The passion of the equine practitioner


For those pursuing equine practice, the personal passion for their subjects starts long before veterinary school.

Once veterinary students reach their third and fourth years of study, externships often provide motivation to choose a particular career path. For those pursuing equine practice, though, the personal passion for their subjects starts long before that. Each of the following four promising veterinary students attributes a personal passion for equine medicine to an early association with horses.

It's a family business

Michael Rogers is a fourth-year veterinary student and president of the student chapter of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) at Oklahoma State University's (OSU's) College of Veterinary Medicine. Rogers found his passion early, helping his grandfather with the family business raising Quarter horse racehorses as a young boy. When the family was away, he'd help in the evenings by checking on the horses, especially the foaling mares.

His interest in Quarter horse breeding remains strong today. It led him to OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine Ranch, a 640-acre ranch where he works with mares and stallions in his study of equine theriogenology (Photo 1). He and his wife, who is also interested in a career in veterinary medicine, live at the ranch and take care of the horses in the evenings and on weekends. Both have first-hand experience in horse ranch and breeding management. Rogers has worked at the ranch with Reed Holyoak, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACT, and Chelsea Makloski, DVM, Dipl. ACT, since the summer before his first semester in vet school.

Photo 1: Rogers helps put shoes on Presidente Shiner, a reining horse stallion at OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine Ranch.

"The various wet labs — to be able to put some of that classroom knowledge to work, to get your hands dirty — they have hooked me," says Rogers.

Besides his extensive experience with horses, Rogers also credits the people at the national AAEP office for influencing him to pursue a career in equine medicine. Both the student and national AAEP groups encourage students to get involved and understand all the options the profession offers.

"There are quite a variety of aspects to equine practice," Rogers says. "Even if you do concentrate in one area, there is always a sick foal or a stallion to take care of."

Rogers expects to intern at OSU while his wife pursues her degree at the College of Veterinary Medicine there. She is three years behind him, so that gives him time to complete the internship while she goes to school. OSU also offers two equine theriogenology residency positions, another potential goal for Rogers after completing his internship. Eventually, he plans to work as a large-animal practitioner, probably in a rural community.

Loss drives the pursuit for medical answers

Natalie French, a third-year student at the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine, also counts an early association with horses as a strong influence in her career choice.

"I was one of the lucky ones," French says, "able to grow up on a farm with horses. So that's pretty much where my passion began." French began riding lessons at age 5, and by 7 she had a pony on the Georgia family farm. She was always the one in the family to take care of the horses, cleaning their stalls every day and feeding them morning and night, until she went to college.

French also showed horses in the hunter-jumper discipline throughout the Southeast. "I got to see a lot of what it takes to maintain horses, at home and on the show circuit," says French. "I grew up with a strong passion for the sport, and for the animal, itself."

While an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, about an hour from her parents' farm, French was fortunate enough to keep up with her riding, showing at least a dozen times a year. Her ultimate goal, though, was always veterinary school.

"That's been a goal of mine since I started with the horses, back when I was 7 or 8 years old," she says.

French pursued an undergraduate degree in animal science. During that time, she lost her beloved jumper, Wally, a gelded Percheron cross (Photo 2). The veterinarians treating Wally think he suffered from a blood clot.

Photo 2: French with Wally, her mixed-breed gelded Percheron cross that died of a presumed blood clot during her undergraduate years.

"It was a very traumatic experience," French says. "When I look back on it, it's sometimes hard to think about, but it really drove me toward pursuing a degree in veterinary medicine. Not only because of his loss, but as he was going through this, I was so passionate about figuring it out — reading the journals about his condition. After that, I was hooked on the medicine and science aspects. That kept me pursuing a career in veterinary medicine."

When French wasn't accepted into veterinary school directly after her undergraduate years, she began debating whether veterinary medicine was right for her. She looked into human medicine, working for a physician during the summer, but realized that was not what she wanted. That experience put her back on the veterinary track.

