For a veterinarian, time is extremely valuable. Every minute represents a chance to save an equine life—but some horse owners don’t always respect the value of a veterinarian’s time.
I checked my watch as I parked at the unfamiliar arena. I was several minutes early, but figured I’d head inside and find my new client, Jenna, whose horse was having problems jumping. I rounded a corner and entered the arena, almost bumping into a tear-stained rider glumly leading her horse back to his stall.Photo by Peter Titmuss/Shutterstock
“Hello?” I called, seeing a small group of ponies and riders clustered together at the far end. “Is one of you Jenna?”
A girl in her early teens lifted a hand and started to ride over, but a loud voice quickly overrode her.
“We aren’t quite ready for you, so please step out of the arena. I’ll call for you when it’s time!”
I looked around for the voice. A purposeful woman with blonde hair and tight jeans marched up to the group and began a lecture about jumping technique. I slunk out of the arena, and it was a full 15 minutes of talking before the riders began their warm-up. The woman finally walked over to me.
“I’m Eileen Von Fredericks. This is my barn, and you’re here to see Carlito, who isn’t jumping properly. He’s showing a neck problem, so I’ll have you watch the lesson and tell me your thoughts. I mean, you’re the vet, but it’s definitely his neck.”
I blinked. I had scheduled 90 minutes for the call but assumed a good portion of that would be taken up with diagnostics. I hadn’t planned on having to audit a whole lesson or deal with someone who wasn’t the owner.
I introduced myself and started to ask how long the lesson would be.
She started to respond, then shrieked into my face, “Push him forward, Renee! And sit up straight! Angelina, eyes up and heels down! I shouldn’t have to tell you that when you’re riding at this level!”
She marched back to the center of the arena, neatly dismissing me. Two women were standing nearby, eyes glued to the riders who were beginning to jump a series of cross-rails. Eileen barked instructions as the riders sailed past her, occasionally zeroing in on a particular girl.
“More impulsion, Renee! Make a circle and do it again! Earth to Renee! MORE IMPULSION, RENEE!! You’re not a beginner, so shape up if you want to stay in this group!”
Carlito and Jenna crashed clumsily over a jump, and Eileen whirled.
“That was YOUR fault, not his, Jenna! As usual, your approach and timing were off! You’re letting him and me down today!”
As the lesson progressed, I noticed several girls wiping away tears, and I could feel my own chest tightening with anxiety as Eileen continued to rapid-fire orders at the group, who were mostly silent or answering in tiny voices. I needed to examine Carlito, but it didn’t look like it would be any time soon.
When there was a short break, I called to Eileen and asked if I could have Carlito. She ignored me, bellowing, “Jessica, please pick up a canter. No! HALT, Jessica! Do it again!”
One of the women watching the lesson was nodding.
“Jessica is so fortunate to be training with Eileen. She doesn’t take on just anyone.”
Her companion nodded her agreement vigorously, and the two mothers began extolling Eileen’s virtues. Meanwhile, Jessica had dismounted and was sobbing into her horse’s neck.
“There she goes again,” said her mother resignedly. “She’s not going to win the year-end championship with that attitude.”
I sighed sharply and looked at my watch again. It was an hour and 10 minutes into my appointment, and this veterinarian still hadn’t spent any time with or laid a hand on my patient. I waved impatiently at Eileen, who was watching me with a satisfied expression.
Eventually Jenna and Carlito were released, and after a few other tests, I took X-rays of Carlito’s fluid-filled hocks and diagnosed severe arthritis and several bone chips.
Jenna and I were discussing treatment options when Eileen appeared, and I had to repeat everything for her. Show ribbons lined the walls in dusty layers behind her, and I shuddered as I considered what it had cost her embattled riders to win them.
Eileen smiled sweetly.
“Jenna, I told you it was the hocks, and I’m glad that Dr. Diehl agrees with me.”
I gave Eileen a blank look. Jenna was quiet, and Eileen put an arm firmly around her.
“Jenna has struggled with anxiety and speaking up for herself, but I believe in positive reinforcement, and that’s what I teach here. Not every student has what it takes to ride with me. I had to let one go last week.”
Jenna beamed at that and proudly led Carlito off to his stall. Shaking my head, I packed up and headed to my truck.
Eileen followed me out.
“I’ve had to fire some vets over the years. But you seem to know what you’re doing. You can look at some horses for me next week.”
I studied her. Fifteen years previously, her tactic could have worked, and I too might have ignored the red flags and glowed under her praise, feeling superior to the failed vets who preceded me. I too might have gleefully aligned myself with this woman who recognized my talents. After she’d sucked me in, the old me might have endured her constant belittling and narrative rewriting, then lapped up her meager praise, hopeful that I would somehow regain my initial exceptional status with her. The old me would have also become her next ex-vet, bewildered and hurt at my gradual demotion from cherished pet to scorned exile.
Nope. I knew better now. Just like Neo in the Matrix, I was going to dodge this bullet.
I smiled sweetly at her as I pulled out of her driveway for good.
“I’m sorry, Eileen, but I’m not taking on any new barns right now. In fact, I had to let one go last week. But I’ll be sure to let you know if a spot opens up.”
This Vet Adventures column about respecting the time of a veterinarian appeared in the October 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Courtney S. Diehl, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She is the author of Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian and Stories of Eric the Fox, first place winner of the CIPA EVVY award. She is currently working on her third book.
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