Saturday, Mar. 2, 2024

Dr. David Ramey Treats Horses With Care And Curiosity

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David Ramey, DVM, remembers the exact moment he surprised his family—and himself—with the decision to become an equine veterinarian. He had always intended to go to law school when, during summer break from college, he took a seasonal job at a livery stable in Colorado. A sudden epiphany during a mundane task changed the course of his life. 

“One day, I was running to go get a horse for a rider,” he said. “I turned the corner—and I can point to the spot where I said, ‘This is great. I’m going to be a vet.’ It was just absolutely a snap decision. No thought behind it. No study behind it. Nothing. I just loved being outside. I loved being around horses. So I called up the folks, and I said, ‘I’m not coming back.’ ” 

In that moment surrounded by horses, Ramey was overcome with delight and awe—a fitting start for a career guided by curiosity. Since that spontaneous life decision, Ramey’s enthusiasm for horses has grown alongside his expertise. 

For nearly 40 years, Ramey has made helping horses and educating their people his life’s work. He’s written more than a dozen books and 70 papers on equine medicine. On his popular blog (doctorramey.com) and social media, Ramey reflects on his practice and on horse ownership, and he provides insights into the considerations of a modern veterinarian. 

His directness, paired with a bit of wisdom and wit (“God made horses, but only we can make geldings”), has made him a sought-after voice on horse care and a resource for tens of thousands of readers.

Dr. David Ramey was once compensated for his work with a Belgian Sport Horse filly, Piper. The mare is now his wife’s dressage mount and Ramey’s trail horse. Photo Courtesy Of Marissa Krupa

An Unconventional Resume 

Ramey doesn’t have a horse background—not really. His parents bought a family pony when the kids were young, an inevitability in their Kentucky hometown. Ramey rode occasionally on weekends and in a few lessons here and there, but the family eventually moved, and the pony was sold.

He now credits his lack of early horse experience as a strength of his practice. Ramey came into the study of horse science in adulthood, with the perspective of an outsider—one with a genuine desire for knowledge but little interest in upholding conventions for convention’s sake. From the outset of his career, he was primed to buck tradition. 

Ramey attended the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and following his graduation in 1983, the young veterinarian jumped right into an intensive year-long internship in equine medicine and surgery at Iowa State University, an experience that proved to be “super influential” on his veterinary approach. 

Because the hospital was a referral institution, the horses that came into care at Iowa State were facing rare, critical or mysterious issues that their primary veterinarians could not treat. It was an unusual caseload that, in a regular practice, would take a vet decades to accumulate. What might have overwhelmed some new vets perfectly suited Ramey’s deep curiosity as he bounced between the surgery room and the library. 

“I loved it so much,” Ramey said. “One time I counted: I worked for 69 days in a row without a day off. I was just insatiable in wanting to learn and study this stuff.”

Dr. David Ramey floats teeth on a client’s horse. His veterinary services include both routine care and 24/7 emergency calls. Photo Courtesy Of Marissa Krupa

The internship also shaped how he would communicate with people about their horses—especially when their opinions conflicted with his own. As he gained experience with each new case, he also gained the confidence to speak up when something didn’t feel right, even when his hunch didn’t fit the existing diagnosis. 

Ramey recalls the day when a longtime local veterinarian brought his client’s ailing horse to the hospital and urged Ramey to prep it for colic surgery. As Ramey began to take the horse’s vitals, the older veterinarian demanded that he skip the check and go immediately into surgery. 

Ramey stood his ground and performed the check but began to hypothesize that while the horse was certainly sick, it wasn’t colicking. The new graduate found himself in the unenviable position of disagreeing with an esteemed veterinarian. 

“He’s 35 [or] 40 years older than I am—I’m two months out of school—and I’ve gathered all of this evidence to say, ‘This horse is sick; it does not need surgery,’ ” he said.

The visiting veterinarian demanded to speak with Ramey’s supervisor, who sided with Ramey’s diagnosis that this wasn’t colic. Fluids and medicine quickly turned the horse’s condition around. Months later, the local veterinarian thanked Ramey for sticking to his guns and saving his client’s horse. 

“It taught me to look at things carefully, and to listen to what other people think,” Ramey said. “But make sure that you rely on all of the objective data that you can find and not just give in to all the pressures that can be around.” 

For Ramey, being new to horses as an adult meant that he had very little to unlearn. He was a blank slate for a practice built on science, and that meant approaching horse-keeping and medicine with a balance of wide-eyed openness and skepticism. He could see very clearly where custom was masquerading as medicine. 

