01/30/2009 1:00AM

Veterinary care hurt by economy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a further sign that breeders are reducing the number of horses in production, a number of central Kentucky's reproductive veterinarians estimate their business is down between 15 and 25 percent since last year.

The recession and its heavy toll on Bluegrass vets' main client base, commercial Thoroughbred breeders, have prompted many practitioners to freeze their service charges. Clients of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington received letters this month saying the clinic would hold the line on veterinary service charges this year. Another large Lexington equine hospital, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, is doing the same and also has trimmed its own budget in an effort to absorb rising veterinary costs rather than pass them on.

"I've had one client who has scaled back his broodmare herd by about 90 percent," said Dr. Stuart Brown, Hagyard's president and a field veterinarian. "I've got several clients like that, and we've certainly heard from a lot of clients that they are leaving mares open this year rather than put a stud fee in them.

"We want to maintain a high level of service in the ambulatory practice and in our referral hospital, and to do that we've cut out any expenses we can in terms of fluff so we can maintain the level of care we're accustomed to giving."

Hagyard has cut advertising, sponsorships, and part-time seasonal staff, reducing its full-time workforce to about 185, down 10 percent from last year.

"But we face some of the same issues our clients have, in that the cost of hay and straw and feed have gone up," Brown said. "And there's less financing available for equipment, so you're paying for more things out of pocket."

Brown said the firm will pass some of those increases on to clients.

Competition among area equine clinics is likely to increase as they vie for a smaller number of horses and their increasingly cost-conscious owners. Those owners are more resistant now to sending horses to clinics, field vets say, due to cost concerns.

"We are being asked to do more in the field than we used to," said Dr. Mike Beyer, an independent practitioner based in Versailles, Ky. Serious cases require more of a vet's time per visit, but Beyer said that could be offset by the fact that many owners are dropping elective procedures they once considered routine.

Beyer said his business abruptly underwent "a significant decrease" in November following near 50-percent declines in gross and median at the Keeneland breeding stock auction.

"I have the same client base, but they are postponing any procedure they think of as elective," he said. "And things they used to be quick to have me look at to reassure them they're riding out on their own. More recently, on commercial farms, any mares that are marginal producers they've elected not to breed."

Vet firms feel the loss of active broodmares especially keenly on the bottom line. Vets' fees vary, but an average broodmare can produce an estimated $1,000 in veterinary care costs from pre-breeding exams to post-foaling care 11 months later.

Beyer, who handles reproductive care as well as emergency and sport-horse work, also is freezing his fees this year, despite receiving notice from a supplier and a laboratory that they will increase their prices. He hasn't trimmed his three-person staff and still plans to hire a technician for the upcoming breeding season, which runs from February to the first week of July. His immediate concern is that horse health care will suffer in the economic pinch.

"I am concerned that people will be reluctant to call us about things they think are minor that then develop into something major," he said.

Clients that do send horses to hospitals also might be less likely to pursue complex procedures in a slumping economy when they have less hope of recouping the expense from the horse's future sale price, Hagyard's Brown said.

"Our clinicians are spending more time communicating with clients about where they are on their bill, what Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C will cost, and so they can decide what procedures or level of investment they feel they can afford," Brown said. "Client education and communication about cost is more important than ever."

* Pine Bluff, winner of the 1992 Preakness Stakes and the leading sire in Arkansas, has relocated to 21 and Change Farm in Trinity, Tex., where he will stand for a private fee in 2009.