Veterinarians work long hours at Washington International Horse Show

Robert Barber and Stephen Soule are veterinarians who oversee the health care of some of the most talented athletes in the equine world. This week at the Washington International Horse Show, Barber and Soule will also treat the venue’s most vulnerable: horse owners.

“I say this over and over again that one of the blessings and curses of being a vet is that 90 percent of success is how you interact with clients,” said Soule, 63. “The 10 percent is your knowledge.” Soule said his job description includes “hand holder and sympathizer.”

Soule grew up in the Washington area playing polo and fox hunting. He graduated from Whitman High before he graduated from veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania.

His practice is based in Wellington, Fla., and he travels much of the year to see clients at different horse shows. Last year, Soule spent 136 days on the road.

The most difficult aspect of his job, Soule said, were the hours.


A horse is washed down at the loading dock of the Verizon Center while participating in the 2011 Washington International Horse Show. (Mark Wilson/Getty images)

This week, the veterinarians arrive every morning at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until the last horse leaves the show ring, often departing Verizon Center after 10:30 p.m.

Their first priority is the care and treatment of the show’s more than 500 horses. This year has been quiet, Soule and Barber said, with no major injuries reported.

Barber, 61, a 1979 graduate of the University of Tennessee veterinary school, said he decided to become a veterinarian despite it being last on his list of career choices. “Accountant and attorney were at the top,” Barber said. “At the bottom, was veterinarian. That was in the ninth grade, and I never wavered after that.”

Barber said he’d seen two cases of eye problems. Earlier in the week, Barber visited one horse who got wood shavings — the absorbent lining of the stalls — in its eye. The other case was a client who had received a black eye in a mugging.

Soule, who has been an attending veterinarian at the Washington International Horse Show since 1976, recalled one night several years ago when he was paged for an emergency.

He sped to the scene to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor tightly holding an “accessory dog,” Soule said. Gabor was near hysterics over her pet’s severely irritated condition.

Although Soule’s speciality is large animals, he quickly realized the dog was suffering from an infestation of fleas. The dog will survive, Soule told Gabor, referring the actress to a local small animal veterinarian.

Soule said he prefers working for horse show clients. Earlier in his career, he worked at racetracks where trainers treated their thoroughbred barns like muscle factories, Soule said.

At horse shows, “it’s more rewarding on an interpersonal basis,” Soule said of his clients, who include younger riders. “For them, it’s more about taking care of the individual horse.”

Note: Todd Minikus won the $20,000 Gambler’s Choice jumper class on Thursday night. For the event, each jump was worth a given number of points and riders had to make up their own course to achieve the highest score. The class also required each rider to wear a costume. Dressed as Uncle Sam, Minikus won the $6,000 top prize riding his horse Sweetheart.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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