Horse Veterinarians: New School vs Old School


A horse vet checks an equine

In the past, I’ve always used seasoned horse veterinarians, not necessarily by choice, but just simply because that’s how it worked out. I found long practicing horse vets an eclectic bunch; some gruff, cantankerous, or hollow, and others cool, calm, and simply amazing under fire.

Then one day I got hooked up with a new vet. My regular vet couldn’t make it, so someone fresh out of school became my horse’s savior. I was nervous.

And boy, was I wowed. This vet, from day one, was simply the best vet I’ve worked with. She was phenomenal. Boarded in internal equine medicine (a rarity), she was truly gifted with solving horse health problems.

That was in 1997.

Two years ago, I found myself in a new predicament. I moved. I needed a new vet. I had a couple weak experiences with local, been around forever vets, and after that, I decided to give some new blood a try.

So I put my horses in the hands of several young vets. Willingly. Eagerly. Enthusiastically. I was hoping to find “the one” again. And through these trials, I’ve learned that by and large, the best vets simply carry their experience everywhere. And since my horse experience is vast, I’ve been very upset and have started to wonder what’s being taught at equine vet schools after getting $500 bills for issues I’ve diagnosis and treated myself with the new vets simply standing around taking notes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an expert. I mean, I’m not an equine vet, but I can spot veterinary inexperience right away. I may not be up on all the new treatments, “therapies”, gizmos, and gadgets, but as far as old school methods and practical deductive reasoning in equine veterinary problem solving, I’m pretty good.

The problem is many equine vets and practices now treat horse issues like their small animal counterparts; there is a big PUSH to work up the “problem” as much as possible. Instead of logically painting a picture of the horse at hand, the problem at hand, and the possible outcomes, many horse vets now days are apt to bust out the fancy (usually worthless) tools and tests.

Before I go on, let me back up a bit. Lets start with…

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by horses getting their teeth floated. When I was growing up, vaccinations and teeth floats happened like clockwork. There was a large metal rasp held by a vet while you or the trainer held the horse, usually just twitched, but sometimes, sedated.

The metal rasp operator required an amazing amount of strength to not only grind down the teeth, but also stay with a horse that was not always cooperating. What was even more interesting was when the farrier was also the “dentist”. I remember that as a kid too. The veterinarian didn’t do the floating, it was the farrier.

Today in horses, we’ve got equine dentists and horses don’t get teeth floated, they get a “dentistry” done. Also, the rasp is gone. It’s an “electronic float device.” Now, I’m not saying that the evolution of veterinary medicine as it relates to horses teeth is bad, but, I am asking, were all the horses when I was a kid not doing well because they didn’t have an electronic float device that ground down their teeth? Certainly as well, teeth floats are much, much more expensive and profitable part of equine veterinary practice. Instead of $40 to float teeth, my last horse “dentistry” bill was well over $300 after sedation, a bit seat, and other additional “complications” or “add ons” as I call ‘em. I’m not saying teeth floats should still cost $40. Honestly, with the manual rasp, I feel like we should be paying more; I mean that was hard work.

Next, how about, Injuries?
Any injury I thought needed stitches or staples, was near the coronary band, or near a joint (possible infection) always led to me calling a vet. Anything else that didn’t look SEVERE, I have always dealt with myself. If I did have a vet out, I knew it would be taken care of properly by the vet, I would follow instructions perfectly, and unless the horse decided to re-injure the injury, all was good at re-check time.

Yet recently, I found new vets treat injuries as a much longer process, and it costs a lot more money. There’s a lot of common sense horse healing that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. I’ve seen horses treated for injuries much different from even ten years ago. I personally have witness staples foregone, wounds mis-cleaned, and deep skin cuts untouched when my instinct was to quickly perform the necessary action leading to healing within a week or two. Instead, I’ve called the vet. I like to assume horse veterinarians know more than me, but after I saw a rider’s horse limp around for three months, required massive amounts of drugs and over six rechecks for an injury that should have healed within ten days, I’ve started questioning why some of these new vets go into the business.

And don’t even get me started on

My suggestion: do not have a “new vet” even come near a horse lameness issue. Unless, you know exactly what it is wrong and you can guide him/her to the remedies you know are necessary, seek an old school vet for equine lameness problems.

Old school veterinarians can look at a lameness, and since they have seen a lot, even if they don’t know the horse, they can work up a pretty good diagnosis through deductive reasoning. Though not definitive, their experience alone will usually get them warmer to the issue without costing a ton of money.

New horse vets and lameness? Might as well just burn your money. It’s not their fault; it’s part of learning, but if a “new vet” isn’t part of a larger practice to pool resources, opinions, or get advice, they are trying to get from lameness point A to point B with no one to help map the way. This is all well and good if it’s free, but, when you are spending your money and your horse’s time, and comfort, it’s really not worth it to try out a new vet on lameness issues.

Thing is, I’ve never really liked big equine veterinary practices where old school vets seem to congregate because it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. In some cases, I’ve given new vets breaks simply for being more personal than a doctor from a large practice.

And lately, I’ve been at a crossroads. I had a really long lameness case which was continually misdiagnosed. I ran up a lot of vet bills across several doctors, all fairly young. Bloodwork, samples, X-rays, ultra-sounds, injections….all dead ends. Finally, I brought in an experienced doctor from a large practice, and he nailed the problem instantly. No drugs, no tools. No fancy equipment.

I was kicking myself when he left. Why oh why did I spend so much money trying to “develop relationships” with these younger vets? It wasn’t just this horse, but others as well. They let me down, and they surely let down my pocketbook.

The old school vet was in his 60’s, and he had a huge practice in the area. And you know what? He was nicer and more personable than any of the hungry, young horse veterinarians I’ve met.

How ’bout that?

Just like good farriers are hard to find, horse veterinarians too take a little bit of weeding out. No matter what, I do think new vets are no good unless they first start out under a big practice. I’m not talking about internships – they seem to need about three years in the field before venturing out on their own.

Though I wouldn’t hesitate to give a young veterinarian a chance, the next time I’m going to be very strict before I pay them to experiment or more accurately learn on my horses.

One thing’s for sure, the next time I move and need a new horse veterinarian, I’m starting at the top (of the age scale) and working my way down. I know some of the old guys may be burned out from decades of dealing with crazy horse people, but I’ll trade personality for a correct diagnosis.

Good veterinarians and farriers are a horse owner’s greatest ally. Though it’s rare to find both serendipitously, perhaps I leaned a bit to hard on finding “new blood” to match that great young horse doctor from my past.

New, young, seasoned, old, tenacious, or mum, next time I see $600 lab estimates for minor, topical ailments, I’m getting a second opinion (or maybe I’ll just treat it myself).