My Return to Horseback Riding

By Paige Roth

I am the classic tale of the little girl who has ridden horses since she was five years old. In high school, my time at the barn took up a substantial but delightful chunk of time out of my social life and taught me the canonical lessons mother’s often use to justify exorbitant spending on their daughter’s school-night hobby. But at 18, when I signed my college acceptance letter for an out-of-state school, riding taught me the biggest adult lesson yet – how to give it up. I sold my beautiful dutch warmblood, who I trained from a gangly 5-year-old who trampled the stable-hands his first day of the truck, to a mature, well-mannered event horse, donated my riding gear and wondered how I would ever fill the gaps in my schedule.

For four years in undergrad, I committed myself to the “real college experience,” which in my case meant extra library time, and only rode horses occasionally summers. But when I got to grad school and finally had a reliable paycheck, I decided I was going to do the first less-than-fiscally responsible thing I’d ever done – get back into horses. And it was the best decision ever.

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I joined my school’s equestrian team and started taking weekly lessons at a hunter jumper barn. An eventer by training, I was a fish out of water, and my inner leg strength was an embarrassment. Even though I’m an avid runner, nothing can keep you in riding shape except hours in the saddle.

Because my high school horse schedule generally consisted of me hacking around after school with minimal supervision, a strict lesson schedule worked wonders for my progress and confidence. Though I missed having my own horse, riding a different lesson horse each week– and I was lucky to be at a barn with at least twenty wonderfully schooled horses to choose from – made me an adaptable and thoughtful rider.

It took about six months of lessons for me to really start to feel like my old self. Old habits reared their ugly head – leaning too far to the right, getting to relaxed about my deep heels – but I had uncovered this important part of myself to keep me grounded as I navigated the most tumultuous transition of my young adult life.

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I am now planning to lease, and ultimately buy my own horse, and have been offered a position teaching beginner riding lessons part time. I even have my first show this weekend (expect a post). And though I will never buy clothes unless they’re on sale and manically monitor my savings account, this has been the best investment for making me feel like a complete person again – instead of a corporate robot or beleaguered grad student.

As for vet school? My hours at the barn are always the thing that keep me motivated to sign up for harder classes, find my volunteer opportunities, and stay the course. Because every time I drive home from the barn, I can’t wait for the day I’m making a similar drive home from work.

A Pre-vet Student’s Trip to the Vet

By Paige Roth

I love going to the vet. As a dog owner, I tend to be a bit of a hypochondriac because I love guessing what the diagnosis will be, the tests they’ll run, the treatment and preventative plans, and dreaming up the questions I’ll ask. But on Tuesday, I had a real reason to go to the vet and the trip was an important lesson.

My miniature schnauzer Katie – light of my life and keeper of my soul – was just recovering from bladder-stone-removal surgery when I rescued her 9 months ago. She came from a high-needs shelter where wonderful vets, the vets I one day hope to be, perform life-saving operations on animals that would otherwise be abandoned and euthanized. Since then, she has been on a special urinary diet designed to keep more stones from forming.

But over the past few weeks my boyfriend and I noticed she would urinate, and then keep trying to pee, but nothing would come out. She asked to go out more frequently and could barely walk around our apartment complex without sitting down for a break. We knew the signs and took her to see a new vet, hoping we had caught the stones early. Maybe they would give us some medication to break up the stones and adjust her diet.

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Sad about surgery in the morning

After an ultrasound, an x-ray, and urinalysis, it was clear that she had a giant bladder stone and needed surgery as soon as possible. During the first visit our vet was great about walking us through the diagnosis and explaining the urgency of the surgery – we didn’t take much convincing. She scheduled the surgery, suggested it wasn’t a big deal and sent us on our way before we could ask many more questions.

That night my boyfriend – also a scientist, son of a doctor and a pharmacist, and brother of a medical student – and I sat down to research the surgery. We researched the mineral composition of her stone and which urine pHs were most conducive to their precipitation. Most clinics performed the procedure laparoscopically, if the stone could not be removed with a catheter. This meant minimal recovery time and often a same-day pick up.

But when we got to the clinic at 7 the next morning, we were met by an assistant, not the vet. She told us the surgery would involved at least a 3-inch incision and likely overnight monitoring. No one was there to answer our questions about how the surgery would be performed – little things like how much anesthesia was required, what type of sutures they would use, where the incision would be made, or possible complications we might anticipate. From my nervous research I learned that bladders can rupture during the surgery and leave stones scattered throughout the body cavity – how comforting.

