Ali’s dream job involves clinic cases, farm calls, and foal watch
When I found out I would be writing an article about what a day is like in my profession, I wanted to start my story with a poignant childhood moment that determined my course in life. But there isn’t one; my story starts out like so many of yours. As a young girl, I would spend hours in my room daydreaming about owning a beautiful white horse I could decorate with daisy chains. And you can bet that any stray cat, dog—anything—in the neighborhood ended up at my house. As soon as I found out that animal doctors were a real thing, I was determined to become one.
Throughout my teens, I was active in both my local 4-H and Future Farmers of America chapters and showed various animals at the county fair. At age 16, my dreams came true, and I got my first horse, a white and sorrel paint gelding named “Sport.” The more time I spent with him, the more I knew that horses weren’t just a phase—they were going to be a part of the rest of my life.
After graduating high school, I combined my love of education with my love of animals and attended the University of California, Davis, as an Animal Science Major with a focus on Equine Sciences. My four years there taught me much more than I could have imagined.
As it turned out, the opportunities outside of the classroom were some of my most valuable. One of my best experiences was working as a barn supervisor at the Equestrian Center. In this role I was responsible for the day-to-day care of the lesson horses. This included working with veterinary students and veterinarians to develop treatment plans, administering treatments, and rehabbing injured horses. I loved being able to get to know each horse individually, and I could tell you more than you ever needed to know about each one.
These experiences introduced me to high standards of patient care and the ins and outs of what veterinary technicians do, and those issues quickly became a passion. I loved being able to provide nursing care to the horses, supporting them when they were sick or injured.
And one of the most surprising things I learned through these experiences was that I no longer wanted to be a veterinarian. But I did determine where my place was in the veterinary field.
After graduating from UC Davis, I was faced with the daunting task of job-hunting. In 2009 the job market was thin, and equine-specific jobs were rare. I tried my hand at a few nonhorsey positions, such as a kennel attendant and a substitute teacher. Although these jobs were rewarding, I was not satisfied. I missed spending hours on end in the barn and the sound of patients greeting me with a nicker in the morning.
I joined the American Association of Equine Veterinary Technicians (AAEVT) in 2012, and my life changed. I attended the Annual Convention, and the executive board’s passion combined with the general membership’s enthusiasm inspired me to pursue a new career path—that of a veterinary assistant. I have since become an executive board member and am proud and honored to be the AAEVT’s 2017 president.
Clients often ask me, “Are you a veterinarian, too?” or “Are you going to go to vet school?” I used to catch myself answering, “No, I am just an assistant,” but now I proudly answer, “No.” I don’t wish to downplay the time or dedication veterinarians have put into their careers, but I also don’t want to downplay mine. Veterinary assistants and technicians are integral parts of the equine health care team. We support the doctors, provide an extra set of hands, communicate with clients, and nurture our patients.
Many people view veterinary technicians and assistants as passionate people who maybe didn’t have the grades or funds to attend veterinary school. These assumptions could not be any further from the truth. Veterinary assistants and technicians must go to school and take classes such as biology, pharmacology, surgical assisting, and more. Upon completion, each state has its own credentialing process (this usually determines the nomenclature: assistant, registered veterinary technician, credentialed, etc.), which typically includes its own veterinary technician examination and/or the veterinary technician national exam.
A vet tech’s education is never finished, and the industry is constantly changing. There are several classes and conferences designed specifically for equine veterinary technicians to make sure we evolve and grow with the industry. There are also opportunities for veterinary technicians to become specialized in areas of practice such as behavior, emergency and critical care, anesthesia and analgesia, and equine veterinary nursing. There are currently 14 approved veterinary technician specialties.
Throughout my time as an equine veterinary assistant, I have worked in sports medicine, surgery, and reproduction. I am currently an equine assistant at Taylor Equine Hospital, in Turlock, California, which staffs two full-time and two part-time equine practitioners. Taylor Equine offers 24-hour in-house services for appointments and hospitalization, as well as ambulatory services. Equine assistants are on staff from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and we’re available for on-call care for overnight emergencies.
Below is an example of a recent “ordinary day” and some of the cases we saw.
7 a.m. The arriving assistant goes on rounds with the overnight assistant and treats the in-house patients. We also feed horses and clean all the stalls before the day’s first appointment arrives.
