There’s an evolution taking place in the equine industry. The “gold standard of care” for horses has taken on a whole new meaning with advanced veterinary diagnostics, treatments, and preventatives. And the relationship between the horse, the client, and the veterinarian is also changing.
Equine veterinarians today said that they want to feel like not just a part of your team, but a part of the success of your horse. They want to share in your victories just like they share in your worries and sorrows.
A Veterinarian’s Joy
When asked what their greatest satisfaction in practice is, equine practitioners have no hesitation in saying it’s the joy of getting and keeping their equine patients healthy and happy.
“We’re a primarily a Western performance horse practice, and being able to diagnose, treat, and rehab some of the greatest performance horses in the country and then see them compete again never gets old,” said Dr. Kelley Jones of Premier Equine Veterinary Services of Whitesboro, Texas. “I also take pride in knowing we put our high quality of patient care above anything else. Also, making sure our employees are taken care of and feel part of the success of these horses. We couldn’t do it without them.”
“I personally find joy when a horse has genuinely improved from my care, and the owners or trainers appreciate that improvement,” said Dr. Ciera Guardia of Guardia Equine Sports Medicine in Houston, Texas. “Some of the biggest wins I’ve had have been difficult cases that finally turn around. Not everyone is as appreciative as I would like, but those are the cases that keep me going.”
“Knowing I made a difference in my patients’ lives—the gratitude of the owner and seeing a horse happy and healthy or healing from what the health care team did—is always my biggest take-home,” said Dr. Margaux Buchanan of Sarasota Equine Associates in Sarasota, Florida. “When days are hard, I go through the thank-you notes from previous clients—those heartfelt notes of gratitude that show I helped and mattered in someone’s moment of need/darkest hour keep me buoyed on the hard days.”
Owners Appreciating Their Vets
So, what are some ways that you can show your vets that you appreciate them?
Dr. Guardia said, “Just being kind and considerate goes a very long way. I have had clients offer cold water, or they have their horses bathed and on crossties when I arrive. I truly appreciate that so much.
“Small things like ‘thank you’ texts or emails make a big impact for me,” she added. “Referrals are probably one of the best compliments I can receive. Sharing in the joys of my clients’ wins is wonderful, and having them genuinely thank me for working hard, especially when the outcome is not what we were all hoping for, really means a lot.
“One of my clients recently left the sweetest text message thanking me for getting her daughter’s pony sound and riding again,” recalled Dr. Guardia. “She went so far as to leave a raving review on Google with pictures of the two ponies I treat. That means so much to a small business like mine because it increases trust in the practice.”
The understanding of clients can go far to reduce the stresses that veterinarians face.
“I think it would be helpful if clients remembered their regular veterinarian is still a human,” she said. “I think clients should expect that to survive, equine veterinary medicine is going to eventually go the way of small animal veterinary medicine where emergencies get sent to emergency clinics so that general practitioners can remain mentally and physically healthy enough to be their best for their normal daytime appointments. Anxiety and depression are things that almost all veterinarians—including myself—struggle with. Just being kind goes such a long way.”
How Can You Help Your Vets?
There are several ways that you can help your veterinarians be more efficient, enjoy their work more, and feel more appreciated.
Dr. Bret Luedke of Heritage Equine Clinic in Berthoud, Colorado, said, “Our biggest issue with clients is the after-hours or weekend messages asking non-emergent questions. These are boundaries that need constant attention and repetition.”
Dr. Ashley Troncatty of Cypress, California, said, “Just being understanding, flexible, and respectful of our time and schedule makes such a difference. And be loyal to us. There is nothing more degrading than when a client says ‘Oh, I had Dr. X look at this and he said it might be ABC’ when you didn’t even ask me to have a look.”
Dr. Jones said, “Remember, we are humans first. We have emotions, we have bad days, we have family emergencies, and we have emergencies with our own animals.”
Dr. Jones said that clients can help reduce practice stress by being more proactive than reactive. “Gone are the days of waiting to call the vet and expecting to get in the same day or next day. It’s absolutely painful to have to tell our regular clients that we don’t have an availability for weeks. There are some things that come up that can’t wait, and we do the best we can to take care of our regular clients in those situations. But I feel for new clients who do not have veterinary care already established, and we have to refer them to another clinic because we simply are spread too thin.”
Dr. Julie Settlage, Equine Professional Services Veterinarian at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, said, “One of the biggest areas where horse owners can help out is allowing your veterinarian to not be a veterinarian when they’re not working. If you use a multi-doctor practice, be willing to allow one of the other veterinarians to see your horse if your regular veterinarian is off duty that day. Also, try to be flexible! The more flexible you can be when scheduling appointments, the more efficient this allows your veterinarian to be by trying to schedule others in your area on the same day.
“If we can help veterinarians decrease their windshield time, they can have more time to either see more appointments or spend on their hobbies or with their families,” noted Dr. Settlage.
In many practices, the boundaries between equine veterinarians and their clients are porous. There’s often an expectation of continuous access.
“You don’t get to call your physician or dentist on their cell phone outside of office hours, but that’s the expectation of many horse owners with their veterinarian,” said Dr. Nadine Salomon of Allegheny Equine Associates in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. “It’s exhausting!”
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Where We Stand Today
Every year, the equine industry is losing more equine veterinarians than it’s gaining. That’s a scary fact for horse owners!
Today, only a little more than 1% of veterinary school graduates are entering equine veterinary practice. With about 4,000 new veterinarians graduating each year in the U.S., 1% represents only 40 new equine doctors.
Add to that the fact that about 60 equine veterinarians retire annually, a figure that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) expects to rise by 3% each year.
According to research, about 50% of equine practitioners leave equine practice in the first five years after graduating from veterinary school, further reducing the number of available vets. And the AVMA stated that the average debt of new veterinary graduates is $183,302.
Additional studies have shown that the main reasons for this exodus from equine veterinary practice are lifestyle and the number of work hours required, emergency on-call duty, low salaries and compensation, and mental health and stress.
Equine veterinarians who leave the career most often take jobs in small animal hospitals. These positions typically offer three- or four-day work weeks, no emergency duty, and often no weekend work, all for a salary twice that of a new equine doctor. While those who stop treating horses are often heartbroken at the loss of their lifetime dream, they value having time for a personal life that might include children, riding a horse of their own, or pursuing other hobbies. The additional compensation also allows them to experience less stress about paying their educational loans.
According to Dr. Jones, “Right now, the biggest stressors in our practice are finding and keeping employees that fit our brand, as well as keeping up with the constant overflowing schedule. It’s difficult to have to tell our regular clients that we don’t have an available appointment for two or three weeks, and we don’t have any stalls available for them to do a drop-off appointment. Our clients are mostly performance horse trainers, and oftentimes horses come up acutely lame and need to be seen to figure out the next step in their training program. It’s a blessing and a curse to be so busy and sought after, but it takes a toll on the staff and veterinarians.”
Unless the life of a horse doctor changes, the future could bring shortages in available caregivers.
Over the last 50 years—in an effort to provide the very best of responsive care—equine veterinarians have trained their clients to expect same day service, unlimited access to them for questions or concerns 24/7, with fees that are below those charged in companion animal medicine. Changes to these expectations are inevitable if new veterinarians are to be attracted to equine practice.
And, finally, remember that your equine veterinarian is a human with a life outside of practice. She or he wants to be there for you and your horse, but in turn you need to respect them and understand the challenges inherent in their career as an equine veterinarian.