An Equine Education
Reflections on the Standing Rock/Cheyenne River 2011 Trip

By Amanda Spector

November 14, 2011

The orientation for the HSVMA-RAVS Standing Rock/Cheyenne River equine clinics took place in an unexpected location: a hotel room at the Prairie Knights Casino near Fort Yates, ND. 17 of us occupied every surface of the room like flies colonizing a horse’s sweaty flank. A presentation was projected on the wall, and we listened intently to our introduction. By the next evening, many of us had become surgeons for the first time in the grassy rodeo arena by the casino, with adrenaline, the sunny big sky, and the shining coats of young stallions making us a little giddy. By the day’s end, our castration teams were beginning to work efficiently and our hands were getting less shaky.

Being a student is a humbling experience with a perpetual feeling of ignorance and incompetence. Students respond to encouraging teachers with high expectations who offer opportunities and constructive criticism to improve their students’ skills. In an equine teaching hospital, the prestige of the institution, the worth of the horses, and the plethora of students, interns, residents, attending clinicians, and expensive equipment may make the first or second year student feel intimidated. Ten veterinary students on the prairie with two vets, an expert anesthetist, other helpful non-veterinary volunteers, and a well-stocked, impeccably organized bus is a package for rapid learning.

Resourcefulness was an integral part of our work. Chairs and a large white container turned on its side made a basic screen for a slide projector in a gym where we held evening rounds. This innovation certainly applied to medicine—Dr. Eric Davis instructed a client how to make splints out of PVC pipe for a foal with contracted tendons, and then he went back to check on the foal during his travels. Plastic syringe cases make perfect containers for alcohol and chlorhexidine scrub-soaked gauze pads as a scrub kit in an equipment caddy. A wool sock is the ideal protection for clean emasculators packed in the surgery toolbox. A plastic five-gallon bucket filled with iodine, water, a magnet and surgery tools and enveloped by a “bucket buddy” of pockets is your surgery stand. This is real life on a budget, in a remote area, and with a little imagination.

Another aspect of the trip ethos is willingness to do something for the first time.

Use a power float to do dental work? Sure, show me how!
Give that injection? Okay, I’ll try.
Talk to the guy over there about his horse’s lameness? You betcha.

Asking questions when necessary, we rose to the occasion and got our feet wet (and often muddy). We were always conscious of Dr. Davis’s reminder that doing a skill once does not mean you have mastered it; lots of practice is required and there is always some way to improve your technique.

Another opportunity to try something new occurred thanks to our wonderful hosts among the Standing Rock Sioux. We were grateful to be invited to a pow-wow in the town of Porcupine, but nobody expected an invitation to participate in the dancing competitions! Several of our group members competed in “Men’s Fancy Shawl,” “Women’s Bustle,” “the Potato Dance,” and “the Cowboy Dance” in a whirling array of colors, with the mesmerizing rhythm of drum songs. Prize money was donated to the Porcupine youth center, which had graciously hosted us for a few nights. We were honored to be involved in such a vibrant cultural event and to be accepted so warmly by our hosts on both reservations.

Perhaps most importantly, we learned to observe carefully and think critically about our experiences. Our two-week excursion was not an isolated journey; it was part of a tradition of veterinary work in underserved areas that has a lot of questions associated with it:

  • Why do we do this work?
  • Does castration help decrease the horse population, or is it more a behavioral issue?
  • How should we deal with the overpopulation of animals on a large scale?
  • What is the impact of our interactions with horse owners and how we handle their animals?
  • Is it appropriate to do this work internationally?
  • Are there equine activities that are inherently cruel, or just practices in every discipline that are abusive, and how can we discourage them?
  • How can we help the economically depressed communities we work in sustain the health of their animals year-round when even health care for humans is not easily affordable?

We tackled questions like these during evening rounds sessions in addition to our questions about equine medicine and surgery. The conversation extended beyond rounds to discussions at dinner, on the road, and during down time. As veterinary students, we are trained to consider not only the needs of the animals we treat but also those of their owners. A complex consideration of our role and our work is essential for the mindful, ethical practice that we all hope to achieve.

Amanda Spector is a third-year veterinary student at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.