“The horse world is full of this legend and lore and ‘how we’re supposed to do things’ that have nothing to do with medicine,” he said. “So when I started getting into it, when somebody would say, ‘You have to do this this way,’ rather than going ‘OK,’ like an 8-year-old would, as a 20-year-old, I said, ‘Well, why?’ ” 

Further, he observed that people from entirely conflicting schools of thought often had the same outcomes. Take wrapping legs as an example. Some people were adamant that legs needed to be wrapped clockwise, while others were rigid about wrapping counterclockwise, each group basing the argument on how the tendon was pulled. But neither position squared with what Ramey had learned about anatomy. 

“I thought, well, that doesn’t make any sense,” Ramey said. “Why would you do that? And if you think it has to be done that way, how come the other person says just the opposite, and both are OK? So either it’s really important, or more likely, since people say the exact opposite things, it probably doesn’t matter that much.”

Ramey’s new profession pushed him to both deepen his understanding of equine health and, with fresh eyes, examine the customs that people adhered to when trying to keep their horses happy and healthy. When Ramey moved to Los Angeles a few years after graduation, he built a practice that fit his ethos of horse care, and the clients who appreciated that ethos found their way to him.  

“I came late to the party, and the rules that had been established—a lot of them seemed odd to me and still do,” he said.

Dr. David Ramey grazes his 10-year-old mare Piper, whom he keeps at a boarding facility near his home in Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy Of Marissa Krupa

Helping People Help Horses 

There certainly is a lot happening at “the party” of the horse world. Trends in therapies and treatments go in and out of fashion. Ramey has heard riders and trainers swear by vibrating plates, herbs, supplements and magnets. But after decades in horse medicine, he’s unpersuaded by alternative treatments that have had little scientific evidence to support their efficacy. 

That’s no dig on owners. Ramey sympathizes with horse lovers who have to cut through the chorus of experts, opinions and advertisements to figure out what nutrition advice or cutting-edge therapy is truly based in science. That’s part of what drew him to starting his blog back in 2011.

Horse ownership can be stressful. There are so many variables that interfere with a horse’s performance or health—a stone bruise, an injury, a virus at a horse show—and humans do what they can to reduce those risks. Ramey hopes that his blog helps owners simplify horse health when possible, so they can get back to enjoying their horses.

“The horse world is full of this legend and lore and ‘how we’re supposed to do things’ that have nothing to do with medicine.”

Dr. David Ramey

“When you’re a veterinarian, you get the opportunity to help one horse at a time, and that’s great,” Ramey said. “But I got the idea that if I share a little information with people, maybe I could help more horses and help more people.”

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What he didn’t anticipate was just how many people his words would reach. When the blog—which Ramey updates on his website and Facebook—first hit 500 followers, the number shocked him. To celebrate the milestone, he and his wife, Marissa Krupa, went out to dinner. Today, Ramey’s blog has topped more than 63,000 readers. 

In his writing, Ramey doesn’t shy away from controversy. In one post, he might break down his skepticism of supplements or debunk myths around joint maintenance. In the next, he advises owners on how to evaluate too-good-to-be-true product claims. He offers his own veterinary lens as a way for readers to think critically and scientifically about information sold as science. 

His hope is that his readers become better at deciphering what’s essential from expectations that over-complicate horse care. He hopes to help make standards for horse ownership not lower but more reasonable. 

“If there’s a problem with the horse, by all means; we’re so lucky we live in a golden age of horse medicine,” he said. “But let’s try, as much as we can, to make horse ownership fun and easy.”

Collaborating With Clients

It might seem an unpleasant experience to dedicate so much of one’s time to an online comments section, but Ramey likes that the blog allows him to engage in conversations about horses, his favorite topic, with the people who love them. In fact, the human aspect was a deciding factor in why he chose horse medicine.

The very thing that can be difficult about being an equine veterinarian—performing care directly in front of the concerned horse owner—is also what he enjoys about the job. Over a horse’s relatively long life, he’s able to develop meaningful relationships with people. Horse owners and veterinarians have to share observations and knowledge to collaborate on the horse’s health plan—and unlike some small animal veterinarians, all the services happen in the owner’s presence. 

“You’re there, they’re holding the horse, and you’re working together with them,” Ramey said. “It’s less transactional sometimes. It’s more interactive.”

Because of this collaborative nature of the veterinarian-horse owner relationship, Ramey has to seek out clients who are open to his sometimes-unorthodox approach. Becca Abad has been a client of Ramey’s for more than 14 years, and she said his perspective has completely changed her view of horse care. 

“I’ve worked with horses a long time, and I’ve seen everything,” said Abad, who works at a ranch in Hollywood, California. “The most random things that you don’t think can happen, happen. All they have to do is stand there, and a meteor would come and hit the horse.”

Over the years, she’s seen horses—even those with the most thoughtful owners—encounter unpredictable issues. Ramey has treated everything from her horse’s ringbone and colic to a boarder horse’s gaping wound. What has impressed her about Ramey is that he approaches every level of emergency by looking for the least complicated answer.

