Republic of Poland

Dr Sue Dyson: – My equestrian background helps me treat horses

27 February 2018

You were a competitor so, as it’s easy to guess, first came sports and then the choice of becoming a veterinary medicine physician. How much did your experience in sports influence your choice? What things did doing sports teach you that you use in your scientific research?

I was a rider from a young age and also played many sports. I was lucky that I was interested in many academic subjects and was reasonably capable. I for many years really had no idea what I wanted to do as a career and it was only in my last year at high school that I decided that I wanted to be an equine veterinary surgeon. I was adamant that I was going to do equine veterinary medicine, although I had little concept of what this involved and had no idea that at that time there were very few women in the profession.

I watched a lot of good riders and had the good fortune to acquire some young horses that became world class performers. I therefore had the opportunity to really understand how a clinically normal horse should move. I also learnt a lot about training methods and horse psychology. I learnt how to approach difficult horses. I had the good fortune to work with some good trainers and dealers so had a very broad background in various peoples’ approaches to managing horses. I learnt to think for myself, to observe and make my own decisions based on taking things from different people’s knowledge. I learnt how to problem solve and to try different techniques with different horses to find out what worked. I attended a variety of conventions in order to be able to learn from a variety of people. Inquisitiveness, wanting to know why and wanting to improve were all driving elements, all of which I think are still used in my current work.

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Do your equestrian skills allow you to be better at examining horses?

I am absolutely sure that my equestrian background has been highly instrumental in enabling me to examine horses better. I think that I have a very real awareness of what a normal horse looks like and how it behaves. Unless you really know what is normal it is difficult to determine when things are slightly abnormal. The ability to ride horses as well as observe horses has given me a particular insight. Having ridden many clinical patients after observing them, and then observing them again I have become a much better observer relating what I felt when I was riding. I also think that my background with horses enables me to deal with difficult horses on the ground and despite being a small woman being able to cope with the vast majority, albeit working with some trained technicians.

You’re excellent at diagnosing subtle and complicated cases of lameness. It is because of all the years of experience or is the experience supported by intuition and the understanding of animals?

I think I am pretty much a self-taught lameness diagnostician and there is no doubt that my equine background gave me a running start, but it is also down to experience, with constant observation, learning to see patterns, recognising that certain ways of moving and behaviour were synonymous with underlying musculoskeletal pain. I believe that you need to look, see and think and as I said before, it is essential to know what is normal and what is normal for each type of horse. I do believe that a fairly in-depth knowledge of different types of sports horses is invaluable. I also think that it is really important to listen to what owners say. Their observations about their horses and how they have changed in their way of moving and in their behaviour is invaluable.

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What contributes to horses having bad sports results?

There are many potential causes of poor performance, most of which are pain induced. The pain may be induced by the tack, the rider or underlying musculoskeletal pain. Rarely there are underlying medical problems such as respiratory dysfunction or gastric ulcer syndrome. Performance will also relate to the horse’s innate natural ability. If the horse is competing well within its athletic capabilities it is more likely to be able to cope with low grade underlying problems compared with a horse which is being constantly stretched to the maximum of its athletic capability.

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Do you still do horse riding, for your own pleasure? How many horses do you have?

I no longer own any horses. However I still do ride other people’s horses. I also have been on a number of riding safaris in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya which have been wonderful opportunities. I was very fortunate as a rider to have some world class horses and to compete at a high level within Britain. This required a major time juggling act between work and riding to the expense of virtually all other activities.

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Who were your masters in sports and in veterinary medicine?

I worked for Sheila Wilcox who was the first woman to ride internationally in eventing and from whom I learnt an enormous amount. My eventing hero as a young person was Richard Walker who won Badminton for the first time aged 18. My childhood hero in show jumping was David Broome who was a maestro. With respect to my veterinary career my first teacher of equine orthopaedics was John Hickman, a pioneer in his field at the time. After graduation I was fortunate enough to work in the United States and here there were a number of inspirational people from whom I learnt. These included Dr Dan Marks, Dr Ron Genovese and Dr Charles Raker. They were all brilliant observers of horses and thinking and questioning people who were hugely influential. I also have to include my 3 superstar horses, McGinty, Kinvarra and Otterburn who taught me so much and who raised my profile as a competitor which was really helpful as a young equine female veterinarian.