Dr. Miles Hildebrand Took A Circuitous Route To Sport Horse Medicine

Aug 22, 2012 - 12:20 PM
Miles Hildebrand blends western medicine and chiropractic care in his work as a veterinarian with specific technical knowledge of sport horse biomechanics. Photo by Erin Gilmore.

With one well-placed push along the sacroiliac joint, a loud popping sound ricochets from somewhere along the back of the horse’s body, inspiring a sigh of relief and instant licking and chewing.

“You’d be hard pressed to find something, short of Washington, D.C., that is more politicized than the horse show world. So really I haven’t gone far,” said Miles Hildebrand, DVM, as he steps back to survey the horse’s reaction to his adjustment.

It’s a simple way to describe a star-studded past where Hildebrand was more likely to encounter U.S. presidents and major league baseball players than equines and their ailments.

His journey from the hallowed ground of Capitol Hill to eyeballing a horse’s hind-end joints is a story he doesn’t mind telling. But right now, his full attention is on the patient in front of him.

Hildebrand places a large block next to the horse and steps onto it, the better to give him purchase while he feels for joints out of place along the spine.

Twenty, or even 10 years ago, sports medicine and rehabilitation for horses weren’t common practice. But with the growth of the sport, and wider acceptance of horses as equine athletes, sports medicine for horses has grown and taken on a life of its own.

Just this year, the American Veterinary Medical Association approved a Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialty. Prior to 2012, veterinarians who practiced sports medicine along with treating conventional cases had no way to distinguish that end of their business, other than via reputation and word of mouth. Now that a specialty has been approved, Hildebrand plans to become one of the first specialists and will be preparing to sit for the boards. It’s a process that will take him three or four years while he maintains his busy full-time practice.

There’s nothing pretentious about the tall veterinarian with clipped gray hair and soft blue eyes. He shoulders the trademark gentleness of a truly good veterinarian like a comfortable coat. Also a certified chiropractor, Hildebrand’s veterinary work blends western medicine and chiropractic care with specific technical knowledge of sport horse biomechanics. He moves around horses as if it’s all he’s ever known, when in fact that’s just the contrary.

No Tunnel Vision Here

Hildebrand moves on to a new horse, first watching it trot in a circle and then pressing his fingers into points along the neck. He’s feeling for muscle stiffness or a joint rendered immobile. With half-closed eyes, the horse lowers its head and sighs.

It’s impossible to grow up where Hildebrand did, near Fort Worth, Texas, without being exposed to rodeos and western riding. But Hildebrand was granted little saddle time as a boy. His father was a man who liked the idea of owning horses, rather than a hands-on horse person. The successful owner of an industrial paper company, he won his first two Thoroughbred racehorses in a poker game. Hildebrand took every opportunity to be around the horses, picking up work at the racetrack as a groom. And even as other interests began to redirect his time, he always hoped veterinary school was in his future.

But he didn’t have tunnel vision. His interest in politics and baseball steered his college years. Hildebrand played baseball at Texas A&M. He moved up to the semi-pro ranks and was picked up by an independent minor league team in Miami shortly after graduation. He might have even made it to the major leagues if it weren’t for an arm injury. He returned to playing baseball after his arm healed but never in the same capacity.

“Get On With Your Life”

In the months after his injury, Hildebrand took a job as an assistant coach to the baseball team at Texas Christian University and, later, at North Lake College in Dallas.

“But still, baseball was just a job, not a career,” Hildebrand said.

In 1988, he moved to Washington, D.C., with the purpose of finding a “real job” in politics, but shortly after he arrived, a position with the Baltimore Orioles found him.  

“The Orioles were looking for a scout to cover the Mid-Atlantic states,” Hildebrand explained. “I ended up working for a grassroots lobbying firm during the week and scouting for the Orioles on the weekend and evenings. Later, I was actually offered a contract to go back and play with them as a semi-pro player. But I think I was a better coach.

“Baseball was a boyhood passion that I wasn’t ready to give up on yet, and going with the Orioles was a way for me to stay with it,” he continued. “But now that I’m closer to my father’s age, I look back to when he said to me ‘get on with your life’ in terms of baseball. Now I know what he meant.”

But while baseball wasn’t a career path for Hildebrand, politics certainly were. As a teenager, he’d enjoyed volunteering for local political campaigns. Veterinary medicine once again took a back seat as he was pulled into the fast-paced life of a D.C. bureaucrat.

