Name: Kali Holz
Job: Surgical Coordinator, AAS, RVT, Espanola Animal Hospital
Kali Holz admits that some days, she just doesnât want to go to the barn. Whether itâs the end of a 12-hour shift, or a day off from her 60-hour work week, dragging herself 55 minutes one-way to practice walk pirouettes sometimes feels too draining to bear.
Those are the days she knows she absolutely must make the trip.
âRiding is my self-care,â Holz explained. âEven if I have a long day at work, Iâm feeling frazzled, and I donât want to ride at all, by the end of my lesson Iâll have a huge smile on my face and be totally energized.â
The Saturday when we spoke, Holz, of Espanola, Ontario, Canada, had just returned from a weekend emergency surgery to repair a Golden Retriever puppyâs dual-fractured hip. When we hung up at nearly 6 p.m., she would drive to the barn to ride Havana, the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare she free leases from her trainer, John Battison.
When self-care doesnât motivate her to make the long commute to the barn, her competitive nature does.
âIâve got the super lofty goal of riding Grand Prix by 35, and I just turned 30 this year,â Holz said. âThatâs always back of my mind. What can I do at 8 p.m. on Wednesday that will get me closer to that goal?â
Combined with her professional ambitions, Holzâs riding dreams will require many more late nights and early mornings from her. Luckily, after nine years in the field of veterinary medicine, long hours have become her specialty.
When The Student Is Ready, The Master Will Appear
Holz grew up riding hunters in Sudbury, Ontario, under the guidance of Cathy Inch. She got her first horse, a Thoroughbred gelding named Birdie, upon graduating from high school.
She elected to take a gap year before college to ride and work as a real estate agent. But she didnât like the jobÂ as much as she had hoped.
âPeople kind of treated me like a used car salesman,â Holz said. âI felt like they were so skeptical of me, and really I just wanted to help! One day, I wound up driving 45 minutes in a snowstorm to show a house to some people who didnât even show up, and that was kind of it for me. Thatâs around the time I met my current employer, Dr. PJ Rocheleau [DVM, CCRT], who at the time was my large animal vet, and he told me he was hiring.â
Holz started out as a kennel attendant, which meant her basic responsibilities included feeding, exercising and cleaning up after dogs and cats.
Within weeks, she felt ready for more.
âAs soon as I got into that environment, I went into sponge mode,â she said. âI couldnât learn enough, and I couldnât learn it fast enough. Dr. Rocheleau sent me to a grassroots veterinary technician conference. He picked out all of my lectures for me. I can remember sitting in these lectures on really very rudimentary stuff, like how to monitor blood pressure or put in a catheter, and just thinking, âWow! This is where Iâm meant to be.â â
Holz struggled to find an affordable veterinary technician program in her region that wasnât taught in French, which she doesnât speak. A visiting veterinary student recommended an accredited online program, which her employer agreed to finance. She graduated in 2018.
âIt was great because I got to apply what I was learning at work, and my boss was super helpful through all of it,â Holz said. âNow, I do the same thing for other technicians.â
Mentoring For Resilience In A Punishing Field
As the surgical coordinator and only certified veterinary technician at Espanola Animal Hospital, Holz mentors a group of roughly five aspiring technicians. As they progress through the same online program Holz completed, she helps them along with hands-on experience.
But theyâll need more than technical skills for a career in veterinary care.
âThe entire industry is really struggling,â Holz said. âThe average technician only spends five years in the profession. Suicide rates are really high among veterinarians and vet techs. There are a lot of reasons. Most people have crushing debt coming out of school. Wages are lowâitâs unheard of to make more than $20 an hourâand the hours are crazy. I work at least 60 hours every week. In the summer, itâs even worse.
âDuring COVID, things only got harder,â she continued. âClients can be a lot more difficult to deal with because everyone is stressed out and kind of taking it out on you.â
Holz describes herself as a kind of âmother henâ to her crew of vet techs. She checks to make sure they eat nutritious meals at work and stay hydrated throughout the day. When they have a time off, she encourages them to plan ahead so they spend it doing something active and fun.
Most importantly, she makes sure theyâre maintaining a strong support system of family and friends who understand the demands of the job theyâve chosen.
