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The UK’s newly graduated vets have always been considered some of the best-trained in the world. Likewise, any overseas veterinary surgeons will either have been trained at an approved university or will need to pass exams set by the UK governing body, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), before they can work here.

Academically, veterinary students are among the very highest achievers in the country, but what about their practical training? How are they equipped for the hands-on aspect of working with horses?

The RCVS has a programme of practical clinical requirements a graduate must achieve before becoming a college member (an MRCVS) and a practising vet. This programme, referred to as “day one competence”, is specifically targeted at ensuring new graduate vets provide a “safe” service when they start working.

The universities recognise the need for students to spend time with vets out in practice to undergo additional practical training in animal handling and clinical skills, as well as building experience of dealing with clients and members of the veterinary team. Every student must complete a minimum 26 weeks of these “extra mural studies” (EMS). These supplement the training received on rotations in the universities where, under the supervision of highly qualified specialists, students take responsibility for inpatients and gain vital experience in leading equine hospitals.

A recent initiative has been the development of student externships — a two- to three-week placement at an equine practice, providing dedicated student training in practical skills such as shoe removal, searching the foot for an abscess, routine dentistry, lameness examination, basic nerve blocks, taking X-rays, intravenous sedation and passing a stomach tube.

An externship student may be involved in a clinical audit, where routine procedures are reviewed and protocols adjusted based on results in order to fulfil practice standard requirements for the RCVS. They’d also be expected to accompany the on-call vet attending out-of-hours emergency work and to monitor inpatients with vet and nurse back-up.

While an externship takes up valuable vet time, and therefore has associated costs, it is highly beneficial. Training helps equip final-year students with essential clinical and practical skills to help them pass their exams and to start work appropriately prepared. It can also be of great value to a practice to see these potential future employees in action.

Veterinary students can tailor their experiences towards equine work from an early stage, by selecting equine practices for their EMS placements and by choosing equine-based student elective projects. The Student Equine Veterinary Association (SEVA) is organised by a committee of students interested in equine practice. As part of the SEVA yearly programme, there is an annual conference with extensive lecture and practical streams, featuring speakers from renowned universities and practice clinicians. This initiative adds yet more opportunities for training towards those first days in equine practice.

Expert back-up

So how can newly graduated vets develop expertise in examination, diagnosis and treatment?

In most equine practices, new graduate vets are only allowed out on calls alone once they have demonstrated they are competent, safe and can communicate well with the owner. They may be assigned to more experienced mentors, who supervise their training either in the clinic or on accompanied ambulatory and yard visits.

Throughout these early stages, the practice receptionists will be updated on the types of visit each new vet should be able to attend alone. Once a graduate is deemed able to be part of the out-of-hours service, it is beneficial for the practice to have a formal back-up rota with 24-hour access to the expertise of a more senior vet.

New vets are encouraged to feel comfortable about phoning and sending photos and videos of difficult cases to their seniors. This means that your horse can benefit from the expertise of more experienced clinicians.

It is important that practices introduce new graduates to clients via newsletters, social media and in person. Owners, with their own depth of knowledge, can assist these young professionals to develop in the best way possible by passing on their own experience of their horses’ problems.

The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) contributes to new graduate veterinary training by running practical courses tailored specifically to their needs. The RCVS requires all new graduates from the UK and overseas to complete an ongoing professional development phase (PDP) assessment during early years in practice. This provides a quality control to standardise new graduate development in practice.

Furthering skills

Having students and new vets in the practice can have a positive effect on all staff. They help keep us older vets up to date with modern, state-of-the-art equine medicine, allowing us to use this to benefit our clients’ horses.

The new graduates of today are very keen to learn and to develop into good equine practitioners. Part of that progression can involve studying for further exams, such as the RCVS Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice, which can start as early as one year into practice. They can also sit FEI exams, allowing them to attend as permitted treating vets at FEI events. This is a great veterinary experience, enabling them to understand what competitors are trying to achieve at the highest level.

Many vets may start out working as mixed practitioners to consolidate their skills in all species before moving into equine practice. There are many advantages to taking this route, not least having to withstand the rigours of farm practice — including difficult calvings and lambings. Experience in the small-animal sector, carrying out surgical techniques, can develop further transferable skills that can help create a well-rounded equine practitioner.

Veterinary medicine is a vocation. Equine practice is hard physical work, involving unsociable hours, and can be intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. Rewards extend far beyond the treatment of equine illness, disease and catastrophes, however, with the prospect of immense job satisfaction and of developing lifelong friendships with many clients. Owners can be reassured that these equine vets of the future are well trained and indeed very capable.

Ref Horse & Hound; 14 December 2017