Working for my equine vet was an amazing opportunity that allowed me to gain a wealth of knowledge when it comes to caring for and managing my own horses. I also learned a lot about the way people care for their horses.
For the past two years, I had the sometimes-privilege of working for my ambulatory equine veterinarian. In many ways, it was a great experience. I met so many people within my local equestrian community who I never would have had the chance to meet, and I had the opportunity to gain valuable medical knowledge. When my vet retired, I left confident in my ability to triage most situations until a vet can arrive on site and to know when to question a diagnosis and when to haul to a specialty clinic. For that, I will be forever grateful.
I also learned quite a few things that went well beyond the practical and hands-on knowledge that helps me better manage my small boarding barn. The lengths some people will go to for their horses are absolutely humbling. Conversely, the complete unwillingness of others to offer basic medical care to their horses was sometimes heartbreaking. I saw the best and the worst of people and their animals and learned a lot.
Here are six things I took away from that experience:
1. Some people will move heaven and earth to ensure the well-being of their horses.
These were always may favorite clients (even if I didn’t think they were the most practical). These are the people who built special paddocks for their metabolic horses or padded stalls for their laminitic horses. They were the people who made sure that their no-longer-ridable senior horses still got the best care and anything they needed until it was time for them to be laid to rest peacefully. For a lot of us, this seems to be obvious care, but it’s amazing how few people will see their horses to the end and, more importantly, maintain their horses’ comfort and quality of life through to the end — especially when the horse is no longer “in service.” These clients were the ones who, when the vet said the horses needed to be seen by a specialist, they didn’t think twice. They would load up their horses and take them to the nearest specialty clinic to make sure their horses got what they needed.
Most of us are bound by our finances and have to make decisions based on those limitations. Don’t misunderstand me to think that this was all about those who would spend money on their horses. No, it was about those who were willing to do what needed to be done within their abilities and to make the tough decision either when the horse told them it was time or their ability to maintain their horse’s quality of life had been exhausted.
2. A lot of people shouldn’t own horses.
The absolute contrast to the aforementioned clients is this group. I was repeatedly shocked at some of the situations we would walk into. To be fair, most of our clients were good pays and cared well for their horses. In her 30+ years practicing, my vet had weeded out most of the people who didn’t follow instructions and didn’t have routine veterinary care for their horses. She was fortunate enough to have loyal clients who, for the most part, wanted the best for their horses. However, there were some we would see on emergency calls that floored me. Between the abysmal state of their facilities and their inability to find a hoof pick or brush when asked, there were a few times I left wondering how and why these clients even had horses.
And let me be clear. When I say the abysmal state of their facilities, I am not referring to a lack of a fancy show barn or indoor arena. Most of my favorite clients were those with small backyard barns with well-kept and spoiled horses. No, the ones to which I am referring had months’ worth of manure piled in the stalls, skinny, defeated looking horses with sad eyes, and only called when they thought the answer was going to be euthanasia. Many times, I left wishing that had been the answer for those horses. From horses with ruptured corneal ulcers and systemic rain rot, both of which clearly had been left unchecked for weeks or longer, to those who stood in manure for what was clearly multiple days or weeks, I wanted to take home or humanely euthanize so many. And I often wondered why these people even bothered to have horses. Because, let’s be real. Even with minimal care, horses aren’t cheap.
*A small note here. I’m sure a lot of you are wondering why I’m not mentioning calling the humane society. Sometimes we did, but the fact is this: If horses have shelter and visible food and water on site, there isn’t much the already overwhelmed humane officers can do. Often times we found other ways to intervene.
3. Euthanasia is not the worst thing that can happen to a horse.
See point number two. It sounds harsh, but there are a number of horses that I wish we had recommended euthanasia to the owner rather than offering treatment options. This isn’t because I don’t love horses and don’t think they are worth being saved when they’re no longer rideable. There are just situations that I left thinking that a horse needed follow up visits and regular care, but I knew we would never hear from the owners again. Or I thought the chance of recovery was slim — at least without a lot of time, money, and accommodations made to keep the horse comfortable for the remainder of its life. In those cases, I always hoped I was wrong, but many times I thought euthanasia would have been the kinder choice.
