Leaving private practice to join an equine charity

Ben Sturgeon SPANA

In the past three years, my definition of ‘a busy day at the clinic’ has changed dramatically. In my former role at a private practice in Edinburgh, it might have meant a dozen back-to-back clients.

That changed in 2016, when I started working for the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA), a charity that provides free veterinary care for working animals in developing countries. Now, turning up to a remote village and finding 700 working animals waiting to be seen is a regular occurrence.

As SPANA’s veterinary director, I spend about 13 weeks of the year travelling around Africa, the Middle East and Asia to oversee our international programmes, maintain clinical standards and train our local veterinary teams. SPANA vets – based in countries such as Ethiopia, Mauritania, Myanmar and Morocco – work hard in permanent and mobile clinics, providing well over 300,000 treatments for mules, donkeys, horses, camels and elephants every year.

Working in private practice 

I studied veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1996. Becoming a vet was always on the cards growing up on a sheep and cattle farm in Kent, but at the time of my graduation, I certainly didn’t have a clear career path in mind within the veterinary field. I did, however, know that large animals, particularly equids, were my major field of interest.

Following university, I took on a role as a large animal intern at University College Dublin, before working as a resident in equine medicine and surgery at Edinburgh vet school. After a few years in this role, I moved out of clinical practice for the first time in my career – staying at the university, but lecturing in equine practice.


"I came to feel that in the equine world there was a disconnect between how vets and owners were treating their animals, and the animals’ welfare"


This wasn’t necessarily a turning point for me, but did make clear to me the difference that one person can make as an educator, shaping the knowledge and attitudes of the vets of tomorrow.

After this stint, I returned to practice, working in roles as lead surgeon, practice director and head surgeon at various major clinics over the course of about 17 years.

Equine welfare

Increasingly, however, I came to feel that in the equine world there was a disconnect between how vets and owners were treating their animals, and the animals’ welfare. While I saw many examples of animals being treated with respect and care, I could also see cases in which animals were being treated entirely as a commodity – with clinical decisions being made on the basis of a horse’s economic value, rather than what was best for the animal.

It’s a message I’d try to emphasise to any vet student preparing to enter the profession for the first time. There are always practical considerations for vets to take into account – such as the finances of the owner, the age of the animal and what the animal is used for – but it can be very easy for these factors to become the overriding concern for the vet, with little thought given to the welfare of the horse.

It was partly this feeling that led me to start volunteering for SPANA in 2014.

Over three years, I travelled three or four times to SPANA’s centres in Botswana and Morocco, providing veterinary care to working animals for several weeks on each trip. I’d been aware of the charity’s work for some time, but actually being in the clinics, in developing countries, opened my eyes to the value of this work. The sheer volume of cases our vets see on a daily basis is something that would be completely out of the experience of most UK vets. When a job opened up as a senior veterinary programme adviser at SPANA, I jumped at the opportunity.

Working in the charity sector

While my clinical leadership roles had prepared me well to step into a more advisory and training-based position, coming into the charity sector was a fairly major transition.

The emphasis at SPANA is very much on building the capacity of our local staff members, so that they can have the largest possible impact in their own communities. It’s extremely satisfying, but certainly a change from working in surgery every day.

SPANA logo
Ben spends 13 weeks of the year travelling around Africa, the Middle East and Asia to oversee international programmes, maintain clinical standards and train local veterinary teams



After just six months, I was promoted to director of veterinary programmes. This is a role that has overall responsibility for all of our permanent and outreach projects, which span 21 countries.

I manage four staff in our London office – three veterinary programme advisers and a veterinary programme assistant – as well as working closely with our country directors and partners in our project countries.

Position of responsibility

Being veterinary director is an incredible position to be in, but it’s also a position of great responsibility. I do feel the weight of that sometimes – I’m very aware that dozens of people are affected by my decisions and, in turn, many thousands of animals are dependent on our projects. I think it’s a healthy thing to be aware of that responsibility, and there are so many rewards to the job – like taking an in-country project from its earliest, embryonic stage all the way through to being a huge, multifaceted programme.

Balancing work and home life

Work and home life is a bit of a balancing act. Home for me is in Edinburgh – where my two boys are – and SPANA’s office is in London, so I take the train down every Sunday night and return on Friday evening. Obviously that’s challenging, but SPANA has recently implemented flexible working options, which has certainly helped in spending more quality time with my sons.


"What you eventually decide to do as a vet is also, to some degree, a lifestyle choice"


It takes a certain type of person to have a successful career in the charity sector. It can be demanding – you have to accept that there are limits to what can be achieved, and you’ll certainly never be rich! With that said, it’s a career path with tremendous rewards. Our vets are providing care to animals in desperate need, and the diversity of the work is also a major draw. In any given week, we might be assisting on programme design, research, delivering training and providing remote advice to local vets on a difficult case.

Advice to young vets - don’t pigeonhole yourself

My advice to young vets coming to the end of their training is this – don’t pigeonhole yourself. As valuable as traditional internships are, there are myriad skills to be learned in exploring a range of veterinary pathways, like practice management, disease control, anaesthetics...the list goes on.

I think the biggest investment you can make in your own future is to try to gain experience and knowledge across a whole range of different spheres.

What you eventually decide to do as a vet is also, to some degree, a lifestyle choice. You have to take into account how your career path will affect your home life – where you live, the hours you work, the potential for progression and the requirement to travel. It’s important to take every step with your eyes open.

The next period in my career is all about taking SPANA’s veterinary programme onwards and upwards. We’re expanding our work into new countries, and I want to make sure that our veterinary services are reaching as many animals as we possibly can.

SPANA accepts qualified vets as volunteers in a number of our in-country clinics.

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