8 a.m. A 4-year-old Appaloosa-cross mare arrives for acupuncture. The owner reports that the mare has not been lame, but she feels stiff and tense under saddle. The doctor observes the mare at the walk and trot and scans her acupuncture points. It is my responsibility to handle the horse and then transcribe what the veterinarian says during her scan. While she places the needles, I make sure the horse remains cooperative and she safe.
10 a.m. A Quarter Horse mare sustained an injury while trailering and has come in for evaluation and treatment. She has a 2-by-2-inch V-shaped wound over her right knee. I clip and clean the wound and prepare the necessary items for the doctor to suture the area. Thankfully, the wound is superficial and does not involve the joint. I monitor the patient’s level of sedation while the doctor sutures the wound, and I wrap the leg once the procedure is complete.
11 a.m. A client has made the painful decision to bring her older mare in to be euthanized. The horse has been retired for a number of years, and this past winter was very tough on her. The owner reports the mare’s attitude has changed recently, and she believes euthanasia is now the best choice to address her declining quality of life. When speaking to people interested in joining this profession, I often hear that this is the limiting factor in their decision to pursue it. I am not going to lie and say it’s easy, because it’s not. I see it as a gift we are able to offer our patients: We can not only take away their pain when nothing else can but also do it quickly and noninvasively. This is the most humane option to end their time with us. There are days when I can’t help but shed a tear or go home and snuggle my own animals a little tighter, but it also makes me appreciate the “happy” cases that much more.
1 p.m. After a break to grab a bite to eat, we receive an emergency call. An owner has found her gelding down in the field and doesn’t have a trailer to bring the horse in. I double-check that all the necessary supplies are in the truck, and the doctor and I drive out to the ranch. Upon arrival, we see the patient completely lateral and in a full sweat. While the doctor meets with the client, I get a tote ready with the supplies we need to perform a physical exam and begin initial treatment on the horse. After the exam, we are able to get him to rise. The doctor suspects the cause is colic and performs a rectal exam. His suspicions are correct—the gelding is suffering from dehydration and a large colon impaction. We recommend trailering the horse into the clinic for intravenous (IV) fluids, nasogastric intubation, and close monitoring for 24-48 hours. The owner consents, and one of our other assistants arrives with a trailer to transport the horse.
The doctor and I return to the clinic and prepare the supplies for intubation and placement of an IV catheter, including hanging the IV fluids in the stall where the horse will be staying. When the horse arrives, we place him in the stocks. We start treatment by passing the nasogastric tube through his nostrils to lavage (flush) the stomach and administer water and Epsom salts. This can be a challenging procedure to assist with, as horses are often reactive while we pass the first 10 inches of tube through their nasal passage. Once we confirm the tube is in the stomach, I keep it steady so it does not become dislodged while the veterinarian adds fluid or if the horse moves his head suddenly. Afterward, I clip and prep the horse for IV catheter placement. Once that’s done, we move the horse to his stall and start IV fluids. It’s my responsibility to monitor the patient’s fluid rate, pain level, water intake, and fecal output closely. Because the stalls for hospitalized patients are adjacent to one of our treatment areas, I’m able to keep an almost constant eye on the gelding. Each hour I note the details of my observations.
4 p.m. An older gelding comes in for an annual exam, vaccine booster, and dental exam. We find him to be in good health, but he has sharp enamel points on his teeth. After sedating the horse, I help the doctor place the oral speculum and restrain the horse during the dental float. Once complete, the veterinarian vaccinates the gelding and sends him home with a clean bill of health.
5-7 p.m. With the colic case hospitalized, I go over every detail of his care with the doctor before communicating the overnight instructions to the next assistant. The horse has remained comfortable, but he has not yet passed feces. We will keep him on IV fluids and monitor him through the night. I also feed, clean stalls, and complete treatments on other hospitalized patients.
With all our appointments, it is the assistant’s job to greet clients, obtain a history on each horse, gather the patient’s initial vital signs, and enter all necessary information into the patient record. A large portion of what I love about being an equine assistant is that no two days are the same. We have a typical routine we follow, but the cases that come through the door are ever-changing. Whether I am helping take radiographs, working with neonates, or assisting with anesthesia, I love every aspect of my profession.
Today I had a full day of work at the clinic and am now curled up on the couch with my puppies. I am also working my second job via my computer: foal watch (watching pregnant mares and waiting for them to foal). Maybe I am a glutton for punishment because I work all day and come home to voluntarily give up the hours I could be sleeping to look at more horses. Or maybe I’m just lucky enough to have found a career I can’t put down.