Dr. Steve Berkowitz, DVM, has lived with his wife Sue Berkowitz and a couple of dogs in Kirkwood, Pennsylvania, in the midst of Amish country, for the past 20 years. Every Saturday morning, the neighbor, who is an organic farmer, sends over a box full of fruits and vegetables.
He has worked with Unionville Equine Associates since 1985, when the practice was just him and two other veterinarians. As the horse industry has grown, so has the practice, which is now up to about 10 veterinarians. Steve, 65, plans to retire after this year.
Something of a Renaissance man, he’s known locally for his baking and photography skills, both of which grew out of being the vet at area horse shows.
“The horse shows are what spurred me to be a photographer,” he said. “I was at Fair Hill [Maryland] way, way back, and I was very nervous about being the vet on the course and worrying about having horses get hurt, and the photography took my mind off it and gave me something to do. I started taking pictures of people I knew, of clients, and they liked it and it was fun.
“I think some of the first photos I took were of [five-star eventer and former U.S. Paradressage Team coach] Missy Ransehausen as a little kid. I’d hang out around the photographers and made friends with some of them—like Karl Leck, Charlie Mann, Shannon Brinkman and Amy Dragoo—and they’d teach me a few things and inspired me, and it built from there. It’s just a hobby; I rarely sell something to anybody. I don’t want to spend all the time editing, so a lot of them are just sitting on a hard drive.”
At a horse trials, he often can be found, literally, by smoke signal: Look for the smoke from his tiny grill, and you’ll find Dr. Steve, accompanied by his dog Itchy, grilling burgers out on the cross-country course. His delicious “Berko-burgers” have become local legend amongst the eventing community, and since they’re first-come, first-served, you’ll often find a group of people milling hopefully around his grill. Because his burgers usually are accompanied by a variety of delectable baked treats fresh from his oven, he has quite the loyal following.
Join Dr. Steve for a Day in the Life:
5:30 a.m. I get up, let the dogs out, go down to the barn and feed my horse, turn him out and do his stall. Then I come back to the house for breakfast, usually half a bagel and some orange juice. I have one horse, my wife has a dressage horse, and we have a large pony that we rescued as a babysitter. The dogs wander off and do their thing, but Itchy always comes back because he’s very spoiled and knows I’ll give him some Pup-peronies when I have breakfast. He still jumps into the truck and likes to go to work with me. He tore his ACL a few years ago and had surgery, but he’s very sound and very healthy. He’s also very famous around here—I think some people use me as their vet just because I have Itchy!
7 a.m. I head to Sylmar Farm, a large Thoroughbred breeding and training farm just a mile from my house. They have over 100 horses there. I palpate four or five broodmares for breeding work, pull blood for Coggins tests on a couple of the racehorses, do a couple of procedures on the pregnant mares and examine a newborn foal, including taking blood to make sure it got enough colostrum. (It was fine.)
At another barn on the same farm, I castrate a 2-year-old who is there for training. I do castrations under anesthesia and, instead of an emasculator, which is basically a big clamp, I use a more recent invention called the Henderson castrating instrument, which does the job in a matter of seconds—typically the emasculator clamps have to be on for a couple of minutes—and owners claim there’s less bleeding and swelling, so we like it. I think they’re teaching that method in the vet school now—I learned it from one of the doctors at [the University of Pennsylvania’s] New Bolton Center.
10 a.m. I head back to the office, drop off the Coggins work and see Karen, who is the office manager/assistant. We go over any messages, and she tells me my schedule. I generally look for food in the kitchen, say hello to everybody, and catch up on the gossip.
Noon I stop at Wawa every day for soup and a soft pretzel.
12:45 p.m. A mare at a smaller farm was having trouble foaling, and by the time we got there, they had the foal out, and he was standing. We milked the mare, tubed the foal and gave him the colostrum because he wasn’t strong enough to nurse on its own. The mare is older and pulled through OK. A couple of hours later, the foal was stronger.
