Born and raised in Calgary, Dan French competed on the show jumping circuit for 10 years prior to pursuing a career as a veterinarian. He graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 1983, interned at Littleton Equine Medical Center in Colorado, and completed a surgical residency back at WCVM. Back in Calgary, he practiced at Okotoks Animal Clinic for 25 years before establishing TD Equine Veterinary Group in 2013 with Dr. Suzon Schaal and Dr. Candice Crosby.
Dr. French has been the official FEI Treating Veterinarian for the world’s top athletes at Spruce Meadows for the past 33 years and is board certified in both equine surgery and equine sports medicine and rehabilitation. He also enjoys mentoring and teaching at UCVM as a clinical instructor. When time allows, which is “not as much as I’d like to,” he rides at his family’s stable, Teradan Farms.
What is the most common injury you see in horses in your practice?
With the nature of the sport, we see a lot more catastrophic injuries in the five-star horses: tendon breakdowns, the occasional fracture dislocation. At the lower levels, we will see minor variations of that; tendon ligament strains are probably the most common competition-related injury, whether it’s superficial flexors or suspensory apparatus. Of course, the other side of it is just wear and tear and we try and keep the horses comfortable and performing at the highest levels.
What is your best advice to the amateur horse owner to help a horse stay sound and healthy?
It is hard when people have busy schedules and the challenge is the combination of fitness and an understanding of the importance of nutrition and maintaining their horse’s proper weight. There are so many different products they can choose from, and there is the desire to give your companion animal ‒ dogs, cats and horses ‒ a treat here and there and make sure they have all the latest supplements. We have such quality hay and grain products in Canada, particularly Western Canada, but is the nutrition content for the level of exercise they’re getting appropriate?
The unfit animal that carries more weight than necessary is harder to get in shape and it is harder to prevent injuries. People think ‘he needs more grain because I need him to to have more energy.’ It’s counterproductive; the horses don’t need more energy, and so riders have to tire them out so that they can be suitable hunters, for example. The professionals with the higher-performing athletes use a little more aggressive management. They have the resources, a whole support group, that gets those horses out, walked, and ridden.
We’ll also run into seasonal problems with our lush pastures and then [horse owners] don’t modify the grain and all of a sudden the calorie levels have increased. That’s a key area of the industry that has to be monitored, because like anyone, once the weight’s on, it’s not so easy to get it off.
What is the newest science helping horses remain active longer?
The biologics, the natural joint tendon interventions using process serum samples, autologous serum, that’s probably as exciting as anything out there. It’s relatively expensive, but as far as avoiding some of the chronic effects of steroids, I think a lot of people are quite excited. Probably through my own history is the improvement of advanced imaging. We’ve come so far in understanding more of what’s going on through high-quality ultrasound, the new digital X rays and MRI units give us more information. We certainly get a lot more information to share with clients and help them understand what we’re facing. It is nice to have the diagnostic capabilities to pick up things that are maybe more subtle, or in earlier stages, in the hopes of giving the horse the benefit of time with an earlier diagnosis.
Instead of going back to the clinic, now you can do pretty good job on the farms, where the horses are comfortable, where they present, in a relaxed environment.
What was your trickiest case that had a happy ending?
One case that comes to mind was a Nation’s Cup horse at Spruce Meadows who had a mild colic and had a certain displacement that we were able to correct with some lungeing. He turned around and competed in the Nation’s Cup the next afternoon, and the following big Grand Prix and placed in that. We avoided having him on the table, and cases like that are rewarding.
It is hard on the international side because you are limited; as soon as you commit to medicating the horse, he has to be withdrawn from competition. When these horses fly over at great expense and great effort, you certainly like to see them all compete. There are others that have succumbed to an injury and with some surgical assistance or intervention returned to competition. That’s what you hope for, that you are able to deal with injuries that are related to the sport and hopefully catch them early enough, and with the proper time and treatment the horse can return to competition.
In the next five years, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the horse industry, or more particularly, the veterinary business?
The importance of good relations and communication between clients and veterinarians. Pre-pandemic, I thought society was sort of running on overdrive; then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden there was this return to the basics of valued time with your horse, and people were very appreciative of the fact that we were frontline and still able to care for their animals.
Now, again, people are taking on a lot and their patience and tolerance is limited. It has put a lot of pressure on practices and burns people out. I mean, look at what our medical system has gone through ‒ we’re really in a serious situation.
Can we find the balance between enjoying the horse and appreciating care when it can be given? The world of technology has created this demand for instant response. The last thing that I want to see is our team getting burnt out. They work really hard and provide exceptional service, but you can only go so far and expect so much. If we started losing our good people, our industry will suffer. We need to make sure we can provide a quality of life for our new graduates and associates and make sure they see this as an opportunity for their future.
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