Making a difference – Harness Racing Update
Despite the psychological challenges of the profession, veterinarians are an integral part of the industry.
by Melissa Keith
From February to July 2017, researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario surveyed all Canadian veterinarians working in all fields. The subject of the study was the mental health of veterinarians; Around 1,400 veterinarians answered the researchers’ questions. In 2020, lead author Jennifer Perret, herself a veterinarian, told the University of Guelph News that between 27 and 30 percent of respondents reported concerns such as depression, anxiety and burnout, a rate much higher than that of the general Canadian population.
Suicidal thoughts and actions are not uncommon in the veterinary profession. Last July, a 36-year-old equine vet took her own life. dr Andrea Kelly was the owner of the Ottawa Valley Large Animal Clinic and was admitted to practice in Ontario and Quebec. She was remembered among the Rideau Carleton Raceway winners on August 14 when Pacer Erika’s Shadow won the race held in honor of the late veterinarian: Track announcer John MacMillan described Kelly as “a very kind, caring, compassionate and talented vet…loved by all of her clients and respected by her colleagues.”
Claus Andersen Dr. Ian Moore has successfully balanced careers as a veterinarian, trainer and professor.
Her family recommended donations to Not One More Vet, an organization founded in 2014 by Dr. Nicole McArthur after the suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin, another veterinarian, was founded. It started as a private Facebook group for veterinarians to share their struggles and has grown into a range of outreach, education and support programs.
Equine veterinary medicine is a challenging career path, especially when it comes to racehorses—animals that are variously viewed by their owners as farm animals, athletes, and/or pets.
dr Adam Chambers is Senior Manager of Veterinary Services for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which regulates horse racing.
“Vets may choose to become track vets because of their love of horses, desire to help animals and passion for the racing industry,” he told HRU. “The health, safety and welfare of all racers – man and horse – are of the utmost importance to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.”
Chambers outlined different types of racehorse veterinarians working in Ontario.
“AGCO vets are employed by AGCO; Official veterinarians work for the racecourses and are overseen by AGCO; Vets employed by owners and trainers must be licensed by AGCO. All have specific knowledge of racehorses, have completed years of professional study and are licensed by both the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) and AGCO.”
These professionals share common ground: “By nature, all veterinarians’ job can be challenging – assessing horses and making sure they are fit to race. If they are not, the horses need to be scratched, then they sometimes treat acute injuries.”
Their work is essential to racetracks, including Woodbine Mohawk Park.
“There is always one (or more) official vets on duty during qualifying and racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park. AGCO vets may also be in attendance,” Chambers said. “During a Standardbred Racecard event, official veterinarians observe horses around the track, examine horses of interest, provide emergency care for acute injuries, and record and report their findings to the AGCO judges.”
dr Ian Moore has never worked as an AGCO vet or official racecourse vet, but he is an AGCO-licensed equine vet with decades of experience.
“I still do a little bit,” he said recently from Key West, FL. “I don’t work as a vet down here in the winter. I have a Florida license but I only have it to make sure I can handle my own horses and in case there are any emergencies nearby [Southern Oaks] Training Center, when the regular people aren’t there, I take care of it.”
With 20 horses under his trainer, Moore says he’s increasingly focused on this aspect of his career.
“In the summer I did veterinary work in the afternoons after the barn. I am not sure if I will continue that this year. I turned 69 last week so I don’t know if I will or not.
“I haven’t been doing as much as I used to in the past few years, but up until a few years ago I was still working on it full time and putting in some long days. That’s why I’ve lost a bit of weight over the last few years. You know, I’ve been doing this for 41 years now – 40 as an equine vet; I did a blended workout with PEI for the first year and loved every minute of it.”
Moore said he’s aware of the internal struggles many face in his first job, although he personally hasn’t experienced many downfalls, if any.
“It’s very rewarding and I’ve met a lot of nice people, a lot of top trainers and worked with a lot of top horses along the way,” said Moore. “That’s what made it so special and rewarding for me, and it’s so difficult for me to give it up entirely because I still enjoy it. I hate giving it up.”
