Tales from a summer at a racehorse fertility clinic

Learning life lessons from a veterinarian

Renee Sands.
Photo: 

I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian—at least I tried to remind myself that when I shadowed a racehorse fertility vet.

His prize job: preparing a fake female horse—parts and all—for the “collection” time of a male in heat. 

It was a surprise. When I was little, I would tell every grown-up about my dream of being an “animal doctor.” They would react with coos and smiles, because they clearly didn’t yet know that—even as a child—I was a woman of my word. 

I stuck with this career ambition through elementary and high school. While I’ve branched out since coming to Queen’s, it’s always been a dream to pursue veterinary medicine.

A few years ago, I got my chance.

 I was at a family Easter party—a Greek one, to be specific. This means everybody in my immediate and extended family, their families, their neighbours, their high school ex-boyfriends and girlfriends, their dentists, and probably their Uber drivers, were all packed into one backyard.

At some point that day, my uncle introduced me to someone in the crowd—a friend of his who recently moved in down the street. He was a veterinarian and meeting him piqued my childhood interest in animal care. 

I was surprised to learn he was a horse veterinarian. Shortly after, he generously offered to have me shadow him over the summer. That would mean veterinary experience with large animals—something undoubtedly helpful in future vet school applications. 

I warned him that I’d never actually rode or been near horses, other than pony-rides at petting zoos. He assured me riding experience wasn’t necessary; I’d pick things up quickly. I agreed to work for him for the summer.

If a high school English class was analyzing my life, looking for literary devices, my offer to lend this horse vet “a helping hand” would be a prime example of dramatic foreshadowing.

If a high school English class was analyzing my life, looking for literary devices, my offer to lend this horse vet “a helping hand” would be a prime example of dramatic foreshadowing.

After a red-eye train ride and two bus transfers, I found myself shadowing the vet at  7 a.m. on the first weekend of my employment.

Normally, I cherish my weekend sleep-in time. But watching the sunrise as we bumped along country roads and slid down railroad tracks meant I didn’t mind the sleep deprivation. 

The vet and I soon met up, packed up his van, and set out for his office—which turned out to be a sprawling farm in the middle of the country. The property was in such a remote location, you might have missed it while driving if you so much as blinked—though the smell of the horses could give it away.

It wasn’t until this ride to my future farm-office where I was told my assigned duties for the summer. I was to clean stalls, feed the horses and bring them to-and-from stables and paddocks. I would be assisting in laboratory reports and what was initially only described as a “procedure.”

My actual experiences were much wilder than I could’ve guessed.

Over the course of the summer, I found out I’m severely allergic to hay and straw. I consistently wore gloves as long as my whole arm, mixed tubs of lube and smeared it onto said gloves. In one case, I discovered a 1950s racehorse’s $50,000 tube of ejaculate didn’t survive decades of cold storage or the flight overseas from Europe, which we discovered by examining the stationary sperm under a microscope.

My daily activities—there’s only a few listed here—would typically end at 2 a.m. and re-start the next morning at 6 a.m.

However, if our tests predicted that a mare would begin to ovulate at 4 a.m., you can bet the vet and I would be in the barn, shoulder deep in lube at 2 a.m. for an internal ultrasound—just in case she began to ovulate earlier than predicted. 

Our tests were often correct, and the extra hour of consideration would be for nothing. The mare would ovulate at 4 a.m., and we'd be able to complete the insemination procedure.

But sometimes the predictions weren’t accurate.

Best-case scenario for a wrong prediction meant the mare would begin to ovulate at 3 a.m. It’s earlier than predicted, but since we were there early, we’d be able to complete the procedure.

I unfortunately encountered a mare ovulation’s worst-case scenario a few times throughout the summer. The ultrasound we conducted would reveal no signs for hours. 

The vet and I would meander around the barn doing odd jobs, talking as we checked our patients, before re-checking and re-checking again, in hopes of seeing the coveted faint white blobs finally appear on the grainy screen of the ultrasound machine. 

Sometimes the ovulation we so gingerly anticipated simply didn’t happen, meaning our all-nighter was for nothing. 

I slept all the way back home from my first weekend at the farm. I was eager to be reunited with my bed, and to shower the farm grime off my tired and sore body. The vet, on the other hand, spends every day at the barn, with over 30 horses as his company.

I have never come across a more hardworking, dedicated, or passionate individual than this vet. His love for horses was palpable and effervescent in a way that made everyone around him passionate about horses, too.

I have never come across a more hardworking, dedicated, or passionate individual than this vet. His love for horses was palpable and effervescent in a way that made everyone around him passionate about horses, too.

Horse fertility doesn’t pause to accommodate a 9-5 workday. His job is a 24-hour-a-day commitment, which would put even the most intense Wall Street bankers to shame and strike terror into the hearts of labour unions worldwide. 

It’s all in his rigorous work ethic—a testament to how much he truly cares about his occupation. The nature of farm work is difficult in any case, but when you factor in the degree of medical focus that was essential to his duties and his round-the-clock obligation, the work shifts from tough to physically and mentally exhausting. 

Even with all this work, I never heard him complain once. Not about torrential downpour, 40-degree heat, 3 a.m. mornings, or two hour drives for a house call, where he’d explain to somber families in damp, dark barns that our ultrasound now only picked up silence where a heartbeat used to hide. 

The stoicism, positivity, and humility of this veterinarian, despite the volatile work, is a mentality I can only hope to emulate.

No matter what I go on to do in life, I will always carry my time with this vet and the horses. 

And let me tell you, there’s no better way to get a conversation going than talking about being shoulder-deep in lube at work.

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