How equine practitioners are managing during COVID and embracing the “new normal”
Throughout the world people are lamenting the loss of the days before masks, social distancing, and interruptions in service and materials availability. Most people are longing for things to go “back to normal.” But there simply is no going back.
Three equine veterinarians we spoke to actually don’t seem to mind this new normal. Business is up, and many practitioners have taken the opportunity to give their mental health and work/life balance a hard look. Similarly, owners benefited from pandemic-related restrictions by having surplus time to spend with their horses, strengthening their bond and training.
In this article we’ll assess the effects COVID has had on various aspects of the industry. As you’ll see, it’s not all doom and gloom and, in some ways, the pandemic might have done us some good.
The Economic Impact of COVID
COVID undoubtedly drove the world into major economic turmoil. Small businesses were particularly hard hit. With the expense of maintaining horses, you might assume equine veterinarians across the board would have suffered financially. It appears, however, many felt the opposite effect. “Business is flourishing right now,” says Erin Denney-Jones, DVM, owner of Florida Equine Veterinary Services Inc., in Clermont—thriving so much so she was looking to hire an associate.
Mike Pownall, DVM, co-founder of McKee-Pownall Equine Services, in Campbellville, Ontario, Canada, reports similarly booming business.
“We are busier during COVID than we were before,” he says. “Our clients had more disposable income because they weren’t going to restaurants, cultural events, traveling, or other social events. A lot of clients are professionals. They were working from home and had more free time than normal that they spent with their horses.”
In Pownall’s neck of the woods, marrying an increase in calls with the current shortage of equine veterinarians in North America, practitioners were run off their feet.
Even though travel restrictions limited competition participation, horses were still being trained, ridden, bought, and sold.
“I had one client use her stimulus money to breed her horse,” says Denney-Jones, who has also conducted many prepurchase exams during the pandemic. “I was shocked and thrilled by the requests for prepurchase examinations. People are back to riding and riding together as a family. It is a wholesome, welcome benefit of COVID that probably most people didn’t anticipate.”
Ben Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, owns ProRodeo Equine Sports Medicine, in San Antonio, Texas, and reports being “completely overwhelmed” with business during COVID. Most of Espy’s clients are professional rodeo competitors who travel from show to show, returning intermittently and sporadically to San Antonio.
“During COVID, everybody was sequestered at home with their horses,” he explains. “Many of my clients went from having two horses in training to 20, all of which needed care.”
Then there were the youth rodeo mounts, which make up 20% of his practice. “Most horses in youth activities are used one to three hours, three to five days,” he says. “With kids at home doing online school, they were riding from lunch until dark every day.” Spending all that time with their horses, clients picked up on more things for Espy to look at.
The positive economic benefits of COVID our sources report were recently echoed in an independent market survey conducted by CM Research. The company interviewed 5,000 veterinary professionals in 91 countries from March 2020 to December 2020. The financial impact of COVID on veterinary practices varied globally, but “Australia and the USA stand out as the two countries where clinics have seen the strongest growth.”
Not All Sunshine and Blue Ribbons
All corners of the equine industry did not prosper during the dark days of COVID, however. We must remember other industries and the so-called “support business” benefit of equine competitions. Researchers in Texas and Louisiana collaborated to assess COVID restrictions’ economic effects on the show horse industry (Huseman et al., 2021). They reported an estimated 7.2 million horses in the U.S., with an estimated $50 billion in annual direct contributions to the gross domestic product (GDP). If you add contributions from supporting industries, the contribution to the GDP increases to about $122 billion per year. The American Horse Council, as Huseman et al. noted, estimates the competition sector of the equine industry alone supports more than 417,000 jobs in the U.S.
“The Top 5 business sectors supported by the horse industry are support activities for agriculture and forestry, hotels and motels, commercial sports, real estate, and wholesale trade,” the authors wrote. “Horse shows provide a significant economic boost to local, region, and state economies.”
For example, Houston, Texas, lost approximately $277 million after the cancellation of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and Denver, Colorado, lost $120 million due to cancellation of the National Western Stock Show.
The Houston Rodeo runs for 21 days, filling the massive NRG Stadium each day. These types of events provide significant income to local economies.
To exemplify this point, Espy says, “There’s no denying the tremendous impact professional sports teams have on their communities. But even if an NFL team fills a stadium for every home game eight times in a season, RodeoHouston fills that same stadium for 21 rodeo performances over 21 consecutive days.”
Both Pownall and Espy believe the current economic boost to their practices is a temporary anomaly, a “COVID honeymoon,” so to speak.
“My business in the second half of 2021 is down 5% already, and the only thing I can attribute it to is that people have gone back to their jobs or have maybe spent all of their recreational or discretionary income,” says Espy.
“In the next year, I think we will see increasing interest rates, and real estate prices will continue to climb, leaving less disposable income for people to spend on their horses,” Pownall says.
For now, all three practitioners say they are happy to ride the wave, not worrying too much about the days to come.
COVID’s Effect on Equine Welfare
In addition to increased productivity, Pownall reports an increase in client compliance during COVID.
