Dr. Justin High poses with a Nicaraguan man.

Health Matters: The Relationship

Just as you would expect, there are some dramatic differences between the horse industry in Texas and what I see on my veterinary mission trips to Central America.

Using your own powers of observation, barring any judgement, you can appreciate the discrepancy in education, opportunity and equipment without me pointing anything out. As a whole, I can think back on my years traveling there and categorize those things through the lens of time. 

What did I expect versus what did I see? Reality is the great leveler in the world we sometimes create with our imagination. While we may not be the biggest fans of reality, it is one of our greatest teachers for good. 

The first two years I went to Nicaragua didn’t seem too far off of how I felt my first two years out of vet school. Even though I had been in equine practice for close to 20 years by that time, I still struggled with overcoming the preexisting conditions and misconceptions they had of horse vets. Granted, they had good reason to think as such, because their previous bad experiences with visiting small animal vets trying to do their best with horses resulted in some less- than-ideal outcomes.

To add insult to injury, many local “horse vets” lacked the correct knowledge, equipment or moral compass to make an accurate diagnosis, and then follow through with the appropriate treatment.

That situation relegated me to procedural work — giving vaccinations or vitamins, deworming and basically anything else I could do because I had it and they didn’t. To be sure, lots and lots of good work was done, and lasting relationships were built in that time, but the tide did not turn. 

I think it was the third year I went when they realized I wasn’t going away. So, whether I was the best option or the only option, I slowly began to overcome their reservations, stereotypes and fears. I remember one young girl in particular that did more for me than anyone else. I couldn’t convince any of the old men to float their horses’ teeth. 

Science, logic and pleading got me nothing. But the girl with the most and best-looking horses agreed to let me take care of hers. You cannot imagine how much prayer, precision and detail went into floating those horses’ teeth! It was like I was floating Smart Little Lena himself. 

The fourth year went by and I returned to the same region to find things considerably different this time around. The days we work in the jungle villages or small towns are scheduled months ahead of time. Communication down there is not as effortless as it is here, so people know and plan far in advance for what is coming. 

By this point, the folks either knew me or at least knew of me. What I found was the tide had turned. I turned the corner in my missionary vet practice because now people weren’t just bringing me the procedural things to do. 

Yes, I still did anything to any horse they brought, but now people brought me their problem horses — the ones with things no one else was able to fix or explain to them. I even worked on a few horses owned by the “vets” from neighboring villages. History overcame fear. Willingness to change and improve outweighed the cultural or historical traditions that once limited progress. 

Economics, culture, tradition, ignorance or whatever else aside, it is the relationship you have with your veterinarian that matters most when it comes to the success you will have in caring for your horse.

Trust, history, effort, willingness to learn and change, and commitment to your goals are what cement a relationship with your vet. Horses may be your children. They may be your livelihood. In either instance, you want what is best for them, and what validates and affirms your commitment to them. 

You seek out some veterinarians because of reputation or a particular expertise. If, however, they do not focus and empathize with your situation, you will use them for no more than is specifically necessary and required. In that sense, the folks I get to work with in Central America are really no different than the good folks I see every day in Weatherford, Texas. 

Being truly dependent on a horse to feed your family or because they are your family adds a layer of complexity to the relationship everyone must take to heart as we make our best decisions. But never forget Proverbs 21:31 — “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” 

This Health Matters column was published in the March 1 issue of Quarter Horse News. To purchase this issue, click here.