Mentor veterinary students to encourage a love for equine practice


Take a little bit of your time to show some newbies the ropes, and you'll make a positive impact on their careers.

Students gain vast knowledge in veterinary school, but making the leap from school to the real world can be a bit daunting for them. As a wise and experienced practitioner, you can help new veterinarians find their way. Here's how experienced equine veterinarians help students find a love for the profession and sharpen their skills.

Bo Brock, DVM, Dipl. AVBP, and owner of Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas, enjoys mentoring the constant flow of students that come through his clinic. In some instances, interns live with him for a period of time. But Brock doesn't think of it as an inconvenience. "It's my role to educate the next generation," he says.

Brock sees providing mentorship as a rite of passage. "Students need to run into somebody who will teach them how to have a passion for what they do," Brock says. "If they completely miss out on that, they get disgruntled. My role is to teach young doctors how to think like a horse owner instead of a veterinarian. And when they do, the job is rewarding."

Throughout veterinary school, students learn the science of veterinary medicine — the way things heal and how to work on medical problems. But, according to Brock, they don't learn how to deal with the people who own the animals.

Brock's newest intern just arrived from Colorado State University. Brock told him that he can't necessarily teach him what some of his professors taught him, but he can show him how to love to be a veterinarian — he tells young veterinarians that all the time. "That's what I want you to do, learn how to enjoy what you do," he says. "And if you love it, you'll be good at it."

Brock says that as you go through your career, the veterinarians that stick out in your mind are maybe not the smartest ones, nor the most surgically adept ones, but the ones that paid attention to you and gave you credit when you did things well. Mentoring a young veterinarian gives you the opportunity to change someone's life. Work with students and teach them how to interact with people and to absorb their environment so that they like what they do — that is Brock's favorite thing to do. "I think that's part of the mentoring process, at least that's my part in it," he says.

Fun for you and the student

Besides helping new students learn to love what they do, you might also find yourself enjoying the process, too.

"I definitely love what I do, horse medicine, everything about it," says Betsy Charles, DVM, radiology resident at Western University. "It's fun because I love interacting with the students, and as a non-traditional resident, I get to do that a lot."

Previously, Charles developed the extern program at San Dieguito Equine Group, where she practiced and supervised third- and fourth-year veterinary students from Western Veterinary College as well as other veterinary colleges as they rotated through the practice as part of their core equine rotations. Charles is also involved with the Veterinary Leadership Experience as a speaker and facilitator and serves on the Student Relations Committee for the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).

"I'm honest with students about the positive parts of equine practice, but I'm also honest with them about what's challenging about it," Charles says. "Especially because there are a lot of women coming into equine practice and it's still a male-dominated profession. That presents many challenges, but I'm pretty up front about them and how I handle those situations. I think that students appreciate that. I'm not going to sugar-coat it. I just love what I do so much, I hope my enthusiasm for the profession is contagious," Charles says.

She says it takes a long time to become good at being a horse doctor and that your guidance for young doctors is invaluable. "It can be frustrating for the young kids coming out of school. Within the specialty are surgeons and big personalities, and a lot of ego is involved. I was shocked when I first started practicing in southern California — how intensely competitive it is and that we all just can't get along in the sandbox," Charles says. "I tell the students that there are a lot of things that are going to be challenging in all areas of life, and this is just one of them."

Bring your skills to the table

In her involvement with the Veterinary Leadership Experience program, Charles discusses the soft skills of medicine — how you communicate and build rapport with people and how you bridge the gap in helping them understand what their animal needs.

Charles earned a Master's degree in organizational leadership from Biola University, and is conscientious about trying to apply those principals to veterinary practice. "Horse owners can be a high-maintenance, demanding group, so that's a huge part of how you help students to transition and be involved in the profession effectively," she says.

Charles sees it as her job to help students understand all the opportunities available to them in equine practice and then help them figure out where they best fit. "I definitely come from a strength-based philosophy where I want to use what I'm good at," she says. "So helping students is something that excites me."

Move beyond clinical skills

It used to mean that to learn from a mentor, you'd just go and follow someone around — you'd watch and learn. But this generation of students wants to ask questions and understand why things are the way they are. Mentoring should be interactive. "I tell the students why I do the things I do and what motivates me to do them. I encourage them to ask questions," Charles says.

So, how do you make sure that there is an appropriate exchange of information between the gurus and the next generation of students? There can be some disconnect because of the communication styles in play and what the expectations are. "I've had several students become disillusioned because they think that they're not heard," Charles says. "They assume that equine medicine is just a good-old-boys club, and they refuse to play those games. Their decision is to leave and do something else, either in a small-animal practice or they leave veterinary medicine altogether," Charles says.

Luke Bass, DVM, is a member of the AAEP Student Relations Committee and the intern coordinator at Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif. The clinic annually works with about 150 externs from U.S. veterinary schools and another 10 to 15 international students. The externs work at the clinic from one to two weeks and the international students work about eight to 10 weeks. From that pool, they select three interns that stay with the clinic for a year.

Bass' role is to help the externs gain as much hands-on practical experience as possible. "We try not to focus on teaching during appointments," Bass says. "Instead, we provide the veterinary students with a one-on-one opportunity to learn about cases and therapeutic plans once the appointment is complete."

The students assist with emergencies and perfect their horse handling and technical skills while administering treatments, medications and monitoring patients. "They learn to work as a team," Bass says. "We pride ourselves on providing a hands-on experience, whether it's with first-, second-, third- or fourth-year students. And we encourage them to come back and apply for an internship."

Annually, Pioneer accepts three interns. "I would put them up against any intern in the country as far as getting as much primary case responsibility and decision-making skills as possible," Bass says. "They are far ahead of any intern in the country as far as going out on their own to work in a referral practice or at a university." Pioneer has a high resident placement percentage.

Communication is key

In addition to helping students develop practical equine veterinary skills, Bass agrees that communication is important. "Although many students are good at what they do, they're just not able to communicate with different types of clients," Bass says. At Pioneer, about 50 percent of clients are dressage-hunter-jumper, 35 to 50-year-old female clients. The other half are Western performance reiners, team-ropers, cutters — the majority of whom are male.

Interns learn communication skills, how to talk to different types of people from these two diverse equine disciplines. "Our externs and interns must be able to look at an individual horse for a cowboy, and turn right around and look at a six-figure dressage horse in the same day. That's real-world experience and they just don't get that in veterinary school."

Many of today's mentors see mentorship as an opportunity to give back what they received. Today's experienced veterinarians had a similar experience when they were up-and-coming. "There were people we looked up to, that gave us help along the way," Bass says. "I'm passing the torch, and I'm happy to do it. I'm glad that I can lead so many people who are interested in equine practice and doing it with the same passion that I have."

"We take great pride in mentoring young practitioners," Bass says. "It's an important part of our practice to continue to develop these students as practitioners of the future." And that's the emphasis of many established equine practitioners, and they seem to revel in it as do their prodigies in their mentors.

Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. He is based in Seattle.

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