Equine Tech: The Work Never Gets Old
From sunup to sundown, Malorie Kemmerer is fully devoted to her calling as an equine veterinarian technician.
As far as careers go, things fell into place early for Malorie Kemmerer. She had “Sun” to thank for that. Sun was an Arabian mare, Malorie was a kid with a passion for horse riding, and the two struck up an immediate friendship when Kemmerer leased, trained, and then eventually owned the horse. “She was the best horse I have ever known, and I have her to thank for teaching me to love horses, not just riding,” Kemmerer said.
Kemmerer knew since around middle school that she wanted to work in the veterinary field. She comes from a family of animal lovers. Her dad worked his way through high school and college on dairy farms and then went on to become a dairy nutritionist. He would eventually start his own business as a dairy/ag consultant and supplier. Kemmerer herself loved being around and caring for animals, and the idea of helping to rehabilitate the sick or injured was very exciting to her. Her older sister was a volunteer nurse assistant in high school and went on to become an R.N. “I always found her stories from the hospital fascinating,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do something similar, but my passion was for animals.”
Dr. Beverly Purswell, a veterinarian, professor and family friend, encouraged Kemmerer to consider tech school. So, she entered the vet tech program at Blue Ridge Community College the year after she graduated from high school.
When Kemmerer started the vet tech program in Weyers Cave, Virginia, she also began working for Alisa and Jason Berry, the owners of a (then) small hunter training barn. “They are both great horse people. Coming from a primarily Arabian background, I had a lot to learn about the rest of the horse industry. I am thankful for all that they taught me, and my time spent working under them.”
Dr. Tabby Moore frequented their farm to provide veterinary care and was the one who encouraged Kemmerer to pursue the equine track. Kemmerer completed her 600-hour “externship” at Blue Ridge Equine Clinic (BREC). It was a jam-packed summer of equine veterinary work, and she loved every bit of it. “I quickly began to see that this is what I wanted to do for a career,” she said. “I am so glad I did. I love my job, and I feel lucky to be able to say that. I still love it, even after 15 years.”
A lot to love
Kemmerer can rattle off a myriad of things she enjoys about the work of an equine veterinary technician, the first being the horses themselves. “They are so big and athletic, yet so gentle and smart,” she said. “They usually have the demeanor of a well-trained dog, but being around them all the time, you see their natural herd behaviors and instincts in everything they do, and it’s just really cool. They are rarely aggressive, they are incredibly tough, they aren’t needy, and they never complain.” Kemmerer also enjoys the outside nature of the work. “The job keeps me strong, and my horse-handling skills sharp.”
There are a variety of skills to hone and tasks to complete as an equine vet tech. Kemmerer’s primary duties include anesthesia, treatments, surgical prep and assisting, imaging, triage, lab work, organizing treatment plans, handling and restraint, and assisting with appointments and exams. “I get to go from running anesthesia in the O.R., to going out on a farm call, to looking at blood smears in the lab,” she said. “I think the technician rotation at BREC is one of the things that has kept me so satisfied with this job. Just when I’m reaching the point where I’m ready to decompress from two weeks of anesthesia, I’m switching to the barn to cuddle with cute babies and clean wounds.”
BREC serves clients in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. It is also a referral hospital that will often get patients from several hours away. BREC is located in a beautiful spot of the country, nestled right in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, “and the view never gets old,” Kemmerer said.
As the name implies, BREC takes care of equids, including donkeys, mules, minis, and even zebras. Dr. Reynolds Cowles established the hospital 44 years ago, “and when he does something, he does it right,” said Kemmerer. He recruited experienced veterinarians and created a team that can cover all aspects of equine care and medicine, including surgery, medicine, reproduction, preventative care, sports medicine, advanced imaging, emergency care, and ambulatory services.
Dr. Steve Trostle, DVM, ACVS, ACVSMR performs most of the surgeries. Examples include arthroscopies, wound repairs, splint surgeries, colic surgeries, laparoscopies (cryptorchids), fasciotomies, enucleations, hoof resections, dental extractions, mass removals, tiebacks, bladder surgeries, laser surgeries, sinus flaps, and fracture repair/stabilizations. He handles other tricky procedures such as controlled vaginal deliveries, and severe choke resolutions. BREC takes in Colitis cases, medical colics, and FUOs, among other medical mysteries, Kemmerer said. They also provide advanced imaging services (bone scan, MRI, endoscopy).
“Another part of BREC that I have to brag about is I have the best co-workers,” Kemmerer said. “Some of us have worked together for a really long time, and a few have joined the team more recently. Nice coworkers make a great team, and a great team provides great patient care.” Anne Merritt, LVT, spends 40-plus hours a week alongside Kemmerer, and the two have remained friends. “We have to communicate really well with each other and with Dr. Trostle, and we have to pick up patients where the other leaves off without any disruption to their care.”
Kemmerer said she is thankful for the BREC team. Treating a horse that is going downhill and then pulls through is an incredible feeling for all involved. “Everyone pitches in, the assistants we have are on the ball, and they take care of the horses like their own,” Kemmerer said. “Dana Kline (front desk/office support) keeps everyone coordinated, organized, and fed, and answers all the phone calls. Sandy Whorley (front desk/office support) never says anything mean to anyone, ever, at all. Sabino DeDios (facilities manager) fixes everything we break and keeps the barn and property looking so nice. The doctors are all wonderful, even when they are exhausted and hangry and covered in mud.”