Abad recalled a time a friend’s gelding came up lame, and the owner was distraught over what to do. She’d had another veterinarian suggest hock injections, and she was already considering the cost of an MRI to diagnose the issue. When Ramey checked the horse, he asked the owner a simple question.

Dr. David Ramey’s equine veterinary practice and research has taken him around the world, including on this trip to Egypt. Photo Courtesy Of Marissa Krupa

“ ‘Have you thought about putting back shoes on him?’ ” Abad recalled Ramey asking. “ ‘Try back shoes, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll go from there.’ ” 

Sure enough, the horse was sound with back shoes, and the owner was able to forgo expensive diagnostics and maintenance by first looking at some simple changes to her shoeing regimen. 

Abad admits that she isn’t a regular reader of Ramey’s blog (“When it comes to reading things on Facebook, I have the attention span of a gnat”), but she says each visit with the veterinarian becomes an opportunity to pick his brain. 

“He wants you to be educated, because he can’t make correct decisions if you’re not educated,” Abad said. “Having somebody spoon feed you what you need to know isn’t going to help you.”

Ramey said he’s chosen to be an open book, despite knowing many horse professionals—trainers, farriers and veterinarians—who subscribe to the philosophy that it’s simpler to keep horse owners in the dark. 

“I’m happy to tell them anything,” Ramey said. “I want them to be educated; I want them to be comfortable; I want them to know what we’re doing and why; and I want them to know I’m not going to take advantage of them or hurt their horse.”

Treating Trail Horses To Olympic Champions

Ramey’s philosophy has landed him a roster of like-minded clients, from backyard breeders to people in the upper echelons of the sport. He’s worked with professionals like Carleton and Traci Brooks, traveled with the U.S. Equestrian Team, and he’s a treating veterinarian at a CDI in Los Angeles. Because of his experience and appreciation for a horse’s potential, he’s gained a reputation for thorough but sensible pre-purchase exams; in August, one client flew him across the globe to examine prospective show jumpers in England. The veterinarian’s science-first, back-to-the-basics ethos is what also attracted Olympian and grand prix show jumper Richard Spooner to Ramey’s practice about 30 years ago. 

“[Ramey] had a great bedside manner and a kind of common sense, no-nonsense approach to horse care,” Spooner recalled of their meeting. “That type of logic appealed to me.”

For 30 years, until Spooner recently moved to Florida, Ramey acted as the rider’s primary veterinarian. He oversaw medical care for some of the best show jumpers in the world, like Cristallo and Robinson, during the height of their careers. When Spooner thinks back on his partnership with Ramey, he says that the veterinarian’s biggest influences on him were in the little moments. 

“I think the most significant moments are the most insignificant decisions,” Spooner said. “That is, on a day-to-day basis, the theory of not overdoing, not throwing the kitchen sink at the horses, taking your time and treating them with respect and care.”

“He always says, just stick with the basics and the facts: What facts do we have? Let’s find out. Let’s find out what is going wrong, and why it’s going wrong.”

Richard Spooner, Olympic show jumper

In his long partnership with Ramey, Spooner noticed that the veterinarian led with his inquisitiveness. He approached any issue with a horse by getting curious about the root of that issue, rather than simply addressing symptoms. 

“He always says, just stick with the basics and the facts,” Spooner said. “What facts do we have? Let’s find out. Let’s find out what is going wrong, and why it’s going wrong.”

Focusing on the why might seem like a natural starting place. But Ramey has found that many people tend to look at a training or soundness problem and ask their veterinarian what they can do to mask that presenting symptom—say, a horse who’s stiff or stopping at fences—rather than looking for gaps in the horse’s basics: its training and care. 

“You know, a lot of the vet work today is like having problems with old kitchen cabinets,” Spooner said. “The hinges are creaking; the doors are crooked; termites have eaten the sidewall, and we decide in order to fix the problem, we’re just going to tickle the wood.” 

Spooner found a fellow seeker in Ramey, someone who was interested in the work of answering why—of getting the kitchen down to the studs and rebuilding a sound structure. 

“If you can’t figure out why this happened, even if you fix the symptom, you’re not fixing the problem,” Spooner said. “And as everybody has experienced, the problem just rears its ugly head again and comes back. Most of the time it comes back even more pronounced.”

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Spooner recalled a time, early in his career, when Robinson came up lame after overreaching and injuring himself in a class. The rider’s attempt to find an easy solution to the horse’s lameness only exacerbated the problem. 

“I should have taken more time with him,” he said. “Instead, I worked with the farrier and kind of moved his shoe around and relieved his heel and jerry-rigged it.” 

Following the farrier work, Robinson seemed sound and was even winning classes. But it wasn’t long before the quick fix failed. 

