Thursday, Jul. 25, 2024

Amateur Showcase: Busy Veterinarian Keeps The Barn Her Happy Place

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After leaving her shift at the veterinary clinic one August afternoon, Jean Looman’s daily trip to the barn took an unexpected turn. The amateur dressage rider pulled over on the highway, with semi trucks whipping past, to invite a pair of disoriented runaways into her vehicle.

“Two dogs were running down the middle of Route 340,” she said in a text. “So I guess I’m adding some creatures to my pack for the day.” 

Those who know Looman aren’t surprised by such developments. Whether it’s the horses in her barn, the dogs she owns and shows, the rescues she supports or the patients she sees across two veterinary clinics, Looman has a way with animals. They seem to find her—especially those that need something a little extra. 

Looman, who lives in Clarke County, Virginia, says her veterinary staff sometimes refer to her as a “witch” for her intuition with animals. After 24 years in veterinary medicine, Looman is often able to land on a correct diagnosis in seemingly magical ways. 

“If you just spend enough time watching them, and looking at them and knowing what things kind of look for, they do tell you eventually,” she said. 

For a person who has dedicated her life to healing animals, it makes sense that her competition horse, Red Hot Chili Pepper, is something of an underdog. Looman bought the Hanoverian gelding (Royal Prince—Davida) to pursue her eventing dreams despite his unlucky backstory.  

Jean Looman on her Hanoverian gelding, Red Hot Chili Pepper, with trainer Jess Idol (right). Loonam made a goal to work toward her bronze and silver medals. Photo Courtesy Of Jean Loonam

As a 3-month-old, “Chili” developed an adverse reaction to his strangles vaccine, suffering a case of vasculitis so severe that it damaged all four legs and nearly killed him. His original owner donated him to the University of Georgia, where the colt healed and hung out in a field for years. Eventually an ambitious undergrad took notice of the out-of-shape gelding—at first mistaking him for a pregnant mare—and started training him to event.

Looman met the late bloomer when he was 10, back in work but still quite green. Chili’s legs were scarred from his early brush with death, and getting him to agree to trot a circle could be “agonizing,” but she saw potential in the gelding that was worth all the clinics, lessons and heartache. 

Even with all the work Looman put into Chili to transform the well-bred pasture ornament into an eventer, their first competition was a flop.

“At our very first horse trials that we went to, we were excused from dressage because he was just standing on his hind legs going across the diagonal,” she recalled. “I tried not to make eye contact with the judge, because I knew she was going to kick us out. She stood up, pulled her hand across her throat and said, ‘Get out.’ ” 

With time, Looman learned her horse’s quirks and how to respond to them. When he would bolt, she’d ask him for an extended canter. If he’d go backwards, she’d ask him to rein back. Seven years after buying the gelding, she’s proud of the progress they’ve made.

“So many times, I’d be in these clinics and hear all the other amateur women gasping, because they’re like, that horse is going to kill her,” she said of their early partnership. “On Sunday, my dressage trainer used him as a lesson horse for somebody who’s trying to figure out changes, because he’s so good.”

As Looman and Chili’s partnership has developed, so have her goals for competition. While in lessons with dressage trainer Lauren Sprieser, one of her assistants put Looman in mind of pursuing her bronze medal. Once she’d earned that, she went after her silver. She’s now got two scores at Intermediate I and has set her sights even higher. 

“We’re practicing passage,” Looman said. “I’m determined to go Grand Prix so we can get our gold medal.”

“When we just did Lexington two weeks ago, I got to do a victory lap,” Loonam said. “I’ve never done a victory lap in my life, because I’ve never had that kind of nice horse. But I was able to do that with him.”

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Looman is amazed that the very horse whose antics got her excused from her first dressage test is now her partner taking her through victory laps at the small tour level.

So much of her journey has been about saying “yes” to every opportunity. 

“Yeah, it’s expensive and hard,” she said. “But if someone offers you something like, do you want to go for a trail ride, or go out with the foxhunters? Say ‘yes,’ and do it. You might learn that your horse is really good at it, and that it’s something you love. I never thought I would love dressage.” 

“I wouldn’t have known that unless I tried it,” Looman said. 

Jean Looman and Red Hot Chili Pepper have come a long way in seven years. The pair rode their first victory lap at Lexington Dressage in July. Aster Equine Photography Photo

“It Was What I Was Always Going To Do”

An “oopsie” baby born just outside of Chicago, Illinois, Looman was a surprise to her older parents. Her brother and sister were already horsey teenagers when they began dragging her to their lessons at a neighborhood hunter/jumper barn. 

