Young, talented, and female


Want to be a successful equine practice owner and still have a life? Start by communicating assertively and laying old stereotypes to rest.

In the past, the usual image of an equine veterinarian was a big, brawny, no-nonsense man. In the last two decades, thanks to the increasing numbers of bright, skillful women in all veterinary schools, that's changed. For one, the notion that large animal work demands masculine physical strength is fading. It doesn't matter if you can bench-press 50 pounds or 150—if a horse goes berserk, it's more about your smarts and your reflexes than your biceps. In all areas of practice, a successful equine practitioner must flex her brains more than her muscles.

When it comes to ownership, smarts are even more important. Besides practicing equine medicine and surgery, you need to lead the practice, make major employment and equipment decisions, understand and leverage financial information—and try to have a life in between. As a young female equine doctor, it's likely that you carry many responsibilities in addition to those surrounding your practice. So how can you manage your personal life successfully along with your practice? As you'll see, the solutions for both overlap significantly.

Ramp up your earnings

Most people who say that money doesn't matter are fooling themselves, especially if they own a practice. Money does matter—you must earn enough not only to sustain your business but also to grow it. Businesses that don't grow don't survive. Unfortunately, according to the AVMA, full-time female equine practice owners earn nearly $83,000 less than their male counterparts, the reasons for which are unclear but the subject of much speculation. (See "Are Women Tough Enough?" for more on female veterinarians and earnings.)

Despite this shocking discrepancy, it doesn't have to be your destiny. The biggest problem for most low-earning equine doctors, men as well as women, is that they don't trust themselves, which comes across in the way they interact with clients and colleagues. Many young veterinarians suffer from low self-esteem and a high fear of failure. This combination leads to passivity and an unhealthy desire to please that can be easily manipulated or used. Such behavior leads to low pay, poor client compliance, and, often, an early exit from the profession.

Learn to be assertive with clients and staff. Find a business or life coach, or even a therapist, if you need guidance in this area. Increased earnings are just one benefit of addressing these root self-esteem issues.

Show clients your expertise

Horse owners often know all the equine veterinarians in their community. Most owners rank these veterinarians, contacting their No. 1 choice first and moving down the line if their top doctor isn't available. To move up the list, you must pass the client's test to see if you're equal to or better than his or her last veterinarian. Again, the answer here is to be assertive.

Tell clients that you're recommending the best, most modern medicine. Then explain the results you're seeing in your patients. Create a sense of urgency by letting the owner know the horse needs the recommended service for its own well-being. Don't circle the issue or give mixed signals about the best medical course; rather, advocate for the best care. The client needs your expert advice—and a full understanding of its importance—to make the right decision for the horse.

For clients who prefer a male doctor—and there will always be some of these curmudgeons—don't take it personally. It's not a reflection of your talents, skills, personality, or anything else other than the client's comfort zone. Don't beat yourself up if these clients are reluctant to accept your assessment of the patient's needs; simply continue to state your treatment advice without getting defensive. If a client truly shows no respect for you, consider firing him or her.

Pass the buck to earn bucks

Owning an equine practice is a tough job, regardless of gender. No one can do it alone. The answer is to focus on what you do best and let others handle the rest. This can be tough. For many years, equine doctors took pride in being a jack—or jill—of all trades. They did all the work while their team members stood idly by. As a result, they started to think of their team members as liabilities. And feeling unchallenged and underused, their team quit. High turnover negatively affected practice profitability, and equine veterinarians became ensarled in a vicious cycle.

Today this mindset is changing, but you might still find yourself feeling reluctant to delegate because of this throwback culture. Don't be. Squelch the fear that you'll be thought of as a slacker. In the specialized world of equine medicine, doctors who delegate are considered smart. Do what you do best and enlist others to complement your strengths. You're an equine veterinarian. Your focus should be on patient care. Surround yourself with a stable of advisors—a veterinary attorney, an accountant, and a consultant—who can assist with the nonmedical aspects of practice: contract reviews, finances, practice management, and business operations.

Then hire a team and help them do their jobs well. Choose a practice manager and an assistant, for instance, and provide them with detailed job descriptions. Communicate your expectations, give them the necessary resources, and let them run with it. You might be surprised by the results: a streamlined schedule that lets you see more patients and generate more revenue. Bonus: You'll get more free time to live a life outside your practice.

Women are entering the field of equine medicine in record numbers. More than 43 percent of equine veterinarians in 2007 were women, so say the AVMA's 2007 market research statistics. Female equine veterinarians are here to stay—luckily for horses—and when you communicate your strength and knowledge, you'll get the respect and revenue you deserve.

James Guenther, DVM, MBA, CVPM

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. James E. Guenther, MBA, CVPM, is owner and president of Mountain Management & Consulting Inc., in Asheville, N.C. Send questions or comments to

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