3 p.m. I head home for a riding lesson with Lillian Heard on my horse Ricardo. I’ve been taking lessons with Lillian at Windurra since I got this horse. Lillian and I met about three years ago, when I bought a horse from her. I knew who she was, but I didn’t really know her. She traveled a lot back then, and I didn’t see her that often at the local events. I got to know her better when I bought Chilly from her. I ended up sending Chilly back for her to ride and started taking lessons with her, too. I jump with another one of her students, a guy named Ty, and it’s a lot of fun.
Sometimes, by the end of the day, I’m tired and I’m sick of horses, but getting to ride clears my head and reminds me why I like horse people so much. Windurra has a lot going on, and because I’ve been around forever, and worked at all the horse shows, I know a lot of people. It’s fun that I get to see them all competing, not just when they’re sick and need veterinary care, but when they’re out doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Years ago, event organizer Denis Glaccum asked me to work at Fair Hill, and then he started Plantation Field [Pennsylvania], so I’ve been doing that since both events started. I’ve probably seen Phillip Dutton jump more times than anyone in the world! I’ve seen Bruce, then Buck as a kid … I’ve seen riders develop and then watched their kids grow up. It’s especially fun when you’re a rider and you idolize these people, and you get to see them ride and then get to know them a little and find out most of them are really nice people. Rarely does anything bad happen at events, so 99% of the time I get to hang out on the hillside, make burgers and take photos and just enjoy myself.
They’d always have lunch for me, but I’m a picky eater (I don’t like vegetables), and they’d usually give me a hoagie or something I didn’t want. I figured I’d bring my own grill and make a burger. I tried a few things and settled on the little Weber grill. I’d hang out with the medic, and people would start stopping by.
These days, I make enough for 12-15 burgers on Saturday and Sunday. Amy Dragoo, who photographs most of the events, started bringing me about 3 pounds of meat so I can make even more. It’s funny, I’ll light it up, and people see the smoke and the Gators [utility vehicles] start pouring in. I like to be by myself, so I used to hide away with my grill and a good book, but now I seem to be the center of attention! I just have to be careful that the smoke isn’t interfering with the track, but I always try to feed the technical delegates to keep them happy. The recipe is really simple, just ground meat, American cheese and bread. But they’re really good; I’ve got it down to a science. I get this seasoning at the Kennett Butcher and sprinkle it on there—that’s all it takes.
After my lesson, I head home. April and May around here is when the foxes have their kits, and for the past 15 years or so I’ve been lucky enough to have found one or two fox dens to photograph.
Depending on how the light, is I’ll go sit there and watch the dens, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend. Most of these foxes are fairly used to people, so they’re not threatened. If you sit there long enough at a distance they learn you’re not a threat, and you can move closer and closer to them. The cubs aren’t afraid at all, but the vixens might get nervous, and then they’ll move the kits and you won’t see them again.
Most evenings in the springtime, I’ll head out to the farm that’s got a den and sit there for two or three hours. Most of the time I don’t get anything, but sometimes they’ll come out and play, and I might get 15 shots in just a couple of minutes. Then I’ll go home, download them on the computer, and spend a couple more hours editing. I might email a few to friends or put them on Facebook.
Sue might cook dinner for me, or I’ll grab a peanut butter sandwich, but it’s usually a quick dinner for me.
7 or 8 p.m. I wind down by watching the “Great British Baking Show,” and try to be in bed by 9 p.m.
I also started baking with going to the horse shows, because I had to have something for dessert after the burgers, and I have a real sweet tooth. I like the scientific part of baking; I weigh everything out. Horse people will eat it no matter what, so I can try different recipes. [Local eventer] Courtney Cooper and I are always swapping recipes. It’s just a fun thing to do.
I’ll usually do the baking very early in the morning. If I’m going to a horse show, I might bake at 5 in the morning, or at 7 or 8 p.m. the night before. I can whip up that stuff pretty fast now. I’m a pretty basic person: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, maybe I’ll throw some orange zest or walnuts in there, all kinds of variations. I probably have 15 or 20 recipes for brownies and for cookies, all claiming to be the best recipe ever, and I’ve tried them all.