4. Always be up front with your veterinarian about what you can afford and what you can’t.
This is an extension of point number three. A lot of times there are treatments available to help keep your horse comfortable, but we know horses aren’t cheap. The bills for their medical care can add up very quickly. If you are on a limited budget and know that you have tough choices to make because of that, be very clear with your vet when you make an appointment or when they arrive at your barn. It’s true that most vets aren’t thrilled to hear that there is a ceiling to what you can spend, but it does help them to determine what diagnostic tools to use and when those tools and subsequent treatments are practical.
For instance, if we were called out on a lameness evaluation, we were pretty certain we were taking films and possibly ultrasounding, in addition to flexion tests and movement analysis. Depending on the number of films, that’s very quickly a $500 bill, not including the farm call, fuel surcharge, emergency fee (if it was an unscheduled visit), bloodwork, and medication. It adds up quickly.
So, if you need to prioritize some diagnostics over others, let your vet know. There’s a higher chance of something being missed, but in the long run it may allow you to treat and care for your horse without officially declaring bankruptcy.
5. Have a clear idea about what is feasible for your horse and what isn’t.
In addition to being aware of your limitations — financial or otherwise — you need to be aware of what is feasible and fair for your horse. For instance, my mare is HORRIBLE on stall rest. Like, fire breathing dragon horrible.
Yes, she is a chestnut mare. Yes, this fits the stereotype. But either way, if she is on extended stall rest, WE. NEED. DRUGS. (I write “we” here because ace and reserpine are her friends, but wine and bourbon are mine.) Having been faced with more than one long-term stall rest situation with her, I have very frank discussions about what we can manage and what we can’t during rehab. This helps determine the course we take in her care.
I also think of a client who had to make the very difficult decision to euthanize her horse because he had the opposite problem. He had chronic lameness and essentially was unridable, but was otherwise healthy. She wanted to retire him and let him live out his life. She was happy to continue paying for his care and letting him be a spoiled pasture puff. However, this horse could not be turned out. He would become frantic and run and pace. For hours. He would eventually try to run through or jump the fence. Even with other horses. The owner tried building a small paddock for him so that he could be contained but still be allowed to move around. The result was the same. Without regular riding, there was no option for this horse other than to live in a stall for the rest of his life. All options were exhausted. The owner felt it was only fair to make the difficult decision to let him go, but did so for the love of her horse (go back to point three on this one if you need to).
The TL;DR here is that you know your horse best. Make decisions using that knowledge.
6. Ask the tough questions.
I’ll repeat, you know your horse best. Make decisions using that knowledge. Okay, I amend the latter part of that statement. Make decisions and ask questions using that knowledge. If you just know something isn’t right with your horse, keep pushing your vet. Ask if you need to haul to a specialty clinic if you think the diagnosis is incomplete. Ask what the prognosis is when you do get a diagnosis — not just for the horse making it, but for ride-ability and level of performance. Ask what care is going to look like moving forward. Ask whether or not it’s time to consider saying goodbye. Ask your vet what they would do if it were their horse.
Most of us don’t like hearing all the bad things that could happen, but it’s important to know what you’re looking at when it comes to caring for your horse. This is true at all levels of horse care, not just extreme medical situations. Push your vet to see what you need to do to best care for your horse.
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This list is by no means all-encompassing, and doesn’t even touch the medical knowledge I gained. In some ways, I wish I had been able to work with my vet for longer. I appreciated all the information I received, and the more complex cases taught me more than the routine ones.
That said, be sure to thank your equine veterinarian. Their hours and schedule — especially if they’re ambulatory — are ungodly. We would leave the clinic by 8:30 or 9:00 AM usually and there were some nights we didn’t get back until after 10:00 PM. This wasn’t the norm, but it also wasn’t atypical. If you have to wait for your vet or your vet has to reschedule an appointment because of an emergency, be kind. Know that they’re responding to a situation that is likely a horse owner’s worse nightmare.