While I realize we may have wanted more information than the average bear (and might not be satisfied unless we were peering over the surgeon’s shoulder during the operation), I felt something I hate feeling – uninformed. I felt nervous, unsure of what to expect, and a little angry. I thought the $1500 bill would be the most consuming, but I didn’t care at all. I hated feeling like I didn’t understand what was happening or worse – that the vet didn’t think it was worth telling me the more complicated or scary details. As I sat in the car crying after dropping my dog off for surgery, I realized the root of my sadness was knowing I hadn’t been an effective advocate for my animals because I wasn’t in possession of all the facts.

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Recovering beautifully (a weight loss program is next on the agenda).

In hindsight, the surgery was a great success.

Though the vet removed an oreo-sized stone from my dog’s bladder and she recovered beautifully, the experience taught me what kind of vet I want to be. Though I hope to be a killer surgeon and patient advocate, I also hope I never forget how important it is to thoroughly explain the treatment details to owners who will worry unnecessarily.

Even if the information is complicated, I hope I take the time to communicate it as simply as possible and as many times as it takes for the owners to understand.

And even though not-knowing gnawed away at me for two days, I can still say I love my trips to the vet and my passion for animal medicine has only been reaffirmed.

Clinical Experience

By Paige Roth

The successful veterinary applicant has over 2,000 hours of quality “hands-on” experience in the veterinary field (according to UC Davis). But where do all these hours come from?!

“Hands-on” veterinary experience is one of the main things standing between me and a viable veterinary application, so I have dedicated a post to mapping out a realistic path to get these hours.

Like many pre-vet students, I have buckets of hours of normal animal experience – and vet schools will have you know that owning a pet does not qualify. I have had horses for most of my life, done Pony Club and 4-H, taught riding lessons and fostered dogs. But clinical experience was hard to come by.

First of all, most vet clinics aren’t looking to employ an eager pre-vet student who has no hands-on experience. I interviewed for several vet assistant positions at small-animal clinics, thinking the staff would be willing to train me, but when they realized my main animal experience was with horses and that I had never actually set a catheter or taken a cat’s blood pressure, they were less than enthused. Ultimately, I was offered a position as a kennel assistant (read: poop scooper and occasional dog walker) that paid less than $8 an hour. Disheartened and in need of some semblance of financial security, I passed.

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Basically, like many things on the road to vet school, you have to climb a certain ladder to even be eligible for relevant “hands-on” experience. Generally this means work as a kennel assistant, then a vet assistant, then a tech. While I know some people get lucky and have a friend or neighborhood vet who enthusiastically takes them under their wing, shows them the ropes and makes sure they check the boxes to certification, I am under no such wing.

So, here is my game plan for getting clinical experience:

  1. Volunteer – Because I am a full time employee and student, I can’t take a low paying kennel assistant position to gain experience and keep a roof over my head. Instead, I decided to volunteer with the Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services Veterinary Public Health group as a kennel assistant. I feel better about voluntarily performing menial tasks to help rescue animals, rather than having a clinic lord an $8 pay check over me while I bleach their floors. I can keep my pride, work flexible hours and make important steps toward a real clinic. There are lots of great sites to help place volunteers with organizations that interest them. I found my opportunity here and they responded to me the same day.
  2. Online Veterinary Assistant Certification – Most clinics want someone with a credential, or at least working toward one. I was discouraged to see that most vet assistant programs take almost a year in the classroom, and technician programs take closer to two years. That’s basically the equivalent of becoming a nurse before you become a doctor. No can do. While I’m volunteering and keeping up my grad program, I enrolled for about $700 to work toward my veterinary certification online with this program. At first I was skeptical of an online certification, but after some LinkedIn stalking, it looks like their students land where they say they are and I’m willing to give it a shot.
  3. Teaching Riding Lessons – Though this is not clinical experience, I found a way to keep up my animal hours, make some money and make connections with large animal vets (the veterinary specialty I’m most interested in). If you can find a way to involve yourself with the local animal community, I think it will help keep your spirits up and remind you why you want to do this in the first place.

I should mention that I am planning to apply in the summer of 2017. That means I have a full summer and school year to get these preliminary credentials, and ideally hope to work as a vet tech during the year I’m anxiously awaiting interviews and admissions decisions.

Stay tuned for more thorough posts about the online program, teaching lessons and how I like my first few days of volunteering!