There have been a number of practices in the North Yorkshire area that have decided to stop providing services for both equines and farm animals recently, leaving some horse owners wondering ‘where are all of the equine vets‘? Gemma Dransfield, Clinical Director at the Minster Equine Veterinary Practice and member of the British Equine Veterinary Association clinical practice and careers committee explains some of the reasons behind the current shortage of vets in the UK.

It’s a Sunday evening and I finally sit down after a busy weekend of working. I had my routine stud rounds in the mornings followed by racecourse work in the afternoons. This is a usual weekend for me at this time of year, which often follows weeks of routine equine work without a day off in-between.

As I sat down to take my usual scroll through social media, I noted a post on a group from a very concerned yard owner who was looking for a new equine veterinary practice to register with. Their recent long-standing practice had notified them that they were no longer providing equine veterinary services. This prompted a debate between owners discussing several other practices in our area that were no longer servicing equine patients either. It prompted the question by many; why are vets no longer providing care for horses?

The answer is simple: there are not enough vets!

Judging by the amount of interaction on this post, it is obvious that many horse owners are not aware of the difficulties the vet industry is facing. I therefore thought it was an excellent opportunity to explain to owners why vets are leaving the profession, and as a result why it is so important to look after your vet once you have found a good one!

The veterinary industry has been struggling to recruit and retain vets within clinical practice for many years. This was initially seen in farm animal and equine practice but has now reached the small animal sector. Applicants to vet school remain high, however the drop-out rate remains a real problem. The RCVS workforce summit in 2021 showed that the number of vets joining the UK-Practising register had fallen substantially since 2019, from 1180 to 269. One of the main reasons for this fall is that there are less EU vets working in the UK since Brexit. The same summit also revealed that 2021 saw a considerable number of vets leaving the profession that were very experienced (with 10+ year’s experience). This coupled with the increased animal ownership throughout Covid-19 has led to a shortage of vets overall.

We cannot just blame recent events that have led to a shortage of horse vets. Over the last 10 years most of the vets leaving the profession have done so in their first 5-6 years of qualifying. The main reasons are poor work-life balance, not feeling valued, chronic stress and being fed up with working long or unsocial hours (The Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons survey).

I am grateful to be part of the team at Minster Equine Veterinary Practice. We are a caring and conscientious team of vets who are extremely passionate about high clinical standards. I have a diary booked up with some of the best clients in Yorkshire; many of which have become great friends who keep me sane through the stressful times. They also keep me regularly topped up with tea and biscuits! Some vets however are not as lucky. Many feel like they are not valued as we are repeatedly told that we are ‘expensive’ and ‘just out to make money’. We accept that our bills are expensive. We are often trying to ensure that we diagnose and treat a horse as effectively as possible within affordable financial constraints. Medical costs are expensive because of the time it has taken for us to train and keep up to date with new advances in veterinary medicine, the equipment we use and the drugs we prescribe. These are all taken out of the bill you pay and it does not leave large amounts in the back pocket of the veterinary surgeon. Financial gain is the least likely reason that I became a vet – with the qualifications I hold I could earn a lot more money elsewhere, but I would not get the same job satisfaction every day that I do from working with our clients and their horses.

A BEVA survey in 2018 showed that work hours are the main thing that vets would change about their job. On average equine vets work a 50 hour week and 88.5% equine vets do their own out of hours. This can often mean that there is little time to take a break. Many of us love what we do and are not scared of hard work. On the contrary, we have been working to get to this point since we were 16 years old.

The overall veterinary shortage means that many practices are struggling to recruit experienced equine veterinary surgeons. This means many practices would rather not provide a service at all if they cannot provide one to an excellent standard; the result is that they don’t provide equine veterinary services any more.

I genuinely worry about the profession that I have been part of for 17 years. However, I strongly believe that our clients can help us solve the problem if they understand the problem we are all faced with. If we don’t make changes and solve the long term issues and expectations of veterinary surgeons, there will be impacts to our patients health and welfare and also wider implications within public health and international trade. My advice is that if you have a vet that you like and trust; look after them, because at the moment they can be very hard to come by.