"I'm glad I did it because it let me know what my passion really was," says French.

She continued her pursuit of veterinary school by working for small-animal veterinarians since there were not many equine practices in her locale. Similar to her brief experience in human medicine, working as a small-animal technician helped her determine her ultimate goal.

"I enjoyed it, but I knew that the horses were calling me," says French. Before making her decision, she talked to senior students of equine, mixed-animal and small-animal disciplines. "After that I kind of knew that an equine practice was where I wanted to go," she says.

French now presides over the AAEP student group at the University of Georgia. She aspires to work with performance horses but also loves "the everyday backyard horse practice." She is also considering training in equine acupuncture, as she has seen its use and benefit to performance horses.

French also is considering pursuing an internship. "I don't think at this time that I want to pursue a residency, but you never know," she says. "I may find something along the way that might influence me in that direction. I'm trying to keep my options open."

Positive role models provide inspiration

Ayla Turnquist, a fourth-year student at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, grew up on a horse farm (Photo 3). Her grandmother raised miniature horses, her mother raised Thoroughbreds, and she grew up in Pony Club, riding and competing in events. Although she grew up with horses, Turnquist says, "I was never really interested in veterinary medicine because the veterinarian we used worked 24/7, 365 ... I knew that was not the lifestyle I wanted. I completely wrote off the profession at 12 years of age."

Photo 3: On an International Veterinary Student Association trip to Latin America last summer, Turnquist spent time deworming horses and cattle on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.

Only after graduating from college did Turnquist realize that she wanted to pursue veterinary medicine. "I spent some time working for an equine veterinary clinic where there were 12 vets," she says. "They all shared on-call, they all had lives, and the people who owned the practice had kids. They did lots of other things other than veterinary medicine. They were happy, balanced people.

"They worked really hard, but I saw that they could also do other things, and they inspired me to pursue this profession."

Turnquist has an interest in acupuncture and pain management. After graduation, she would like to complete an internship and learn how to incorporate acupuncture into Western veterinary medicine.

Career counseling points the way

Amy Norvall, a fourth-year student at the Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine has had a horse-filled background. Born on a farm in Zimbabwe, Norvall has been riding and competing for as long as she can remember. Although she loved horses, as an undergraduate Norvall wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She talked with a career counselor who asked her to imagine the coldest, rainiest, most awful morning ever, and then asked, "What would motivate you to get ?"

After some thought, Norvall replied, "If someone called me and their horse was sick, then that's what I'd get out of bed for." She changed her studies to animal science and pre-veterinary medicine.

"From there it was like a domino effect," she says. "The more I got into it, especially toward the equine side of things, the more I knew it would fit for me."

Norvall likes working with horses and riding them in her spare time, but credits the people in equine medicine for drawing her to the industry. "All the equine veterinarians that I've met have such great personalities and are such easy people to relate to, to talk to, that I really enjoy it. I look forward to being colleagues with them."

This year Norvall will complete several externships and a variety of rotations at school to try to discover the area that interests her most (Photo 4). In the United States on a student visa, she would like to stay a while longer. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, there is a broad horse spectrum — the show circuit, polo and the racing industry. In addition to externships in the U.S., Norvall has completed an externship in Australia.

Photo 4: Norvall learns how to palpate and perform ultrasonographic examinations in mares.

"I just know that equine medicine can take you in so many different directions, anywhere in the world," says Norvall. "I lean more toward the performance side of things, as opposed to the reproduction side, but there's no telling. Whatever feels right, I will go in that direction. Not only the horses, but the people involved — other veterinarians — make it a great profession."

Continued inspiration

While early affiliation with horses inspires a love for the animals, interaction with veterinarians encourages students to make equine medicine a career. In the next article of this two-part series, you'll meet the mentors — those equine practitioners who pay special attention to guiding young veterinary students to equine practice.

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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