Hildebrand quickly moved on from the job with the lobbying firm to working with Congressman Tom Kindness (R-Ohio, 1975-1987).

As an assistant to Kindness, Hildebrand grew familiar with the rhythm of 1980s Washington. When a position as a White House liaison presented itself, Hildebrand took it and found himself on the team that surrounded President George H.W. Bush. 

“At that point my job was to coordinate things wherever the president was making an appearance at an event,” he said. “I needed to make sure that we could get enough supporters to the location. I would get on the phone and call the local Republican committee office and make sure a crowd of supporters would be there when the president stepped out of his limousine.”

It was fast-paced work that kept Hildebrand busy on Capitol Hill. Then everything changed.

An Interesting Time

Hildebrand downplays the period during and after Aug. 2, 1990, saying only that it was “an interesting time.” It was the start of the Persian Gulf War, and very quickly, his job description shifted.

“It was the first war we’d been in that someone my age would remember,” he said. “Watching the way that moved through Capitol Hill was something. I went from being a White House liaison to helping facilitate communication between the politicians. This was in the days before the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, when things still traveled at a slower pace.”

More specifically, they traveled as fast as a person could walk or run. Hildebrand took on the job of a runner during the war, moving through the buildings of Capitol Hill, passing briefs and sensitive information between congressional offices.

Shortly before the end of President Bush’s term in 1993, Hildebrand left the White House and went to work for an environmental assessments firm tasked with nuclear weapons reassignment.

And his thoughts returned to his goal of becoming a veterinarian. Work in politics was a means to an end—to save enough money to put himself through veterinary school.

“I’d already decided to go to vet school. I enjoyed politics, but I was tired of the political world from the Washington, D.C., angle; there was too much backstabbing and not knowing who your friends were,” Hildebrand said. “It was time for me to go make decent money, pay off debts and save for vet school.”

He saved until 1995, when he headed to Ross University in the West Indies. 

A Different Education

Located on the island of St. Kitts, Ross University offers a little known but intense veterinary curriculum that includes an accelerated program with no time off. Hildebrand powered through the 32-month program.

“As far as politics and the news were concerned, it was very hard to go from knowing everything 20 minutes before it happened, to not,” Hildebrand said. “But the schooling was awesome. I got lots of hands-on experience that you couldn’t get in U.S. schools. You kind of had to think that you were in a third world country; people would bring animals to the vet school, and we’d work on them right there. It was almost always a real life situation. It was very different from going to vet school in the U.S.”

Hildebrand found more than a degree in veterinary school; during his first year at Ross he was introduced to his future wife, Patty.

“I was one or two semesters in front of him at school,” remembered Patty. “I knew of him right off the bat, but we didn’t start seeing each other until about a year after he started at Ross.”

An outing on a sailboat began a dating relationship, and they were married in 1998. Their son, Jackson, followed in 2003.

Ross University students go to U.S. veterinary schools for finals and their clinical year, and after spending his at North Carolina State University, Miles began practicing in the Midwest, first in Ohio, before founding a practice at Blue Water Equine Hospital in Patty’s native Michigan.

Along the way he picked up the chiropractic certification to complement his veterinary knowledge.

“Many times a veterinarian doesn’t believe in chiropractic care, or the chiropractor doesn’t think the vet can cure everything, and they both end up missing that half of the boat,” said Miles.

“You have to bring it all together to get the whole picture. That’s where I think I’m open to the idea that a lameness may not be on the limb,” he continued. “Traditionally, vets were trained to start with the foot, but when we start with the foot and work our way up, sometimes we run out of options.”

Broad Client Base

Which brings him back to the barn in Florida. His last horse is blessedly free of issues today; he’s been seeing the tall, dark mare regularly for months now. The horse returns to her stall, and Miles writes prescriptions and prepares to get on the road.

It might seem strange that a practicing veterinarian from Michigan grew to become a preeminent sport horse specialist on the East Coast circuit, but as his clients will attest, Miles is just that good. Word spread quickly about his ability to help all levels of horses.

He’s been in high demand as a sport horse veterinarian with a concentration in trunk and hind end lameness among high performance show jumping and dressage horses since 2004.

