(Original April 3rd, 2011. Updated April 22, 2023)
This year, 2011, celebrates the 250th anniversary of Veterinary Medicine. The first veterinary school was established in Lyon, France, in 1761 by the then-most respected horseman, Claude Bourgelat. He became nationally recognized for his horsemanship skills and became the Lyon Academy of Horsemanship director at the age of 28. While the primary purpose of establishing a veterinary school was to combat cattle plague (rinderpest), he also realized that horses suffered from disease and that people needed to know more than just how to ride. Finally, King Louis XV of France agreed, and the Royal Veterinary School was established.
The roots of veterinary medicine started with horsemanship. But is it as important today in a world of sedatives, high-tech diagnostics, and fewer horses?
A friend was teaching a class on equine dentistry a few years ago at Cornell University. He has performed dentistry for about 40 years and was trying to convey to a student the importance of horsemanship in the approach and application of his skills. The resident instructor rebutted his attempt with the comment, “We are creating veterinarians here, not horsemen.”
As I go to farms across the country, it is evident that younger veterinarians have placed horsemanship at the bottom of their skills. Worse yet, they seem to be comfortable with that.
This week I was invited by an owner who had experienced overmedicating on her horse. In addition, the vet who had performed the dentistry still had difficulty addressing all of the teeth stating to the owner that he had managed about 75% of the mouth upon completing his task.
I am the first to agree that there are a few horses that, even with medication, are difficult and even impossible to float. But this horse was not one of those.
In my book, The Ten Irrefutable Laws Of Horsemanship, I review the different personalities of horses, describe the use of energy, and promote the approach of “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Using this information, I approached this horse, applied my technique, completed the floating and addressed every tooth, all without drugs and with minimal objection from the horse. Upon completion, we offered him some grain. Rather than spilling grain out of his mouth, the horse kept his lips closed and chewed every kernel. The owner stated that this was the first time he had not spilled his grain in a long time.
This example stands out from the rest because the vet who had last floated the horse stopped by while I was working. Instead of watching and asking questions, he defended his actions and left. I know he was busy that day, but would it hurt to stay a few minutes to witness that horsemanship can trump over-medicating?
Veterinarians train hard and learn a lot. Today’s student learns in a year more than I learned in 4 years because there is that much more information. In addition, there is abundant continuing education to add to this knowledge. However, in my observation, little is taught about the application of horsemanship in veterinary techniques. This directly conflicts with the roots of veterinary medicine and needs to change.
I have countless stories from owners who say, “My vet couldn’t do that,” relating to things such as passing a stomach tube, cleaning a sheath, or dressing a wound. One example of this occurred again this week. I had just finished floating a horse when the vet arrived to remove some excess granulation tissue from the front of a cannon bone. This is a simple and painless procedure for almost any horse. But unfortunately, the first thing this vet did was heavily sedate the horse, and I am not sure why. As a vet working around horses for 28 years, I realize we can bring out the ugly side of a horse, but this horse showed no signs of creating a dangerous situation. I was perplexed by this, but I think this young vet was not taught any other way.
My plate is full now, but I am beginning to realize that it will be lost forever if someone doesn’t do something to bring back simple horsemanship to the horse profession. Get two or more “older” vets together; the same topic always arises. What kind of vets are the vet schools creating? While they are bright and hard-working, some don’t know which end of the horse to stick the thermometer in. While drugs make this profession easier and safer, is it the best for the horse?
Horsemanship is as relevant today as it ever has been. The older vets need to press upon the schools and the new graduates the simple fact that horse owners are tired of having their horses treated like an auto in the mechanic’s garage. Working with horses is complex and dangerous, but using horsemanship to overcome the issues presented is the right thing to do. Moreover, it adds a dimension of fun to an otherwise long day of repetitive veterinary drills.