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Equine vets face greater risk of injury than race car drivers. To mitigate those risks, they must avoid complacency, follow proactive safety procedures, and know when to walk away from a situation. By Shane Conroy
Working with horses is a dangerous business. Research suggests that horses present a higher risk of injury
than motorsports. And while most horse-related injuries are reported in recreational settings, equine veterinarians are not immune from this risk.
According to a Health Risks of Australian Veterinarians (HRVA) survey of 2800 veterinarians, of the 2188 who reported serious injuries, being kicked or struck by a horse accounted for 79 per cent of those injuries associated with horses.
Dr Michael Lucas is an occupational physician at NextHealth in Perth, and the co-author of a research paper that examined the findings of the HRVA survey. He found that complacency may be a factor in the high incidence of horse-related injuries.
“Vets who do quite a lot of work with horses clearly became more confident in their ability to predict what horses are going to do,” he says. “That degree of confidence seemed to influence whether there were safety practices in place.”
Dr Chris Richards, managing director of Apiam Animal Health, says safety has improved as more veterinarians take a species-specific approach.
“Safety is certainly an issue, and possibly more so if you are only going out to see a horse occasionally,” he says. “However, most vets who work with horses are well trained when it comes to knowing the risks and following the right safety procedures.”
Dr Richards also points out that the dangers extend beyond physical injury. The Hendra virus can be passed from horses to humans, and Dr Richards says unvaccinated horses are also a risk to vets.
“We’ve created our own equine vaccination and biosecurity movement database with some of our major clients in the feedlot industry, so our vets can check whether the horse has been vaccinated before going out to treat it,” he says. “If the horse hasn’t been vaccinated, our vets understand the risk and put appropriate measures in place.”
That approach is being supported by the company’s ‘safe to speak up’ culture, explains Renee Waters, general manager, People at Apiam Animal Health.
“In addition to investing in safety equipment and providing training in how to handle animals, we want our people to feel confident they can make the call to walk away from any environment that’s not safe.”
The real risks of the job
Dr David Ahern from Scenic Rim Veterinary Service agrees that sometimes the best approach is to walk away. Dr Ahern built the business from a one-vet practice in 2003 into one of the largest equine services in Queensland today. The practice operates out of a purpose-built equine surgery centre set on 20 acres in Beaudesert.
Dr Ahern is painfully aware of the risks involved in treating horses. He has seen a friend’s veterinary career ended by a horse-related head injury, and one of his clients was tragically killed by a horse.
“There are real risks. It’s an ever-present danger. If you’re complacent, even briefly, you can pay the price,” he says. “A horse’s reflex action can often be dangerous, and equine vets must try to mitigate that as much as they can.
“You need to make sure you’re supportive of your staff’s desire to use the adequate sedatives or restraints in the right situations,” he says. “And sometimes the situation can’t be adequately controlled so you need to walk away and come back to it at a later stage with a different plan.”
But Dr Ahern says being a valued part of his local community outweighs the risks of the job.
“As a veterinarian, you form strong relationships and you often get considered as a friend or even part of your clients’ families,” he says. “It’s satisfying to play that role in your community.”
Safety comes first
Dr Victoria McIver is also mindful of the risks involved in working with horses. She says most of the equine vets she knows have suffered a major injury at some point in their careers.
“For the most part it has generally been kicks, but there’s also risks of biting and being physically squashed,” she says. “I’ve had a broken finger, but have been really lucky so far.”
Dr McIver is a senior equine vet at Gippsland Equine Hospital in country Victoria. After graduating from Charles Sturt University in 2014, she took up an opportunity to work in a sheikh-owned Middle Eastern horse stud.
“We had about 600 horses and an international team of vets,” she says. “It was quite daunting as a young vet, but a phenomenal experience.”
Dr McIver then took up posts at the University of Adelaide and the University of Sydney, before returning to Gippsland as a specialised surgeon.
She says her team is proactive when it comes to protecting themselves from the risks inherent in working with horses.
“If we’re working with stallions, we’ll often wear a safety vest and helmet. And if the situation is difficult, we’ll have a good handler there,” she says. “I have a nurse who is an experienced handler. She’ll position the horse safely and might hold the horse with a stallion chain or a bit in their mouth so I can safely examine the horse.”
Dr McIver says vets still need to be willing to walk away from the situation if it’s called for, but she values the positives of the job.
“Working with the horses is a joy, and being in a job where you spend a lot of time outside in the fresh air is wonderful.”