Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

Part 3: More Support, More Veterinarians

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This is Part 3 of “Equine Practitioners Are Becoming An Endangered Species,” an exclusive in-depth look at the current state of the equine veterinary industry that originally appeared in the May 8 & 15, 2023, edition of the Chronicle. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Other changes in the equine veterinary industry are centered around supporting new veterinarians and veterinary students (and even undergraduate students) to encourage them to get in, or stay in, the field.

Rhonda Rathgeber, Ph.D., DVM, is part of the field care service at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington. Her daughter is currently a sophomore at Auburn University (Alabama) and planning to pursue equine medicine, so she has seen the hurdles that students face.

“I would listen to what her advisors would tell her, and she got a job at the vet school as soon as she got to Auburn and what all the doctors were telling her at Auburn about how horrible equine practice was, she shouldn’t do it,” Rathgeber said. “And to be honest, it was gut wrenching to me because I’ve made a really good life being an equine veterinarian, and I was proud that she could see me doing something I loved—and for her to want to do it and then have so much discouragement, it’s just disheartening.

“I feel like we’re losing them at all levels,” she continued. “And I am all in. I am very, very passionate about it. I want to be able to retire, and I want to have the veterinarians to take care of the amazing horses I’ve been able to take care of.”

The student subcommittee of the AAEP commission is tasked with improving the AAEP student chapters at veterinary schools. Rathgeber is also involved with an effort called Next Gen Equine Vet Medicine, which hosted its first session with 55 undergraduate students from 16 schools in Lexington in March to encourage and guide them toward equine practice.

For potential equine vet students, the shortage of veterinarians can be an opportunity. Frank Sorge For arnd.nl Photos

At the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, was likewise distressed at the state of the industry. In the spring of 2022, Arbittier, associate professor in equine field service and associate director of student affairs at New Bolton Center, started the Penn Vet Task Force on Recruitment and Retention, which she believes is the first of its kind at a veterinary school.

“Anyone paying attention for the past 10-plus years can see that this industry has attempted to wipe itself out,” she said. There’s an expectation that “if you’re not giving literally everything you have, you’re not as good or as dedicated as the vets who do, and you won’t be as successful.

“All of a sudden, six or seven years ago, we were getting calls from practices all over the country looking for new grads to hire when [before] nobody ever wanted to hire new grads without them doing an internship,” Arbittier said.

The task force will try to develop better ways to support equine students, hosting Zoom panel talks with equine practices that are employing updated practice philosophies and with young practitioners who are successful and enjoying their work.

“I’m just trying to explain to [the students] how much things have changed,” Arbittier said. “And that’s why I do all these panels, with vets from all over the country, who are finding creative ways to make the job work for them. I had one vet on a panel who works three days a week, and all she does is emergencies. But that works for her because she’s off the other days. I have people with all this super creative scheduling and four-day work weeks are becoming more and more prevalent. I just want to show the students that it can be done.”

Another focus of the task force is educating the educators about the impact their misconceptions about the field—outdated ideas that equine vets work seven days a week and are on call all the time—can have on students.

“We have two problems. We have private practitioners actively discouraging students from becoming equine vets. And then we have people at the academic level, so at the universities,” Arbittier explained. “And there’s a reason for that, right? The profession did it to itself, and those stereotypes used to be true. They’re still true in a lot of practices. But the truth is, no new graduates are choosing to work for those practices. And it is forcing change, which I find very exciting.”

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Rathgeber says that when she speaks to potential equine vet students, she frames the shortage as an opportunity.

“I think it’s a great time to be an equine veterinarian because of the shortage. You can be as creative as you want and pick your hours, negotiate your pay,” she explained. “There’s all kinds of different specialties as well, that you can work less hours, still be very specialized, and still have a really, really great life. So there are way more creative options than there were many years ago when it was just work seven days a week and get it done.”

There are also efforts to better support those in practice. Grice founded the organization Decade One in 2015, geared toward equine veterinarians in their first decade of practice. It’s modeled after a management group she was in for large referral practices. She found the relationships and support developed there to be hugely helpful in running her own practice, giving her colleagues to speak to across the country about similar experiences.