When not in Florida or traveling with horses, Moore works at the Shamrock Training Center in Cambridge, ON.
“All my life I have always had a few horses. I used to be a commercial vet I guess so maybe I had two, three, four horses or something like that. It changed for me, probably around 2004-2005 when I had Astronomical and started leaning more in the other direction.”
He told HRU he finds satisfaction in relationships with colleagues across the Standardbred industry.
“I still like doing that [vet work] and i did last summer. Especially in the last few years I would work [trainers] Teesha Symes and Mitchell Tierney, guys who worked for me, young guys who are now out there with their own stables, so that’s always nice too.”
Moore was an instructor at Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, PEI for 13 years and to this day maintains friendly relationships with alumni, many of whom practice in racing contexts in the United States and Canada.
“One of the most respected equine vets in New Jersey spent a lot of time with me, another in Indiana and so on,” Moore said. “That’s always good. Whenever we send [horses] anywhere, I can always text them or call them and ask what the drug withdrawal times are. That’s one of the things I find very difficult: Every state and every province has different rules. There is no single set of rules… That’s why you need a friend like that to talk to. These guys occasionally call or text me for advice and I enjoy that.
“It’s valuable for me too, because when I’m working on a case or situation, it’s always good to have a different opinion. These are people I trust and there is a wide network of them across North America. I can answer the phone anytime and they answer right away. That’s always good for the horses and clients I work with.”
Moore said he is aware of the mental health challenges some colleagues are facing.
“This is not uncommon in veterinary medicine. In fact, in my class of 120, there are at least two that I know of have committed suicide over the years,” he said.
He compared the pressures equine veterinarians face to the pressures faced by a CEO in charge of a company: an integral part of the journey that requires proper management.
“Over the years I’ve learned to combine my lifestyle with my career in veterinary medicine and I’ve been able to keep it all together in one place.
“I think like everything else, a person’s attitude towards their work will play a big part in how you live your lifestyle. So, for me, the first half of my equine vet career was fully focused on and [avoiding] Conflicts of interest have always bothered me… People trusted me, especially down in the Maritimes. You would come first, above anything else I have ever done.”
He also later found that balance is important, both as a veterinarian and as a trainer.
“It definitely is. The things you just mentioned [i.e. not taking it personally when a client is angry or an animal doesn’t recover], these are things I learned in a hurry in the first three months outside of school. I think for new grads who don’t learn that, they’re the ones who are going to struggle.”
Finding balance wasn’t automatic.
“When I got out of school I thought, probably like the other 119 people in my class, ‘I’m going to be the best vet in North America – I’m going to fix everything and heal everyone with these new technologies.’ That was in 1982. After about three months, my version of that changed dramatically, where it became very clear to me that dealing with the public is never going to please everyone – absolutely not. All you can do is do your job honestly, ethically and appropriately. Treating everyone fairly and decently, treating everyone equally, is all that can be asked of you at the end of the day.
“You will never be blamed for that. Lawsuits and whatnot when they go to court, as long as you have done all of this, and by today’s standards, no judge anywhere in North America is going to hold a vet liable. The cases in which they are liable are gross negligence, mistakes and untimely acts. Or they did unethical things like some of these guys like Nick Surick I’m reading about today.”
dr Adam Chambers said that any veterinarian can be prone to mental health issues.
“We know that [University of Guelph] study you mentioned and recognize that AGCO vets, track official vets and vets employed by owners and trainers are not immune to this type of pressure and stress.”
He added that AGCO vets are employees with “access to welfare support systems,” while the 18 official vets are employed at racetracks across the province where “those vets could have access to their employer’s support.”
AGCO is also in regular contact with these practitioners, who sometimes have unwelcome news to share with owners and trainers.
“They often give advice and make decisions about what’s in the best interest of the horse,” Chambers said. “Race participants can listen to the advice of their veterinarian and understand that this advice is given in the best interest of the horse – not to gain any financial or personal advantage, or to pressure the owner.
“The most powerful thing a racer can do is sometimes just say, ‘Thank you, you’re making a difference.'”