Voss: I’m Worried About The Lone Racing Veterinarian In The Classroom - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Voss: I’m Worried About The Lone Racing Veterinarian In The Classroom

I heard something at the recent annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) that I found believable but horrifying.

I sat in on a discussion about the relationship between regulatory and private practice vets at the racetrack. What often happens at these types of discussions is there are two or three vets in charge of steering the conversations around a particular topic. People float in and out of the room, pass a microphone around, and ask the moderators questions on the topic. It's sort of a group discussion, but with better acoustics and without the crosstalk.

Inevitably, the topic of optics came up. The regulatory veterinarians in the room urged private vets to think about regulatory vets as partners instead of opponents. Everyone should want safe racing, to ensure racing can keep going. It seems the culture varies quite a bit from track to track, with some enjoying more communication and cooperation than others. Part of what's hobbling regulatory and practicing vets on the racetrack is of course that there just aren't enough of either of them to go around. That prompted a moderator to ask if there were any vet students in the full conference room. Three hands went up.

One belonged to a young woman whose name and school I did not catch. She said she was one of just three students in her graduating class of 96 or 97 veterinarians who wanted to go into equine practice. She was the only one who was interested in working in racing. She said she frequently has to justify to her choice to her classmates, explaining why she should want to support an industry that has as many ethical and integrity issues as they think we do.

The only one. Out of nearly 100.

This isn't one out of a group of 96 or 97 random people on the street. It's not one in a group of animal rights activists outside the Saratoga gates. It's one out of a group of highly educated, intelligent animal lovers, some of whom are also horse lovers.

That's terrifying to me. It should be terrifying to you, too.

It must be a very lonely position for that young woman. I wondered, as I sat in the back, how long she would persevere in what must be a regular argument with her classmates. She must anticipate, based on this experience, that she'll graduate, begin working long, thankless hours at the track and have to justify that choice to her colleagues – possibly colleagues at this actual event in future years – for as long as she has that job. How exhausting that must already feel.

I've been attending AAEP conventions for nearly a decade now. In the beginning, it reminded me a lot of being back in college because in the larger lectures I attended, I was mostly surrounded by other people my age, almost all of them young women, as per the typical demographics of veterinary graduates these days. (The difference was they didn't need to take notes because they're a lot smarter than I am.) When I'd go into racing-oriented sessions, I'd be outnumbered in the same way I usually am at racing commission meetings, sitting amongst men twice my age.

What I noticed this year, as I looked around in one of the larger ballrooms, is that the people around me haven't changed. I've gotten ten years older, but they haven't. A lot of them are still students or recent graduates. A few are older men. A handful are older women. The young ones are full of energy, popping in and out of as many sessions as they can. They seem so excited to be here – but a decade from now, it seems like many of them probably won't be.

Statistics would suggest that this is because a very small number of veterinary school graduates even embark on an equine-centric career, and the ones who do don't stay. AAEP data indicate only about 5 to 6 percent of any given class of veterinary graduates pursue equine practice, and that in five years, half of them will quit.

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If AAEP has done any research looking specifically at racing practice I haven't seen it, but I'm betting the number is even bleaker, considering that I see many of the same faces each year in those sessions.

(Caveat: I do recognize that part of the reason I see mostly students and older vets at convention with relatively few in their thirties and forties also has something to do with career phase. Students may more easily make time to leave town for a few days to attend, while vets a few years out of school are probably stuck at home, since they're the go-to people to pick up elder colleagues' shifts during meetings like this. Still, I can't believe this is the only reason I'm not seeing very many vets my age at this event.)

To their credit, AAEP and the various veterinary colleges have worked together, mobilizing with determination in the past year or two to remove barriers to equine practice at every conceivable level – state and federal tuition support, changing vet school entry requirements, creating support systems to help vets with work/life balance and to educate employers on those needs.

Trade media (ourselves included) have covered this topic extensively, trying to coach horse owners on the best ways they can reduce stress on their horse's veterinarian.

(You can read some of that coverage here, here, and here)

But I keep going back to that vet student and her classmates. AAEP, higher education facilities, and others can make it easier to become a vet; they can make it easier to be an equine-focused vet. But I would suggest that only racing, as a collective, can make it easier to be a racing vet by changing not just the outside world's perception of us – but the perception of fellow equestrians.

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