“He came up lame because of jerry-rigging that I had done,” he said. “Dave was able to basically undo all of the changes that I had made, and then give the horse some time off—just a little bit, not even much—just a little bit of time off for the foot to finish growing out, and for his ankles to get correct. Then, almost immediately, the horse was sound. He taught me a valuable lesson: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.”

For a young professional rider, Spooner’s initial approach to Robinson’s lameness was an attempt to “tickle the wood” rather than slowing down to replace the hinges. With Ramey’s guidance, he was able to get his horse back on track.  

“The vets are just a tool, like a trainer is just a tool,” Spooner said. “It’s a tool to help you and to give you their experience and their knowledge.”

Maintaining Balance With An On-Call Career

For decades, Ramey has been available to clients 24/7. When he was raising two young children, this schedule meant he had to weave his work and family life together. His now-adult sons “grew up in the bed of the truck,” and were known to bring in some interesting artifacts from their dad’s operations to school for show-and-tell.  

Dr. David Ramey is co-authoring a book on horse medicine in medieval Japan. Here, he visits the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan. Photo Courtesy Of Marisa Krupa

Ramey remembers a day when his sons, Aidan and Jackson Ramey, then 7 and 9 years old, accompanied him on an emergency call to see a horse. David realized it had badly broken its leg, and there was no way to save the horse. He had to put the animal down while the distraught owner and his sons watched. Afterward, he joined his boys back in the truck. 

“My youngest son reaches over, and he puts his hand on my arm,” David said. “He looks at me, and he says, crying, ‘Daddy, that was very good. You helped her.’ ” 

David was touched by Aidan’s offer of kindness during such a difficult moment. Although neither son is horse-inclined—Jackson is a linguist for the Navy, and Aidan is a NASA engineer—David believes that growing up orbiting his veterinary career helped them become curious and insightful adults.

Although David is available to his clients around the clock and stays busy with research and travel, he’s far from being burned out on horses. His “downtime” is also pretty horsey. 

About a decade ago, David was helping a breeder as an expert witness, and they couldn’t afford his fees. He suggested that they pay him instead with a 4-month-old filly who was actively following the veterinarian and nibbling at his clothes. That curious little warmblood is now the 10-year-old that David and Krupa share. “Piper” is Krupa’s dressage partner while David enjoys “bushwhacking” trail rides with the horse.

David also has avoided burnout by staying true to his curiosity, following whims and rabbit holes that keep him as enthusiastic about horses today as he was that day at the Colorado livery stable decades ago. He’s not just a student of horse science; he’s also fascinated by the history of horse medicine before it looked like medicine as we know it today.

“Three years ago, a Japanese friend that owns an old bookshop in Kyoto handed me a manuscript on horse medicine in Japan in the 17th century,” David said. “I looked at it, and it’s incredibly beautiful. My thought was, ‘Well, what does it say?’ ”

That question led David to a collaboration with professors of medieval Japanese studies and museums throughout Japan. Together, they’ve written a book on horses and horse medicine in 17th century Japan that will be released at the beginning of 2024.

“So then, of course—me being me—I said, ‘Well, for goodness sake, why wouldn’t I also want to learn to speak Japanese?’ ” David joked. “Makes perfect sense, right?”

In pursuing his fascination with old medical texts, David also noticed overlap between two of his passions: the history of equine medicine and magic.

For a man of science with such a strong adherence to facts, magic might seem like an unlikely interest. But David, who moonlights as a professional magician, sees magic and medicine as “disturbingly similar.” He regularly performs at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, one of the most famous magic clubs in the world. 

“Think about it: 2,000 years ago, magic and medicine were pretty much the same thing,” David said. “We could not routinely prescribe effective medications in doses we were sure of.” 

While humans didn’t yet have peer-reviewed studies or antibiotics, they did have costumes, incantations and rituals that were believed to cure ailments in mysterious, “magical” ways. 

Veterinarian Dr. David Ramey moonlights as a close-up magician, and he regularly performs at the Magic Castle and volunteers at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. Photo Courtesy Of Tom Frank

“I will say, knowing how to do magic has made me more understanding of how to be a better veterinarian, and vice versa,” David said. 

He sees parallels in the expectations of magic audiences and veterinary clients, both of whom are looking to be thrilled by a positive outcome. 

“When you are a magician, people come to you with an expectation that they are going to see something that is going to be surprising to them,” David said. “When you’re a doctor, people come to you with the expectation that you’re going to tell them something about their horse that they don’t know, and good things are going to happen afterwards.”

Unlike his work in magic and illusions, David’s veterinary approach is about pulling back the curtain to demystify and simplify horse care. Looking back, he’s grateful for the lightning-strike moment of clarity that sparked his career as an equine veterinarian and has allowed him to chase his curiosity for four decades. 

“I get to be outside; I get to be around horses, and I get to help people every single day,” he reflected. “That makes me happy, and I get to make a living doing it. So really, how lucky am I?”  


This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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