A week in the life
The practice sees anywhere from 15 to 30 clients a day, which equates to around 20 to 40 horses a day. Winter tends to be a little slower for elective procedures and services, “but emergencies don’t care what time of year it is, so the emergency caseload stays pretty steady,” she said. In the hospital the BREC team typically does one to two scheduled surgeries or procedures every weekday and admits one to five emergencies into the hospital every week. The barn is rarely empty. They usually have a handful of horses hospitalized and sometimes one or two in the isolation barn. BREC logged a little over 200 surgeries in the hospital last year, and Kemmerer anesthetized around 95 horses.
Kemmerer works primarily in the hospital, although occasionally helps on farm calls. In the hospital, she rotates every two weeks from surgery to barn. When she’s in surgery, she handles the anesthesia (or sedation if a standing surgery), and also techs the room (instrumenting, setting up surgical equipment, running around to grab things that are needed, intra-op imaging, etc.).
Equine anesthesia is a little bit tricky, she said, and isn’t something to take lightly. “You have to be super careful to do everything you can to set the horse up for a smooth recovery.” Kemmerer has learned that anesthesia is a constant learning process. Even when you do everything right, unexpected things may happen. “I enjoy the challenge, and I try to focus on always getting better. Even when I’m frustrated that something didn’t go well with anesthesia, there is usually a lesson to be learned, and something I will know to do better or differently next time.” Kemmerer said it’s a pretty good feeling when a horse presents with a life-threatening surgical emergency and three hours later it’s back in the barn feeling 80% better and on the mend. “They would have died without the surgery, and the surgery isn’t possible without the anesthesia, so it is a really rewarding team effort.”
When there aren’t surgeries scheduled, Kemmerer helps with office appointments and procedures (lameness exams, gastroscopies, bone scans, neuro exams). When she rotates to the barn, her day consists of doing treatments on all the hospitalized patients (usually every two to four hours depending on how critical they are). Typical treatments are giving meds, placing IV catheters, IV fluids, bandaging, physical exams, husbandry, passing NG tubes, hand grazing (her favorite), prepping patients for surgery, triaging emergencies, running lab work, discharging patients, and setting up for incoming horses. Among all those responsibilities are the typical duties in any hospital: recordkeeping, invoices, emailing results, equipment maintenance, cleaning, and stocking. Kemmerer is on call for emergencies one to two nights a week and one to two weekends a month, so she will help take in any emergencies and/or run anesthesia if they wind up needing surgery.
Kemmerer’s skillset fits in best with caring for sick and critical patients. She and the other technicians can be the eyes and ears for the veterinarians. When the veterinarians are focused on the puzzle, the diagnosis, the surgery, the plan of action, discussing the options with the owners, or even have had to move on to another patient, the techs stay with the critical horses and closely monitor and care for them, reporting any changes, big or small. “After doing this for 15 years, we pick up on little clues quickly, and minutes and hours can have a huge impact on prognosis in certain cases.”
Another way equine vet techs complement veterinarians is by predicting what they will need in an emergency situation and having things ready so that they can work as efficiently as possible, so the horse can remain as calm and comfortable as possible. The BREC veterinarians put a lot of trust in the technicians, leaving most of the technical jobs and nursing care to the techs, while they focus on the more advanced clinical parts that they have spent years learning and practicing. “I work for some really good vets,” Kemmerer said. “They are highly experienced, devoted, and skilled. They want every one of their patients to do well, and they will go to all ends to ensure that.”
The veterinarians also respect their technicians’ thoughts, ideas, and input on cases, and in return share a lot of their knowledge and reasoning with them. “We round in the barn every morning to talk about cases both in the hospital and in the field. It’s one of my favorite things about BREC, when the whole team comes together and shares ideas.”
Maintaining a healthy workforce
Being an equine veterinary technician in today’s field is not without its challenges. Unfortunately, there are fewer people getting involved with horses, and a lot of people are “getting out” of horses. Fewer kids are learning to ride or even know what a farm looks like. This is being reflected in the students coming out of tech school. “You used to have probably 25% of a graduating class that were horse people or had farm/large animal background,” Kemmerer said. “Now those numbers have dwindled to probably 10% or less. It is also the same for veterinarians; it is harder and harder to find equine vets, because the majority of them are going to small animal.”
Sadly, the fewer equine veterinarians and techs there are to share the workload, the more it burns out the ones who remain. Kemmerer tries to encourage anyone who even has an inkling of interest to take the plunge and go to a barn, take a lesson, sign up for a guided trail ride, or watch a rodeo, polo match, or steeplechase race. “Ask a neighbor who has some old horses if you could come over and groom them,” she said. “Volunteer at any of the awesome horse rescues. Foster a horse if you have an unused field! Horses are so much fun, and they deserve to be here and stay here. You can’t pick a better hobby or pastime, and you won’t regret it.”
She also encourages anyone who is passionate about horses to stay in the industry. “Get your kids into horses, get your friends into horses,” she said. “And don’t rule out a career in the equine veterinary field. We welcome anyone who has the desire to learn about horses to come work with us!”