Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping


The Vet-Check: Dr Dan French

(Photo: Spruce Meadows Media) (Photo: Spruce Meadows Media)

What is your role at CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’?

I first came on board after doing some postgrad work in 1988 and have been the resident veterinarian ever since. I work across the many tournaments hosted here, including the ‘Masters’, and throughout the busy summer season, taking care of the 900 horses we get on the grounds over that six-week period. As for my current job, the FEI define my role at Spruce Meadows as being the Veterinary Service Manager. It’s an oversight role working with the organising committee, helping to coordinate the visiting delegates and veterinary commission to ensure that the facility, surgical backup, and the treating areas are all ready for the tournaments. I basically work as the oversight veterinarian for the treatment side of things, rather than the commission.

Have you worked on any other international equestrian events?

Earlier in my career I was invited to the World Cup Jumping Final in Las Vegas, as part of the treating team. That was during an era when the World Cup Final was taking place in Las Vegas every second year, and I went down as part of the veterinary team on a number of occasions. Aside from that, I haven't worked as an official at any other international events – my focus has primarily been on Spruce Meadows.

How important is nutrition for a horse’s wellbeing?

Nutrition is just one part of the equation. Horses are amazing in what they can metabolise, so as long as we maintain a nice, consistent diet they should be fine. Rather than complicated nutrition, I think the hardest thing international horses face is the change of diet as they travel from event to event. When they're going from venue to venue, trying to maintain consistent nutrition or feed source can be difficult. When you look at our international horses arriving by planes, enduring long transport times, you can find that there is an adjustment period and some of our toughest cases have been through a lack of adaptation to the new feed source. For example, Alberta is known for high quality grains and roughage, compared to Europe where there is really good forage, so the European horses can sometimes have trouble adapting to that. Current government requirements mean that we have to dump all European horse’s grain and bring them onto a brand-new feeding regime once they arrive in our care. This all takes place over a very concentrated period of time, maybe 10 days at most, so it can be a big adjustment for them and one that we have to tread carefully. Our main aim is always to get them on board without creating abdominal disruption. Over those first few days we always cross our fingers, because if there is some abdominal discomfort we are really limited as to what we can treat them with. The FEI holds us to very high requirements and, while they will never deny treatment for the horses, we have to make sure we don’t interfere with performance later on in the competition.

Why did you decide to become an equine vet? Did anyone inspire you?

I started as a competitor in the junior ranks at Spruce Meadows when it first started, and it was one of the key reasons I became a veterinarian. Watching the facility and the quality of horses unfold really helped me target my career. My aspiration was to look after the quality of horses that were starting to come to Spruce Meadows and to see the facility develop from a ‘cattle feed lot’, as Ron [Southern] used to refer to it, to its current world class status. This journey has been an amazing part of my career.  As for mentors, I've had some great teachers, including some wonderful horsemen and founding trainers here at Spruce Meadows. I’ve also been able to work with a few local vets who were looking after the horses at Spruce Meadows in the early days, who were quite inspirational. Additionally, I’ve met many wonderful mentors and peers during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Colorado and Fort Collins.

What career achievement(s) are you most proud of?

I would say that my two board specialisation degrees, in surgery and sports medicine, would be the academic pinnacles of my career. I enjoyed the preparation for both of those. The modern, athletic horse has progressed so far and are treated like finely tuned Ferrari cars. To be able to work with them at the top of the sport, where it is so demanding, has been great and it’s all due to those two specialisations.

What do you enjoy most about being an equine vet?

While other may say their favourite part of the job is seeing horses compete at the top of their ability, the thing I have enjoyed the most through my career has been cultivating the relationship between clients and their horses. Being able to resolve illness, lameness, etc., and allow the client to resume their relationship with their horse gives me the most pleasure.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become an equine vet?

Mentorship. I think the single most important thing is to spend time with established practitioners to develop an understanding of the industry. Of course, the love of the horse is the foundation of being an equine vet, but I think you need to spend time with people that are passionate about the profession to fully understand it. It is so important to also develop an understanding of the demands of the business. Horses are companions, and when we have catastrophic injuries in the ring it takes a huge emotional toll that is hard to comprehend unless you experience it first-hand. At the end of the day, these aren’t cars that you can take down to the automotive shop, they are precious animals in our care who have a huge impact on their owners’ lives – and I think this can only be fully understood through good mentorship.

What is a typical day for you like?

When I first started my career my schedule was very different; full of regular calls and referral surgeries, as well as tournaments. Now it is a little more structured, primarily focusing on mentoring and directing the practice. I'm an early riser, normally starting at 04.30, and I like to get most of my administrative work done early in the day, as well as my exercise. I normally have my workout and admin done by the time I head out the door at 07.30/08.00. As the owner of our current practice, my first job is to touch base with the teams, do the rounds on cases and see how the day sets up. At the moment we have all hands-on deck for the summer season; coordinating teams, treatments, our ringside responsibilities, and work with the veterinary delegates from respective tournaments. Every year, when busy season rolls along, we have to go on autopilot because the days are so full for everyone, so I have to be able to juggle back and forth and always give the job my undivided attention.

What do you like to do away from work?

My back's bothering me a little bit now, but I still play golf, tennis, hockey, badminton, and ski in the winter. I like to have a full range of recreational activities, as I think it's important for my fitness and health. For example, playing four hours of golf offers a real mental break, if I can turn my phone off!. If I can find some time to play a few holes during a tournament, it feels like I’ve had a full weekend off and gives me a chance to reset. That change of mental focus is really important to me, so I’m lucky to have a great spectrum of activities to enjoy.

Tell us a little bit about your team…

The ‘Masters’ is a step down in terms of the number of horses, but a step up in the quality – so we have both permanent and temporary staff involved annually. Every year we need to have at least three support staff and three veterinarians cover the ring responsibilities, as well as another team that maintains the practice. What we normally find during the ‘Masters’ is less individual medical cases, but the ones that come through are of greater importance – so it’s vital to have a selection of skilled individuals that can make hard decisions.

When you retire, what legacy would you like to leave in equestrianism?

I think my legacy probably aligns with the legacy of Spruce Meadows, in that the inception of Spruce Meadows was to provide training and bring our local population of riders to international status. When you look at the success at the Beijing Olympics, it’s clear we achieved the original goal, and it feels special to have been a part of the journey. Ron Southern would say “it's a very unlikely sport in an unlikely part of the world”, and it is a very rewarding feeling to have played a small role in the success of Spruce Meadows.

The welfare of the horse underpins what the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping stands for; how do you ensure this is upheld and veterinary standards are constantly improving?

Fundamentally, we always have to remind ourselves that these are treasured animals in our care. While we can push them to a certain degree, we can't lose sight of the fact that they aren't machines. We can’t ask them, “How are you feeling today? Would you like a day off?”, so we must be empathetic. No athlete can be expected to work on a year-round basis, so it’s important that we don’t just keep adding more and more tournaments and have the horses compete non-stop. They need a break. These horses are in our care, and it is vital we don’t forget that.

In your opinion, what more can be, and should be, done to improve the welfare of the horse?

As mentioned in my last answer, we just need to be mindful of the demands we’re placing on them and ensure that they're not treated as a disposable commodity. A horse can only withstand so many jumps and so much pressure, but it is impossible to legislate that. As long as we maintain good quality people that understand the horses, and owners that respect what trainers say, their welfare should be in good hands. The key is good communication at all levels, with the riders, trainers and even grooms not being afraid to voice concerns.

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