“There were fewer discussions about money, and financial decisions had less of an effect on the horses’ careers and health/soundness,” he says.
Not all horse owners, however, are working professionals who found themselves gainfully employed and flush with disposable income during the pandemic. Financials certainly caused some owners to hesitate before calling a vet out for an emergency, risking horses’ welfare.
In an article published in PLOS ONE (Ward et al., 2021) U.K. researchers acknowledged that movement restrictions on owners and veterinarians might have negatively affected equine welfare, particularly that of obese horses and those at risk of developing laminitis.
The study authors reported that many horses had more time on pasture during lockdown. The health benefits of pasture turnout are immeasurable for most horses. For others, pasture turnout is contraindicated. Overweight/obese horses with insulin dysregulation and metabolic syndrome, for example, should not be given free rein on pasture.
At boarding facilities some owners had limited control over their horses’ routines during lockdown and were, therefore, unable to control access to pasture, the study authors reported. Some horses also received less exercise or were subject to longer trimming and shoeing cycles. All these factors potentially compromised the welfare of equids at risk of obesity and laminitis, they said.
Foot Fallout During COVID
During the initial throes of COVID, many practitioners’ patient visits were limited to emergency care only.
“In Canada, for the first eight weeks of the lockdown, equine practitioners were not deemed essential—only veterinarians for food-producing animals were. Equine practitioners were emergency only,” says Pownall. After that, he says their business exploded, “like a firehose was turned on.”
To keep employees safe, Pownall reports investing in measures such as supplying appropriate personal protective equipment to the practice’s veterinarians and technicians in the field and equipping administrative staff with visors and plexiglass partitions.
Denney-Jones, who runs a solo practice, says she worked closely with her one assistant during COVID, and they trusted each other to practice appropriate social distancing and hygiene outside of work. Denney-Jones reports having no pushback from owners regarding safety procedures when working with their horses.
“My clients were super,” she says. “I was never nervous going to a farm, and most of my examinations could be performed out in the open air.”
Mask-wearing, however, remains a heated issue in any industry. Some vets have faced pressure to not wear masks on calls or at competitions, notes Espy.
And while COVID might seem like the perfect segue for telemedicine—which many human doctors adopted during this time—Pownall says he saw a negligible change in its use in his practice. “We’ve always been doing telemedicine, we’ve just never charged for it before,” he explains.
Pownall cites issues surrounding telemedicine in equine medicine: poor lighting making it difficult to assess what owners are attempting to show, technical issues, and the fact horses are often being ridden with subtle lameness that can’t be evaluated with a shaky reel.
Denney-Jones admits to not embracing telemedicine either.
“Many times I can see the horse is lame on the video, yes, but I still need to touch it, flex it, and fully examine the horse to treat it,” she says. “All I can tell from the video is whether I need to examine the horse in person or not. And it takes time to check my emails and messages to watch these videos, which I often struggle to find and do not charge for.”
Espy, whose clients travel to nearly 600 rodeos nationwide each year, enjoys telemedicine, saying, “I love it and use it every day. I like having the video to go back to and review as needed. Additionally, I can see a video and recommend who the client should call to have it examined further.”
Equine telemedicine differs vastly from human medicine, where physicians set and charge for appointments. Veterinarians often receive emails with attachments, FaceTime calls, text messages, and social media messages from clients trying to reach them, even in the middle of the night and on their days off. Owners must appreciate that while telemedicine is convenient, it still presents limitations. For example, a veterinarian cannot fully assess a three-dimensional structure on a horse via a small, two-dimensional image.
Telemedicine does have value and great potential, says Pownall, but the equine industry has adopted it slowly.
Despite the wrench COVID threw our direction, it hasn’t been all bad. “We came out of this a tighter team,” Pownall says. “Our practice now is a far happier and more invigorating place than in 2020. COVID gave us a chance to open our eyes and address the fact that we need to take care of our people and avoid burnout. We realized the customer is not always right and that we don’t have to bend over for every customer. We started saying, ‘No.’ We actually fired a couple of clients because of their poor behavior and unreasonable demands. This resulted in a marked change in our associates and mental health. They felt supported.”
In a time when mental health remains an urgent topic among veterinary professionals, prompting well-being initiatives and the “Not One More Vet” suicide prevention campaign, this is exactly the message veterinarians need to hear.
Espy agrees, saying the pandemic returned his life to simpler times even though business was booming.
“Veterinarians always struggle with work-life balance,” he says. “We love really deeply and hurt really deeply. We are so invested in both our family and our profession that we have difficulty finding a balance. COVID forced us to go home.”
(For veterinary resources on mental health and well-being, visit avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/get-help.)
It’s still too early to objectively assess the pandemic’s true impact on equine veterinarians, their individual practices, and the horse industry in general. What we can see, however, is it did have its upsides. Owners had more time with their horses and rode together as families. Many equine practitioners, although busy and enjoying the economic stimulus, took a step back and adjusted their lives and business policies to benefit their own mental health. As we head into whatever normal looks like post-pandemic, my hope, as a veterinarian and horsewoman, is some of the steps we’ve taken to improve our lives with horses will persist.