Lots of horse lovers consider becoming vets at some point, but have you ever wondered what it is like to be an equine surgeon? We talk to top equine surgeon Neil Townsend about the path he took to his career.
Neil Townsend, is a vet (equine surgeon) specialising in equine soft tissue surgery. He has a varied surgical case load, carrying out colic, reproductive, respiratory and dental surgery. Neil has a RCVS certificate in Equine Surgery, and is part-way to achieving a European Diploma in Veterinary Surgery – one of the highest qualifications possible in the field.
Neil recently completed a three year post-graduate clinical training programme in equine soft tissue surgery at the University of Edinburgh. This clinical training programme was funded by equine charity, The Horse Trust. Having finished this programme, he started work in January as a surgeon at the Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital in Neston, Merseyside.
I used to ride a lot when I was younger and love spending time with horses. Right from the start I knew I wanted to treat horses, so combined my veterinary degree with a BSc in Equine Science.
I decided to specialise in soft tissue surgery as I love the variety of the work. One day I might be operating on an emergency colic case, while the next I might be operating to remove an ovarian tumour. Getting The Horse Trust scholarship was fantastic – it would have been very difficult for me to specialise in this area without their support.
I was working at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Veterinary Centre. I spent about two thirds of my time on clinical work, including teaching undergraduate veterinary students, and spent the other third on research.
I initially assisted with surgical operations, progressing to doing surgery under supervision and then leading operations. I carried out a variety of operations including abdominal, reproductive, respiratory, dental and sinus surgery. l also carried out some orthopaedic operations. My clinical work was combined with teaching students, which I really enjoyed.
Research was also an important part of The Horse Trust scholarship programme. My main research interests were around dental disease, for example, I carried out research to investigate the long-term consequences of horses having teeth taken out.
I start work at 8am and do the clinical rounds with a senior clinician. After we have discussed the cases, I spend time dealing with individual cases and teaching students.
The rest of the day depends on what outpatients are coming in. On a busy day, I might do two or three operations in a day.
At the Easter Bush Veterinary Centre we often got a few hours notice that an emergency colic case was coming in as it could took a few hours for the horse to be transported there from the surrounding area. Once the horse arrived, I had to make a decision straight away about whether it needed surgery. If it did, then we would try to get the horse into theatre within 45 minutes.
I normally finish my clinical work at 5pm and then spend time contacting owners and vets to keep them up-to-date on their horse’s progress.
At Easter Bush we worked on-call one day in every five. Even though on-calls are tiring, I really enjoy the challenge of being responsible for all the cases that come in.
The best part of the job is knowing that you are making a difference to some very sick horses. The worst is knowing that you can’t save every horse and having to break the news to owners. I try not get attached to horses, as that makes it harder.
My main goal for the future is to obtain a diploma from the European College of Veterinary Surgeons. I have completed the practical and research element of the diploma and am due to take the exams next year. After that, I hope to take the diploma in equine soft tissue surgery from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).
You need a veterinary degree and some experience in a practice that treats horses. You will then need to apply for a residency as an equine soft tissue surgeon.
As a surgeon, you need to be able to make decisions quickly and think on your feet. You also need to have really good communication skills as you have to explain the surgery and its potential risks to owners. You also have to be able to break bad news to owners, which isn’t easy.