âIt sounds ridiculousâlike itâs such simple, basic stuff,â Holz said. âBut our industry is so draining, itâs easy to forget to take care of yourself. And you absolutely have to if youâre going to stick with it.â
Horse Sports For the Science-Minded
Around the same time Holzâs fascination with veterinary medicine began, her equestrian interests started to shift, too.
âAfter about five years in hunters, I felt like I needed a new challenge, so I decided to try dressage,â she said. âI was becoming more and more interested in the biomechanics of riding. Itâs incredible to me how a little adjustment with the seat, a push forward to the bit instead of a pull back, can make such a difference in a horse.â
Since switching to dressage, Holz has found it to be the perfect counterpart to her busy career, in large part thanks to Battison.
âI started working with John around on my Thoroughbred, Birdie,â Holz said. âBirdie ended up having conformation that wasnât super ideal for dressageâa really long back for a Thoroughbredâand he had some issues from when he was younger. He had had an OCD that made it difficult for him to flex his hocks and take weight on the hind end. We had chronic issues with swapping leads behind, bearing down on the forehand at the canter, and the canter just generally being a gross, unenjoyable thing.â
After a particularly disastrous show weekend at first and second level, Holz decided to lease the gelding to a hunter rider. At the same time, Battisonâs former mount, Havana (HarvardâSudorme) had just finished a year off after a suspected mild suspensory injury.
Battison, who had trained the mare through Prix St. Georges, asked Holz if she would like to bring Havana back into work. When the two clicked, he offered her the ride for free.
âJohn and Havana have both been such an incredible blessing,â Holz said. âJohn has taken me from somebody who couldnât stay on the bit at canter to where I am today. I feel like a completely different rider now. He pushes you, not so far that youâre afraid, but far enough outside of your box to realize you can do things you didnât believe you could do.
âThe atmosphere he creates in his lessons is so good for me, too,â Holz continued. âWeâre getting work done, but itâs fun and invigorating at the same time.â
For the first six months of training, Holz jokes that the canter âstill freaked [her] out.â She found that the lead-swapping problem she had with Birdie continued with Havana, in part due to the hunter half-seat she still habitually assumed at the canter. By learning to sit in to the canter, ride the shoulder instead of the neck, and execute a half halt, she finally got over her âcanter PTSD.â
In the past two years, Holz moved from practicing 20-meter circles to four-tempis and canter pirouettes. From training level to third level, Havana has taught Holz like only a mare will.
âWhen I think of her as a person, I definitely think of her having a martini by the pool,â Holz joked. âShe prefers to relax. Every time you ride her, itâs almost like you have to convince her that she wants to work, but then as soon as you get through that wall, sheâs amazing. Sheâs super forward, so fun and really honest, too. If I put too much spur on in a walk pirouette, sheâs going to be really witchy. I think thatâs what makes her such a good partner and teacher. She demands that I do things correctly, and when I do, she rewards me.â
Steady ProgressÂ Requires Strategy And Support
Perpetually pressed for time, Holz makes the most of every minute she has for riding. Sheâs made a science out of preparing meals she can eat one-handed on the drive to the barn, which can stretch to an hour and a half in winter weather.
As she drives, she also thinks carefully about her ride.
âOn the way to the barn, I try to really map out what I want to accomplish, given that that might change based on what Havana feels like that day,â Holz explained. âI have to think, âIf I want to ride Grand Prix by 35, how can I move us another inch along at least a loose pathway to get there?â â
Back at work, Holz has a plan, too. The industry dictates a five-year waiting period between completing technician certification and starting a specialty program, which Holz plans to pursue in diagnostic imaging and anesthesia after her time is up. In the meantime, she is pursuing other avenues of study, both on canine physiology, fitness and rehabilitation, and on becoming a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner.
Busy pursuing her various goals, Holz admits she keeps a small social circle. But the people closest to her play an outsized roll in her success.
âYou need a cheerleader. You need people saying, âRemember why youâre here. Youâre here because you love the animals,â â Holz said. âMy parents, my brother and my employer have been great at reminding me why I do this. Itâs important work, and there arenât a lot of vet techs out there to begin with, which means every one we lose is a major loss.
âThatâs where riding comes in for me, too,â Holz continued. âItâs a way to take care of myself, so I can keep doing what I do.â
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