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Equine Surgery & Emergency/Critical Care

A veterinarian with a horse

by Tamara M. Swor, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Surgeons
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care
Iowa State University, College of Veterinary Medicine
Ames, Iowa

Just like many of you, I grew up in love with horses! They were magical, inspirational, and so beautiful! After learning to ride and having my own horse, I also wanted to have a career that involved these majestic creatures. I am one of the lucky ones who was able to combine my love for horses with my interests in science and the medical profession.

After basic undergraduate work in North Dakota, I attended veterinary school at Iowa State University for four years to obtain my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. During that program, I realized that I really loved surgery and all the complexities that go into trying to fix emergency problems in the horse. In order to become a veterinary specialist, one must complete additional training programs after receiving their DVM degree. Training is structured much like that for a human doctor, who does internships and residencies following medical school to become specialized in a specific area.

So, to become an equine surgeon and emergency/critical care specialist, I then completed an additional six years of specialized training in lameness, soft tissue and orthopedic surgery, and emergency/critical care, which I did between the Washington State University and Texas A&M University Colleges of Veterinary Medicine. I spent several years in private practice, in different areas of the country, with the opportunity to work on many different types and breeds of horses.

Horses doing various athletic events get different types of injuries, and I truly learned to appreciate the unique role that each horse has with its rider. The teamwork between the horse and rider is vitally important in preventing injury, regardless of whether you are riding just for pleasure, in a high stakes dressage or show jumping competition, or in speed events.

My career as an equine surgeon has allowed me to work on many types of horse injuries and emergencies. For instance, horses are very prone to getting cuts (lacerations) and wounds from running into things and often require intensive wound care and sutures (stitches or staples to close the wound). Tendon injuries are also quite common in competitive horses due to the repetitive nature of our equine sports. Safe environments and carefully planned training programs can help to decrease the chance of your horse sustaining these types of injuries.

Colic, or abdominal pain, is a quite common medical condition in horses. There are many causes for a horse with colic, but most horses will have typical signs of pawing, rolling, looking at their abdomen, and not passing manure. Most horses have colic episodes that will resolve with minimal treatment such as pain medication and laxatives to move manure along. There are a small percentage of horses that will have a severe case of colic and require surgical intervention. As an equine surgeon, performing colic surgery is like solving a puzzle. You try to identify the cause of the problem and how to fix it.

Common causes of colic include impactions (where something like feed is stuck in a portion of the intestines), displacements (a portion of the intestinal tract is in the wrong place), and torsions (part of the intestinal tract is twisted around). There are many causes of colic that we can fix and that have a good outcome for the horse. Unfortunately, there are also some causes of colic that hold a poor outcome, where the horse will not have a good quality of life, and these problems may not be repairable.

No horse owner wants their horse to have an accident or an emergency surgery, but equine anesthesia and surgery has improved greatly over the last couple of decades, and we are now able to save more horses from injury than ever before. Whether your horse is lame, has signs of colic, or has a laceration from running through a fence, there are excellent equine veterinarians and specialists that are well trained to manage that emergency and assist you in making the best decisions for you and your horse. If you are a person who adores horses, loves science, and enjoys taking care of people and animals in need, a place in the equine veterinary profession may be for you!