When travelling veterinarian Stephanie Vassar arrives in her truck and takes two suitcases out of her truck, she is not moving in. She is carrying her Universal Myrad 60 digital x-ray machine to x-ray horses’ legs, checking for arthritis and other medical issues of her patients.
“It’s super cool,” she said. When asked how much it cost, she answered, “More than my truck,” a 2013 Toyota 4-Runner. She bought the x-ray machine a month ago for her new business, Great Falls Equine And Veterinary Services based in Gill, MA that she opened at the beginning of March. She travels all over Franklin County, as far east as Phillipston, up to Southern Vermont and as far south as Southampton and South Hadley, treating sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas and smaller backyard cattle herds.
But horses are closest to her heart. She has never owned one, but was exposed to horses growing up in Greenfield, as many of her friends in Franklin County and Western Mass were riders.
When she attended Boston College as an undergraduate, she played ice hockey. Watching her friends and their horses prepare for the show circuits, she observed, “Those horses are athletes and they know what they are doing.” She felt a strong connection with them due to being an athlete herself. She wanted to work in the medical field, but not in an office. Steering toward working with horses as a veterinarian was a logical choice.
She attended University of Pennsylvania for vet school. She completed a year’s internship at Massachusetts Equine Clinic in conjunction with Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, alternating two months in the hospital, two months on the road, culminating with starting her business with wonderful results.
“I definitely picked up last month. Now that snow’s melted, I’m definitely exceeding my expectations in appointments per week.” Horse ownership has always been steady in Western Mass, she said, noting that Dr. Robert Schmitt of South Deerfield Veterinary Clinic and Dr. Frederick Hess of Amherst have been at the helm treating many of them.
“I feel that there’s an opportunity to serve Franklin County,” said Vassar, 28. She has received a very enthusiastic welcome from horse owners. “I’m excited.”
Her workday is full of surprises. Recently she worked with a farm owner, deducting that her sheep had copper deficiency. Symptoms of the two abnormal lambs involved included circling and other neurologic disorders. Another had been stillborn. The concern level is high, as seven more ewes are left to lamb. Copper deficiency is not easy to diagnose. “It is also very rare,” said Vassar, consulting with her. Nor is treatment an easy fix. “Copper toxicosis is a problem,” requiring checking forage, water and blood levels for copper absorption. There could be sulfate in the water preventing absorption, or their forage could be low. There should be no copper added to their sheep feed due to the risk of toxicosis.
“We’re working to fix them, to see if it will affect their quality of life,” as their symptoms have reached a plateau, and there are no others with signs of copper deficiency.
Most exciting so far, she’s waiting for birthing to begin of two pregnant mares, along with their owners, and “keeping fingers crossed that everybody’s healthy.”
As horse owners begin readying for shows, she has been contacted to do lameness exams and performance evaluations. “Every day there’s more and more.”
She brought her Universal Myrad 60 digital x-ray machine along to Rocky Hill Farm, owned by Debbie Shedd in Bernardston, MA to determine if her 17-18 year old horse Gaylen had arthritis. Upon examination, Vassar determined that his arthritis is so severe, she didn’t need to x-ray his leg his forelegs where it was most visible. “Can’t fix it, but can make him comfortable.” Vassar gave shots and drew blood for a Coggins test on a gentle Welch paint cross, Breeze, as he will soon travel to summer pony camp at Touchstone Farm in Temple, NH for kids to ride.
Shedd owns 13 horses altogether, working full time in the Bernardston police department “to support her horse habit.” She chooses gentle mounts to give trail rides and beginner lessons at her farm.
What does Vassar like best? “I enjoy meeting everyone and just being home,” she said, proud to be part of the current transition in the profession, as female vets join the ranks of male vets treating animals, alongside females in other professions who start their own businesses.