Barbara Blasko, M.D., doesn’t waste one minute of the time she’s able to spend with her horses. After long shifts in the busy emergency department of a Riverside, Calif., hospital and entries in the adult amateur jumpers every month, she can’t afford to.
Variable 10-hour shifts at the hospital that add up to more than 60 hours a week make for plenty of late nights, but for Blasko, that’s the ideal way to save a few extra daylight hours for doing what she loves. It’s not unusual to see her showing two horses in the morning classes at Blenheim showgrounds in San Juan Capistrano and then treating a heart attack patient to kick off her 3 p.m. shift in Riverside.
“There aren’t too many jobs where you can actually go to a horse show in the morning and then go to work in the afternoon,” she said. But her passion far outweighs the logistical demands of making it all happen.
“I can get a great feeling of adrenaline and accomplishment after I jump a double clean round, but I can also get a great feeling of happiness and enjoyment just from riding my horse on a beautiful day and feeling that special connection we have,” she said. “I love horses and they’re part of me.”
She rides her show jumpers Casper and Balouja three to four days a week, and trainer Guillermo Obligado helps keep them going on the days she can’t make it to Woodgrove Farm in Rancho Santa Fe to ride with him and on-ground coach Lynn Obligado.
Her longtime mount on whom she practices dressage lives at Stepping Stone Farm in Temecula. The different venue gives her more riding options during the week, as her commutes are greatly influenced by the ebb and flow of the Southern California traffic between her home in Fallbrook and the hospital. So if a trip to Woodgrove Farm coincides with rush hour, she’s got a backup plan in Stepping Stone.
Fittingly, though not purposefully, Blasko’s work and riding spheres have overlapped, she said. “Over the past few years many people have found out that I am an emergency medicine doctor and so friends of friends, or just friends, tend to reach out to me for questions—simple questions about respiratory problems or possible injuries like bony injuries or cuts. And I’ve reached out to people who have gotten hurt.
“Years back [hunter/jumper professional] John French fell off a horse pretty badly and I thought he needed some x-rays, so I facilitated getting him into the hospital quickly and getting him taken care of. So I’m not actually having a separate practice at the horse shows; I’m just kind of offering help because I am a doctor.”
Today, if horse show goers don’t first recognize Blasko by the cross-country vest she always wears to jump—a request from her No. 1 fan and husband, Jason Smith—the dead giveaway is the emergency crash bag she keeps full of medical supplies for any situation that might pop up in her travels. From basic bandages to splint materials, slings, a suture kit, skin glue, stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, among other equipment, the crash bag is as big a presence in her trailer as her horse show gear.
“When I least expect it, it really comes in handy,” said Blasko, 44. “I was at [HITS] Thermal this year and Guillermo Obligado, my trainer, called me in the morning and he said, ‘Are you here yet?’ ”
Grand prix show jumper Mandy Porter was not in good shape.
“She had a respiratory infection and really had a fever and just didn’t look good,” said Blasko. “She felt terrible and had to ride the grand prix the next day and I was able to actually examine her, because of course I bring my stethoscope and different paraphernalia to the horse show.
“I was able to call in some antibiotics and cough medicine for her, and miraculously she was much better the next day and able to ride in the grand prix and have a top placing. It made me feel great.”
“That’s the first time that I had met her,” added Porter, of Olivenhein, Calif. “She was very kind and took time out of her day to meet with me and give some helpful advice, and she didn’t have to do that.”
Blasko is a familiar competitor at the HITS Desert Circuit series and other California venues. This season, she purchased her lease horse, Balouja, an 8-year-old Hanoverian, and she also competes another new purchase, a 9-year-old Holsteiner, Casper, in the adult amateur jumpers.
Because of little inconveniences she experienced over the years, and the biosecurity issues happening lately on a global scale, Blasko started a company called Electronic Vet LLC in conjunction with Dr. Richard Markell, a veterinarian for the U.S. show jumping team, and FEI jumper judge Katie Frank, last August.
Blasko’s personally responsible for all the writing on the company’s website, www.electronicvet.com, while the whole team is responsible for the product development.
“Every horse show we would go to, the show office had their own way of asking you to document and record your vaccinations,” she explained. “If you didn't know your horse had already had vaccinations for a previous show, it was possible the horses were getting re-vaccinated because people couldn’t find their original certificate or they had switched vets and they couldn’t get the information.”
She recalls the frustration of having to wait at the entrance of a horse show because one document was missing from the folder of all her horses’ paperwork, and the horses had to wait in the trailer for hours on a hot day.
Blasko had noticed increasing biosecurity issues within the horse community as well, citing the shutdown of the HITS Ocala show grounds and the horse switching that occurred in a Middle East endurance race as examples.
“I have a degree in what’s called [biomedical] informatics—a simple term would be leveraging technology to improve healthcare; using electronic medical records instead of paper to do all the documentation, using digital imaging to integrate x-rays and things into the actual chart,” she explained. “Everything’s computerized—we live in the world of Apple and iOS and I wanted to put that knowledge to a use and a purpose.”
Electronic Vet’s first product launch is an online health certificate. “It keeps a running log of all the horse’s immunizations for the whole year,” said Blasko. “So whenever you register your horse, it keeps all of the vaccinations, it keeps your Coggins, and it’s in chronological order."
A sample ElectronicVet online health certificate.
“The other product we have is an electronic medical record, which you can use at the point of care to document lameness exams and pre-purchase exams," Blasko said. "It integrates photos and video, so if you have a horse that you’re doing a pre-purchase [exam] on, you can record all the flexion tests and save it right into the record.”
Electronic Vet’s third product is a tele-medicine portal that veterinarians can use to communicate with their clients instead of making farm calls. “I’m kind of trying to bring some of the technology that we use as doctors into the equine industry to help facilitate care of the horses and just sort of making everything a little more streamlined and all in one place,” said Blasko.
Blasko’s work ethic in adulthood derives from a go-getting childhood. She grew up in New York and trained with Scott Stewart (“kind of cool because now he’s a superstar!” she joked). Though her parents were supportive, the bills were on Blasko. She groomed, braided and did odd jobs for different clients in order to finance her lessons and show on the A circuit, and worked hard academically in anticipation of supporting her passion in adulthood.
“I guess not having a really nice horse when I grew up and having to work so hard made me really want to have a career where I loved my job but I could also afford to ride and show and pursue the dream that I didn’t really get to accomplish as a junior,” she said.
Blasko completed her undergraduate and medical studies at Stony Brook University before moving to California for her residency in emergency medicine at the University of California, Irvine. As a young professional she juggled riding and work, marrying Smith, a doctor who specializes in helping patients with spinal cord injuries walk again, three years ago.
“I feel like horses have a soul that you can connect to and that you can relate to and the greatest feeling I ever have is when I’m just sitting on my horse and riding,” said Blasko of why she thrives off the busy lifestyle. “It just makes me feel so happy. I think you can develop connections with horses that are unique in terms of a relationship you can develop with a person or a dog or another animal. Horses you can develop a unique connection with, and it’s the greatest feeling.
“This wouldn’t all be possible without my trainers,” she added. “They’re the ones that really keep the foundation so I can just add bricks. They’re the ones that keep everything solidified so I can ride the horses and learn.”
And as for her job in the emergency department, always the priority, Blasko said, “After 16 years of doing it, it’s still exciting to go to work and it’s fun and I still really, really love it, so it’s a nice thing.”
Read about veterinarian and amateur show jumper Hope Batchelor