MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY – Patients of the equine variety represent roughly a third of all the animals seen by Pioneer Veterinary Services.
“From a client standpoint, I would say it’s probably 30 to 40 per cent of our business,” Haley Safnuk, a veterinarian who alongside Hans Reimert co-owns the clinics, told the Albertan.
“We’re seeing about 1,500 patients per year,” said Safnuk. “That’s in one clinic.”
Pioneer has locations in Olds, Sundre and Caroline.
“Our Sundre clinic, we’re a little bit more horse-focused,” she said. “From a numbers standpoint – especially on the equine side – Sundre’s by far the most active one, but we do work collaboratively as a whole.”
The clinic in Olds still sees numerous equine patients, “just not quite as many, comparatively,” she said.
The vast majority are horses, but there are also occasionally donkeys and mules, both of which combined represent approximately 10 per cent of the 1,500 average annual visits, she said.
Among the most common issues the clinic sees from an emergency standpoint is when a horse becomes colic, or suffers gastrointestinal problems, she said.
“Horses in particular, their gastrointestinal system is kind of the weak spot for them, and it’s a very common emergency service that a lot of vets will see,” she elaborated.
Lacerations – or cuts and scrapes – as well as injuries of another nature tend to make up the remaining emergency issues addressed, she said.
But from a wellness perspective, she said the clinics also place “a heavy focus” on preventative care and therefore promote annual exams to for example routinely check an animal’s teeth or vaccine status to avoid or at least catch potential problems early on before they get worse.
“We’re kind of like the family GPs of the animal world,” she said. “It’s our preference to work in proactive mode rather than a reactive mode. But we can’t do that if we don’t see them when they’re healthy.”
Out of the roughly 1,500 patients brought through Sundre’s clinic, she said staff are accustomed to seeing a specific horse usually at least twice a year.
“And typically, our average transaction is about $250 to $270 per animal,” she said, adding, “that’s pretty rough.”
Even at the lower estimate of $250 per visit, a total of 1,500 patients per year amounts to $375,000.
The clinicians can also respond to injuries or traumatic emergencies on-site, although that service represents a much greater operational cost. A standard practice for clinics that work with horses, she said, is to have a portable X-ray system that can be loaded into a truck for transport wherever needed.
“That’s a huge expense,” she said. “It’s also a huge expense just actually having the ambulatory vehicles as well, because there are situations where people cannot haul in their animal to us, and so you need to be able to go to them.”
Diagnostic tools like the portable X-ray machine, which costs roughly $60,000, represent among the most significant expenses involved, she said.
Beyond that, there are also expenses from a medicinal standpoint in terms of antibiotics, vaccines, ointments and other treatments.
“From a business standpoint, the markup from a large animal perspective – horses included – is poor, comparatively,” she said. “So, that is a cost for us.”
However, the cost of meds rather pale when compared with big purchases like diagnostic equipment.
“You usually make that back,” she said about meds. “But the diagnostic tools utilized is a huge cost for a practice.”
Additionally, specialized veterinarians who have studied horses more extensively also offer performance-based appointments. Not unlike having an experienced mechanic check a used car prior to going through with a sale, she said specialized veterinarians provide an insurance exam for prospective buyers who are looking at purchasing a horse.
“People just want to make sure that what they see is what they get; or you know, at least as close to,” she said.
That perhaps comes as no surprise, especially considering the increasing price tag for a steed.
“The cost – like the retail price of horses – has jumped tremendously,” she said, later adding when asked that there has been a roughly 50 per cent increase.
“Finished performance horses are selling for higher,” she said, adding common price tags easily range between $10,000 to $15,000.
Even so, there throughout the pandemic seemed to have been more sales, supporting the Alberta Equestrian Foundation’s assertion that the industry has experienced a growing interest in equine activities.
“Through COVID, we did experience quite a spike in (horse) purchases,” she said.
While the clinic doesn’t actually sell horses per se, it does play a role in facilitating the process when an equine is being brought up from the U.S. and the prospective buyer needs exams done. So, experiencing the increase in purchases is from the perspective of the clinic providing services to more newly-purchased equine patients, she said.
“Our business too – from how many horses we’re seeing every year – is increasing,” she said. “I just can’t speak on if that’s just because we’re seeing more of the already-present horses, or if that means the population is actually increasing as well.”
A few of the vets also offer appointments to help determine what might be hampering a horse’s performance expectations to try and help the animal reach its peak potential, she said.
And although the clinics provide end-of-life services in the form of euthanasia, they tend not to recover a deceased animal’s cadaver, she said.
“If there is not a place to (euthanize) safely on-farm, we will do them in-clinic,” she said, adding, “we work with a (Calgary-based) company that does cremation services and transport services of the body after we’ve euthanized them.”
The cost daily overhead fluctuates a lot with the seasons, but nevertheless represents a significant expense.
“It’s huge in variation,” she said. “But I would probably say that per clinic, we’re sitting at about $1,200 to $1,500 in utilities, including waste management and our security systems and so on.”
There’s of course also the payroll – there are among all of the clinics seven veterinarians overall, as well as numerous receptionists and support staff.
Even with all of those hands on deck, keeping up with the number of calls and requests for service is no easy feat.
“The volume (of calls) is our biggest challenge for sure,” she said.
But even though equines represent about one-third of that volume, Pioneer remains a mixed-animal clinic that strives to provide veterinary service to “everything and anything,” she said.
However, specialized clinics with an exclusive focus on equines are becoming more common, she said.
“In our area in central Alberta, that is something that is growing tremendously, is referral centres for horses,” she said.
The size factor of horses alone represents a potential hazard that makes specialized services that much more important.
“The risk associated to the animal as well as to the person doing equine surgery for example, is so much higher when you have an animal of that size,” she said.
“That’s where the specialty clinics come in handy, because they will do surgeries and they have full-blown surgery suites which include padded rooms for recovery and induction.”
Such facilities require costly ceiling hoists that can lift and move heavy loads weighing roughly 450 to 900-plus kilograms (1,000 to 2,000 pounds) off and on tables, she said.
“It’s an incredible industry, but that’s so far beyond what we can provide at a mixed-animal practice.”