Much of Lauren Zappitelli’s time is spent either learning how to care for horses or riding them. For a veterinary medical student who focuses on equine care, this isn’t all that unusual. But it’s how Zappitelli rides, and where, that sets her apart.
Rather than cantering casually through the back 40, Zappitelli straps on boots, breeches, and a helmet and soars over the fences and ditches of show jumping courses. Or she guides her mount through the intricate movements of dressage, an athletic pursuit dating back to the Renaissance.
“It’s a great stress relief, and it’s nice being outside and doing something active,” says Zappitelli, a third-year student in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. “Jumping over obstacles is a real adrenaline rush.”
She does this all under the scrutiny of judges in international venues, and she does it extremely well. At the World University Equestrian Federation’s Student Riding Nations Cup held in Prod, Romania in May, Zappitelli beat out all but one of 45 international competitors on her way to a silver medal in show jumping. Her strong performance helped the three-member United States collegiate team trot away with an overall fourth-place finish.
Zappitelli hails from northern Illinois, somewhat of a haven for horse lovers, so it’s no surprise her interest in riding began at an early age. “I always liked animals and begged my Mom to let me ride, but she always told me I was too little,” she says. “But one day she gave in, and that was it. What my parents once thought was a fleeting hobby has become my life.”
Since then, Zappitelli has built a solid resume of competitive riding experiences including many competitions as a teenager, a year on the varsity hunt seat and dressage riding teams as an undergraduate at the University of Findlay, and, after transferring to UW-Madison, three years on the UW Equestrian Team where she served as captain her senior year.
“At first I wanted to be a pro, but after my year at Findlay I decided I would rather keep horseback riding my hobby and pursue veterinary medicine,” says Zappitelli on why she transferred to UW-Madison. “I decided I wanted to compete as an amateur forever and just ride like a pro.”
The world of amateur riding has its fair share of tough competition. In December 2012, Zappitelli faced top-notch student riders from a host of other nations when she competed in the Collegiate World Finals in Norway. She’s quick to credit her exceptional coaches—Mark Aplin, Kyle Dewar, and Kathy Frame—for a great deal of the success she has had.
Zappitelli’s love of competitive riding is reflected in her clinical area of interest—equine sports medicine. As a rider and former horse owner—she had two that she sold before leaving home for college—she has learned first-hand what it takes to bring an animal back from injury.
Her extensive exposure to horses has made her more effective as an equine care provider, according to Dr. Howard Ketover, a veterinarian at Irongate Equine Clinic, an ambulatory practice in Madison, Wis., where Zappitelli has acquired some valuable hands-on experience. Her years in the industry have honed her ability to interact not only with horses but also with their owners, he says, which will prove invaluable as she pursues her career.
“Everyone can gain the kind of experience she has had, but she’s ahead of the curve,” says Ketover. “She knows what she’s doing. She’s a huge asset for us.”
After veterinary medical school, Zappitelli hopes to take on an equine internship. Her dream job, however, would be working as a veterinarian for the U.S. Olympic Team.
“It’s such a huge part of my life,” Zappitelli says. “I couldn’t imagine living without horses. I’m really looking forward to starting my career in equine veterinary medicine and having the opportunity to give back to an industry that has given me so much.”