“Dr. Hildebrand not only has chiropractic and technical knowledge, but also basic science and physiology knowledge,” said Dr. Maxine Tabas, a physician and long-time client. “He’s helped my horses go more comfortably and use themselves much better. They recognize him as someone who makes them feel better, and they relax when they see him coming. He’s what we used to call a triple threat in medical school.”

Melissa Jackson, a Grand Prix dressage trainer from Bradenton, Fla., is another satisfied client.

“The value in Dr. Hildebrand is that he also is a chiropractor, and I find that really beneficial,” she said. “You can do some adjustments, and you’ve got the education of the vet, and you always have him to tell you if it needs medicine or injections or if we can do some adjustments and make the situation better. The horses are so much happier, more comfortable in their work. It’s the best of both worlds, instead of having either or.”

It’s not unusual for Miles to begin a day in Wellington and end it 200 miles to the north, in Tampa. And that’s just a prelude to his monthly road trip up and down the Eastern seaboard, where he visits clients across seven states.

“In a special interest setting I’ve taken a keen interest in lamenesses that involve the hips and pelvis and back in general,” he said. “A lot of my work came from the fact that not a lot of people focus on it.”

But a lot of people need it. Miles treats everything from Grand Prix dressage horses to backyard pets, and he jokes that his appointment book is to blame for every gray hair on the head of his scheduling assistant.  Even though he maintains hubs out of Wellington and Orlando, he’s constantly on the move. And the busy way of life hasn’t come without its share of sacrifices.

Family Flexibility

Eight-year-old Jackson Hildebrand used to view horses as the thing that took his daddy away from him. As he gets older, it’s easier to explain his father’s odd schedule to him, but with so much time on the road, not being able to spend every night with his family is hard on Miles and his family.

Patty and Jackson live in Michigan year round, with escapes to Florida during the busy winter season when Jackson’s school schedule allows.

“It makes things interesting up here; we’re on our own during those two-week periods when Miles is on the road,” said Patty. “It is difficult, but we’re also kind of used to it.”

The small family goes to special lengths to stay connected during the two weeks each month that Miles is on the road.

“I go home for half of every month, and we have a normal life during that time,” said Miles. “To stay grounded when I’m away, I went to the U.S. Armed Services website and read about how soldiers stay connected during a deployment. I picked up some of the things they do, like setting up Skype on a computer in the kitchen, so that I can watch my wife make dinner and help my son with his homework. We make it work.”

A Foot In The Door

Once he leaves the small group of horses at his first stop, Miles can look forward to hours on the road on the way to his next appointment. But he can’t remember the last time he was bored during those drives.

His phone rings constantly with calls from clients, technicians and his long-suffering scheduling assistant. His schedule may change half a dozen times during the day, but he’s always successful in maintaining one balance: two weeks on the road, two weeks at home. 

And politics haven’t left him entirely. Miles serves as chairman of the Public Policy Committee for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, making him a point of contact when equine-related public policy issues come up on Capitol Hill. For an “average” equine veterinarian, he’s uniquely qualified to serve the AAEP in this capacity.

“I still have an interest in and am certainly very versed in political affairs,” Miles said with a laugh. “I like to think I’m an active chairman. I go to Washington, D.C., once a year and meet with members of Congress. And I try to make it into the AAEP office in Lexington [Ky.] for face-to-face meetings with the executive directors and key staff members two to three times per year.

“When a state tries to change a law that will affect vets, [the AAEP] steps in and offers our two cents. Our job is to protect vets and also to protect the horses,” he added. “When you have an issue that involves horses, you’ll have people who don’t know anything about animals calling into their Congressman, who also doesn’t know anything about horses, to press the issue a certain way. We see lots of unintended consequences due to that.”

While he was good at politics and good at baseball, Miles admits that he’s never felt natural at doing anything other than practicing veterinary medicine. The roundabout path he took on the way there only makes him appreciate his current station all the more.

Early on in his career, another veterinarian gave Miles a piece of advice that has never left him.

“He told me: ‘Know what your job is. It’s your job to fix dreams, to make horses well. Whether it’s a horse that is taking a little girl to a fair, or an Olympic dressage horse qualifying for the next big thing,’ ” remembered Miles. “I try to live by that, because while I can’t over emphasize that it’s really neat and fun working on the big horses, I also really like making sure that little girl can go to the fair.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Dr. Miles Hildebrand Took A Circuitous Route To Sport Horse Medicine” ran in the August 13, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Veterinary

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