“As I got to know lots of interns coming through our practice, I realized that they really needed the same kind of an opportunity to have peers that allowed them to sort of freely share what they were going through, without it being with someone at their practice where they were working, where they could be judged or considered to be whiny or needy. They needed community,” she said. “Younger doctors sort of often felt like they didn’t know anyone, they didn’t have anybody to share their concerns or just to say, ‘I had a really sad case today, and I feel really sad,’ or ‘I’m exhausted,’ or, ‘I can’t believe I haven’t had a day off in 13 days. I’m just driving around crying.’ ”

Decade One is comprised of eight regional groups of 20-30 members who meet in person and via Zoom several times a year. Members of each group also participate in private Facebook groups.

At the time she founded the organization, Grice had just finished her MBA and thought the curriculum would center on leadership, negotiation and finance. “While I still teach them all of that, and it’s very helpful to them, it is the community and the people that they have around them lifting them up that is the absolutely the most important thing,” she said.

So far, more than 95% of the participants have stayed in equine practice.

Vet School On the Fast Track

One veterinary school is taking an innovative approach to increasing the supply of graduates, by providing a shorter path to getting a DVM degree.

Lincoln Memorial University (Tennessee) is launching its Equine Veterinary Education Program this fall, the first of its kind among U.S. vet schools. Intended for incoming first-year students who already have horse experience and want to go to vet school to practice equine medicine, it’s an accelerated undergraduate program that will allow students to obtain an associate’s degree in two and a half years. Those who meet the academic requirements will have guaranteed admission into LMU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where they’ll complete their doctor of veterinary medicine degree in the typical four years. The fast-track approach will reduce the number of years students are paying tuition, hopefully making veterinary school more accessible and graduating more equine practitioners sooner.

“LMU is known for being able to develop programs rapidly,” said Stacy Anderson, DVM, Ph.D., DACVS-LA, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We have a fairly small university and just a very innovative and flexible board of trustees.”

The accelerated Equine Veterinary Education Program at Lincoln Memorial University will allow students with an equine background to complete their undergraduate and veterinary school education in six and a half years.

Because of that reputation, administrators at LMU were approached by Eleanor Green, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP, former dean of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, and her husband, Jim Heird, Ph.D., former president of the American Quarter Horse Association and retired coordinator of the Equine Initiative at Texas A&M, to develop the program in response to the equine vet shortage.

The program requires some baseline horse experience—applicants must submit a video showing their riding or training skills. The undergrad program will include summer experiences at horse farms for more horsemanship training, and then during vet school those experiences will be at practices.

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“Our DVM curriculum is already really well set up for equine-interested students. We have a couple of electives in third year for lab-based training. And then our clinical year is all distributed, so they go out to private practices all over the country,” Anderson said. “We have already engaged really high level practices in our program—Rood and Riddle has been one of our practices from the start, Hagyard, Brazos Valley in Texas. When [students] go through their clinical year, they’ll have at least six rotations— rotations are four weeks—that they can devote solely to equine practice, which is pretty awesome.”

The program aims to put students directly in equine practice without an internship. “Most equine veterinarians feel like they need to do a one-year internship to be ready to enter the field, and we’re hoping that our graduates will feel like they don’t need to do that,” said Andersen.

LMU currently admits 125 students each fall and 100 students each spring to its veterinary school.

“Anyone paying attention for the past 10-plus years can see that this industry has attempted to wipe itself out. [There’s an expectation that] if you’re not giving literally everything you have, you’re not as good or as dedicated as the vets who do, and you won’t be as successful,” says Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, associate director of student affairs at New Bolton Center, who started the Penn Vet Task Force on Recruitment and Retention at the school. Paula Da Silva For Arnd Bronkhorst Photo

Ways You Can Help Alleviate The Equine Vet Shortage (Without Going To Vet School)

• Cultivate a relationship with your veterinarian. Don’t expect to cold call someone when there’s an emergency.

• Help your vet be efficient by having the horses ready and waiting when they arrive.

• Learn what does and does not constitute an emergency. Your vet will always prefer that you contact them if you’re not sure, but a little education on your end will go a long way.

• Don’t contact your vet outside of business hours if it’s not an emergency, and definitely don’t expect them to respond to non-emergency calls, texts or emails outside of normal business hours.

• Be welcoming to new, younger vets who might have joined the practice, and don’t insist on using only the most experienced vet. The same goes for interns or students who are still learning and might be riding along on appointments; they might slow things down a bit, but the industry needs them.

• Be willing to go along with new ideas your veterinary practice wants to try to improve their practitioners’ work-life balance.

• Pay your veterinarian promptly.

• Let your vet know that you appreciate them and be understanding if they are delayed by someone else’s emergency.


This article appeared in the May 8 & 15, 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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