Hard work was embedded into Looman’s riding life from the start. Hers wasn’t the type of lesson barn where kids were handed a fully tacked pony. Young riders were expected to groom the horses and clean stalls and tack, a philosophy that pushed her to develop her horsemanship from the start. She also remembers staying up overnight with pregnant mares on foal watch, which fascinated the future vet.

When she enrolled at Virginia Tech for undergrad and joined the school’s equestrian team, she was well-accustomed to the hard work of horses. The program required that students work in the barn to earn time in the saddle, which was a perfect fit for the former barn kid. 

“They were like, ‘You have to do so many hours of tack cleaning,’ and the other girls would roll their eyes,” she said. “I was like, ‘I only have to do two hours? That’s it? That’s sweet!’ ”

While many animal-loving kids dream of becoming a vet one day, Looman carried her dream into adulthood.  

“It was what I was always going to do,” she said. “I loved the challenge of, you can never ask them what’s wrong. It’s always a puzzle, every single case.” 

Jean Looman studied both equine and small animal veterinary science in school. She has been in practice as a small animal vet for more than 24 years. Photo Courtesy Of Jean Loonam

Looman, who loved animals of all types (just look to her saltwater fish tank for proof), wanted a vet school education that would allow her to explore her many interests. She chose the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine which, unlike most vet programs, didn’t require its vet students to track for a certain specialty. She could pursue both small animal and equine veterinary science.

“I didn’t want to be forced to pick one,” she said. “I really wanted to think about all of it.” 

She laughs remembering that, being in school in Tennessee, she was once presented with a Tennessee Walker who was put into the breed’s unusual running-walk. 

“They trotted this magnificent stallion across and said, ‘OK, Looman, is it lame?’ ” she said.  “I thought, I don’t even know what’s happening at this point.” 

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But as Looman developed her expertise—gaited horses included—she found herself moving toward surgery. At that time, the surgery route was best pursued with small animals. She also thought that she’d be better able to avoid burnout by keeping horses fun rather than making them her job.  

“I really liked emergency critical care because of the fast pace of it, and also because the hours allow you to ride a little bit more,” she said. “You work some weird hours or bigger shifts. And honestly, most of my choices have become, ‘How do I afford the horses? How do I ride the horses?’ ”

The answer isn’t easy—not that Looman ever goes for easy. Between training, competitions and self-care for her horses, her days are full.

“I work noon to 10 p.m. most days, so that means I don’t get home until midnight,” she said. “I have to get up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. so I can ride my two competition horses, take care of my horses and still leave on time to go back to work.”

Looman has to pause for some quick math to confirm the number of horses in her care.

“I guess—good or bad—a consequence of being an equine veterinarian is that I have six horses, and my sister has two here at my barn, because my horses don’t die,” she said. “Oh my gosh, we have 30-year-olds living in our fields!”

A New Show Ring

If you’re wondering if it’s humanly possible for the busy vet to pursue any other interests with her schedule, Looman’s answer is, of course. About three years ago she began showing dogs after falling in love with Borzois, a large breed Russian sighthound. 

“I had this concept of dog show people being really snobbish or aloof,” Looman said. “It couldn’t be further from that. They’re such wonderful people.”

Jean Looman became acquainted with Borzois through her practice, and now has two show dogs. Photo Courtesy Of Jean Loonam

Making time for the dog shows has been rewarding, but it hasn’t been easy. She has to flip between her horse show and dog show schedules and make scheduling decisions, not to mention learning the ropes of a whole new animal culture. Her main show dog is now 3 points away from his championship, but Loonam cringes remembering back to her first dog show. 

“Even though my friends had shown me and I’d watched videos, I went to lead the dog on the wrong side, because they lead opposite from horses,” she said. “I’m always trying to stand on the wrong side.”

While Looman loves her Borzois’ sweet and intelligent personalities, they have yet to win over the horses at her barn. 

“I don’t bring the boys too often, because quite a few horses get a bit freaked out by them,” she said. “They’re giant, scary and weird looking. They’re not a normal looking dog.”

But her other seven dogs—a menagerie of Border Collies, a Labrador and four lucky Cavalier King Charles rescued from a hoarder situation—make pretty solid trail dogs. And Loonam does enjoy a good hack around the farm on her rare days off. 

After running around the vet practice, dog shows, horse shows and caring for her personal animals, it’s that pesky saddle that’s sometimes a bridge too far. 

“Those are fun hacking days, where I feel like I really bond with my horse where I get to know him and he gets to know me,” she said of her time off. “And most of the time for me, it’s bareback. I’m lazy on those days. I hate putting a saddle on.”

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