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Vet-type advice

From: Conrad

Dear Jessica, I have great respect for you and your wisdom in all matters equine, but something has been puzzling me. You always say that you are not a vet (although you certainly seem to know more than most vets, and I am not just saying this as a layman, because my vet has said the same thing many times) and that people who ask veterinary-type questions should always talk to their vets. But you generally explain a lot of veterinary-type matters. I wonder if you shouldn't just say "I can't answer that because I am not a veterinarian, ask your veterinarian". Don't get me wrong Jessica, I have tons of respect for you, but I wonder just how and where you draw the line when you answer vet-type questions.


Hi Conrad! Thanks for the kind words, and please give my thanks to your veterinarian as well! I certainly do NOT know more than most vets, but it was nice of him to say so. ;-)

That's a good question. I "draw the line" at anything that would put me in the position of stepping on a veterinarian's toes. I don't want to do that. I'm happy to explain terms and concepts, discuss common knowledge and the sort of basic veterinary information that every rider and horse-owner should know, but I can't give specific advice or diagnose or offer a prognosis about any medical question. Those ARE jobs for the veterinarian, and if you're a long-time HORSE-SENSE reader you'll know that I am constantly exhorting readers to discuss matters with their veterinarians.

If someone asks "What's wrong with my horse?" I can't answer that - but if someone says "My horse turns around and bites when I put the saddle on", or "My horse is getting thin and all the food falls out of his mouth when he chews", I can make some suggestions about things to check before talking to the vet, and questions to discuss WITH the vet. It really comes down to helping people make the best use of the time they have with their veterinarians. Horse-owners need to be educated consumers of veterinary services.

All I can do is to try to explain the situation based on what's been described, so that the person asking the question can then go back to his or her vet with more information and more confidence in his/her ability to ask better questions and perhaps understand the answers better as well.

As you no doubt know, if you've been reading the HORSE-SENSE archives, not all veterinarians are wonderful communicators. Some veterinarians - including some very good veterinarians - are simply much more at ease with their equine patients than they are with the human owners of their patients. Some veterinarians, like some doctors, mechanics, computer experts, or medical/technical specialists of any kind, talk in jargon or a sort of medical "shorthand" that allows them to communicate clearly and quickly with one another, but is much less effective when they are dealing with "civilians".

If you've ever asked your mechanic a question about your car and found the answer utterly incomprehensible, you know how much of a communication breakdown there can be when the expert mistakenly assumes that the other person has the same background, level of understanding, and vocabulary. On occasion, I've had to pat my own mechanic on the arm and say "Hello, non-engine-savvy person here, remember? Talk slowly, use small words, keep things at my level! Car make noise. Noise bad? Noise dangerous? Noise expensive?"

And I'm lucky, because I have a very nice mechanic, and it doesn't bother me to have to remind him that he's light-years ahead of me in all matters automotive, and needs to talk to me as though I had just seen a car engine for the very first time.

There are a good many riders and horse-owners who feel uncomfortable and intimidated when speaking to a veterinarian. Some will say "Yes, yes, I see" when they don't have any idea what the veterinarian is talking about, because they are concerned about seeming stupid, or because they are worried about wasting the veterinarian's time. Others are eager to get more information, but don't know how to word their questions - or can't quite figure out which questions they most want to ask. Some can't think well when they're caught up in the moment - they think of their questions afterwards. And most good equine veterinarians are unable to hang around the barn and chat at length with the owners of their patients - even if some of them have the inclination to do so, they simply don't have the time.

I'd say that what I do is not to give "vet-type advice", but rather to offer some basic information and explanation of the terms and concepts used by the vet. In other words, I don't make the diagnosis, but if I can help a concerned horse owner make a list of questions to ask the vet, or explain what the vet's answers meant, I'm more than happy to do that.

A good understanding of equine anatomy, physiology, psychology, nature, management, and training is important for the total, all-around horseman. The more any rider or horse-owner knows about horses, the better off that person's horses will be, and - in my experience, at least - the happier that person's veterinarian will be. Good veterinarians LIKE to have educated, aware, observant clients. ;-)

My own academic background is in the history of science, specifically in the history of medicine, and the study of both human and equine medicine is a deep and abiding interest of mine. I also believe that true horsemanship means that each horse-owner has a personal and perpetual responsibility to continue to learn everything possible about horses. No matter how much you know, there's always much more to learn. Every horseman should be involved in the active acquisition of knowledge, whether that knowledge comes from personal experience, formal education, courses, seminars, conferences, books, videos, or Internet resources. The study of horses and horsemanship requires at least one full lifetime, and I rather think that it may require several lifetimes... the best we can do is to learn as much as we can, and apply it as wisely as we can, in the time we have. I'm constantly learning, and I enjoy helping others who are on the same path, but information and suggestions are all I can offer. Providing "vet-like advice" in terms of diagnosis and prescription is something I don't do, won't do, can't do, and have no desire to do - which is precisely why I am constantly saying "Discuss this with your vet", and also why I put so much effort into helping horse-owners communicate better with their veterinarians.

Thank you for this very interesting question, Conrad. You made me think, and I like that. ;-) I hope the answer tells you what you wanted to know.


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