said. “It’s toughened her up, but the way she has handled that is so amazing. She keeps a great attitude and keeps coming back.”
Dr. Peterson currently has her own private practice. Dr. Peterson plans to stay in Kentucky or at least have her home base there because she is in proximity to some of the best horse racing in the country and has mentorship from both excellent equine veterinarians and jockeys.
Three retired jockeys who are in the Racing Hall of Fame—Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, and Pat Day—have been training her in riding, while Dr. Hunt has been training her in surgery on the veterinary side.
McCarron first met her while at the gym with his grandson. Dr. Peterson was crouched in a jockey riding position, which piqued his curiosity. After watching her races, he has since agreed to help her work on her style and riding form as well as changing her body position to help her stay balanced on the horse.
“I think the talent’s there,” he said. “She’s a very determined, courageous young lady. And she’s diligent about the work she puts in.”
Dr. Peterson has mostly been riding long-shot horses, and McCarron hopes she finds an agent to get her better mounts.
“It’s tough to improve if the horses you’re riding are not good on finishing,” he said.
Her focus now is keeping her head down and riding every day. She sees this as just the start. Jockeys have proven they can ride even into their mid-50s, Dr. Peterson said, pointing to top colleagues such as Mike Smith and Johnny Velazquez.
“I would love to be a jockey until 50,” she said. “I love riding, and I’m really happy with my life in Lexington and the way I can incorporate both. If I had to choose one, I would feel half-fulfilled. I need to keep both in my life. I’d like to just keep doing veterinary medicine alongside racing and developing myself in both ways.”
View an accompanying photo gallery of Dr. Ferrin Peterson and her journey to becoming a veterinarian and jockey.
Correction: Dr. Ferrin Peterson does not currently work at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.