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Reproductive vet work tough but rewarding
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Dr. Stuart Brown remembers very clearly the moment he was called to his vocation. He was 13 years old and weed-eating a pasture fenceline on a local farm when a mare in the field caught his eye.
"It was in May, and they had two mares left to foal that year," Brown, now 44, recalled. "I started weed-eating around this building, and in the first hour this mare they had turned out started foaling. I was hooked. I'd never seen anything like that, and I was just captivated."
Brown went on to become an equine reproductive veterinarian. It's a risky job that requires early mornings, long hours, hard physical labor, and close contact with some of the horse's most unappealing by-products. But the work does have its rewards. In Kentucky, an equine reproductive specialist can find ample business at dozens of commercial breeding farms. For a horse lover, the daily contact with the animals and their handlers makes the work fun. And though their vets' names don't appear on the "breeder" line at The Jockey Club or in racing programs, mare owners know that a good veterinarian can make a big difference in the success of a breeding program.
Ask a breeder why central Kentucky's equine fertility rate is among the highest in the world - 80 percent or higher, as compared to the average natural equine fertility rate of about 50 to 60 percent - and many will tell you it's a combination of professional animal husbandry and veterinary expertise.
"Reproductive efficiency is about teamwork," said Brown, the president of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. "You've got to have the farm managers that you work with trust you, and you have to trust them and have a dialogue with them. You can be Jesus Christ Almighty palpating mares, but if you don't have somebody that can tease and flip you the mares when you need to look at them, you'll only get 70 percent of them in foal. But if you've got a relatively good, experienced veterinarian with somebody who's a really good farm manager, you'll stay in the 90s all the time."
Brown and his colleagues are heading into their busiest time of year now as peak foaling season and breeding season converge from late February until May. Between helping mares with newborns and sending them back to the breeding shed, equine vets are short on sleep and long on drive time all spring.
Brown is up most mornings at 4 a.m. and usually starts work by 5:30. He often finishes as late as 7 p.m. In the slow season, by comparison, he can start at 7:30 a.m. and be done by 5 p.m.
The long hours are worth it, said Dr. Lynda Rhodes-Stewart, 48, an independent veterinarian in Lexington.
"It's not just a money game or a production line," she explained. "We care about these clients and their horses, and they become part of our family, too."
But any job around horses - especially one that puts you standing immediately behind an unappreciative broodmare or in front of a lovesick stallion - can be a health risk. Last May, Dr. John Steiner died of head injuries after a stallion he was treating struck him and knocked him to the ground. A vet with his whole arm inside a mare has little way to protect himself, and that makes it important to have a good horse person on the lead shank. Even then, accidents happen.
About three years ago, Brown found himself crouching between the flying hind legs of a tranquilized mare he was palpating.
"I got up to my wrist in her, and she started kicking with both back feet," he said. "She kicked me on the inside of my groin with her left foot, and then she hit me with her hock on the side of my head, and then she got me in my elbow with her right hind as I was trying to get out of her way. She just sort of dumped me in a pile out in the middle of the hallway."
Rhodes-Stewart has a war wound, too: an eight-inch plate with eight screws in her right forearm, courtesy of a first-time mother that attacked when Rhodes-Stewart tried to draw blood from her foal.
"I was back to work in about four days and learned very quickly to palpate with my left arm," Rhodes-Stewart recalled. "Thank goodness my family made me sit at the piano for years of practice, because now I'm pretty ambidextrous."
The risk of serious injury is an eternal part of hands-on vet work. But many parts of the job actually have gotten easier, thanks to technological and scientific advances.
Dr. William McGee, now 92, first joined the Hagyard firm in the early 1940s and later became a partner and an equine reproductive pioneer. But in his early days, penicillin was a new product that hadn't yet reached vets, anesthetics were risky, and parasite control was primitive. Surgery on foals, which eventually became common for cosmetic as well as health reasons, was almost unheard of.
"Charlie [Hagyard] and I did probably the first surgery on a ruptured bladder in a foal around here," McGee said.
They noticed the ill foal while on rounds together, and, because McGee happened to have some of the barbiturate Nembutal (pentobarbital) in his car, they decided to attempt surgery even though, at the time, such foals were considered unsalvageable.
"We opened him up and sutured the bladder up with the foal lying on the stall door on a couple of sawhorses," McGee recalled. That foal died, but Hagyard and McGee knew surgery could save others. The operation quickly became part of the vets' arsenal, and ruptured bladders no longer were automatic death sentences.
By the time McGee retired in 1984, he had seen some great innovations in veterinary practice, including the advent of bacteria-fighting sulfonamide and safer inhalation anesthetics. The latter helped make delicate orthopedic surgery and even Caesarean-section births possible.
"In earlier days, you'd put an adult horse down with chloral hydrate, you could do a beautiful job of surgery, but when they started coming out of it, they'd thrash around and fall down and get up again and undo everything you'd just done," he said. "Then they developed an inhalation anesthesia and the equipment to administer it. That way, they came out of it gently. They roll up on their sternum for a while, and you give them time, and they'll finally get their feet out and come up.
"The work they do now is almost unbelievable."
Ask today's reproductive vets what invention has changed their work the most, and you'll get a one-word answer: ultrasound. That technology has been especially effective in allowing vets to discover dangerous twin pregnancies early, when one can safely be eliminated.
Brown was in high school when veterinary ultrasound came to central Kentucky in 1982. A local veterinarian and a friendly breeder signed a phony note to get him out of class so he could watch the machine at work.
"They brought this ultrasound machine, and it was about as wide as the front of my car," Brown said. "It had a probe that was about 8 or 10 inches long and about 2 inches wide."
Brown watched with amazement as the ultrasound revealed 19- and 20-day-old fetuses, when the foal was barely a gray shimmer on the screen. In three decades since, ultrasound machines have become much smaller and more portable - and they are now essential to a reproductive vet's practice.
But the job isn't only about the joy of discovery. Rhodes-Stewart says the thing she dreads the most is giving a horse owner bad news, something that's inevitable when you examine hundreds of horses. There was an avalanche of bad news in 2001, when a mysterious wave of early fetal losses and newborn foal deaths hit central Kentucky's broodmare population. Now believed linked to a massive infestation of Eastern tent caterpillars that spring, mare reproductive loss syndrome caused an estimated $336 million in losses, according to a University of Louisville study. Vets and their clients felt helpless.
"We built the intensive care unit facility at Hagyard and that was its first year, and we were worried about whether or not it was too big," Brown said. "I remember walking in there several times in May with foals laying around all over the floor, there weren't enough stalls for them. Most of them died in spite of everything everybody did."
Despite such traumas, these vets agree: The good outweighs the bad, and the best pleasures are often the simplest ones.
"To me, there's nothing better than seeing a foal born," said Rhodes-Stewart. "It is really a remarkable event. When a horse you know is successful at the track, you feel great. When a mare produces a Grade 1 winner or even just produces a live foal, you feel like you did something good here."