Straight from the horse vet’s mouth – working as an equine vet

Malcolm Morley equine vet

I come from a family of doctors but I decided in my early teens that I would like to be a vet. It’s a radical departure in my family where I remain the only one not to pursue a career in human medicine. 

My first introduction to the equine vet world was a day of work experience with a horse vet in Newmarket and although I didn’t know much about horses then, it proved to be an inspiration that I’ve continued to follow. Although it helps to have ridden and spent time with horses, it definitely isn’t essential.

There are many different roles within the equine vet world. Many, like me, are ‘ambulatory’ GP (general practitioner) vets – we typically work out of a pickup or 4x4 and visit our patients rather than them coming to us. We don’t usually have the help of a vet nurse and often take lots of equipment with us, including x-ray machines, ultrasound scanners and endoscopes. We have to be independent, organised and enjoy a day ‘on the road’ travelling between calls.

Most of our days are well planned but sometimes we have to divert to emergencies along the way, so we never really know what is going to happen until each day is done. Although I work on my own, I am part of a practice with other vets and we support each other a lot. Smartphones have made a big difference as they help us share cases with videos and discussion even though we might be at opposite ends of the county.

Many GP equine vets have some form of special interest with stud work (breeding), sports medicine and dentistry being common. My main interest is pre-purchase examination or ‘vetting’, which is when I examine a horse and help someone decide whether it’s a suitable purchase for them.

Horse being trotted up

Other horse vets work in hospitals and specialise in areas such as orthopaedics, surgery or medicine. They tend to be sent cases by GP vets who want a specialist opinion for a horse they are treating. These horse vets have all their equipment on site and are usually assisted by vet nurses, so it is a very different working environment.

Also in the hospitals are interns or junior vets who care for inpatients, assist with procedures, take x-rays and often give anaesthetics. This is a great way for them to start a career as a horse vet after finishing university because it allows them to learn from the experienced vets they work with without having to take full responsibility for all decisions and treatment. This is the most common route into equine practice for newly qualified vets.

'You have to be independent, organised and enjoy a day on the road travelling between calls'

Being an equine vet is incredibly varied. We treat horses that are kept just for hacking and leisure riding as well as those that compete in a wide range of equestrian sports, from racing and polo to dressage and jumping. It can be challenging caring for an animal that must be an athlete, as any lameness may stop it from competing or impact on its performance. We spend a lot of our time treating lame horses.

Most of our patients mean a huge amount to their owners and are like pets even if they are athletes as well. It is very satisfying to treat animals that mean so much to their owners. You have to enjoy working with people and be a good communicator.

I love being an equine vet for the wide variety of cases I see and all the people I get to meet. I also really enjoy working with support from the wide range of specialists that I talk with and share cases with on a daily basis. Getting to work with horses is a great aspect of the job too. The biggest downside is probably covering emergencies out-of-hours but I am lucky enough to share a rota with five other vets so it’s not too onerous. 

It can be difficult to find work experience with equine vets and a personal contact can make all the difference. If you are interested in spending a day shadowing an equine vet, it’s worth asking other vets for a good contact, or asking the vet who visits your stables.

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