Vocation Beats Vacation for the Ultimate Horsemen's Vet

Robert Hunt | Hagyard photo


According to one of his longstanding clients, Arthur Hancock, Dr. Robert Hunt may be only the third best veterinarian in Kentucky. So who are his two rivals? “Dr. Green,” Hancock replies. “And Dr. Time.” Besides these complementary therapies of grazing and rest, however, he is adamant that an ailing Thoroughbred could have no better helper in the Bluegrass than the Hagyard surgeon: a byword for dedication, integrity and horsemanship.

Determinedly self-effacing as he is, Hunt readily acknowledges that Hancock's two other “doctors” have contributed much to his own work. In fact, he suspects that clients would identify his trademark (“if anything”) as a determination to avoid crisis surgery wherever possible.

“I've saved way more horses by not operating than by trying to be a hero,” Hunt says. “Just by staying out of the way, based on a lot of experience in making bad decisions.”

At the same time, his passion nonetheless remains emergency work: colics, dystocias, traumas. This is when he deals with a living creature at its most vulnerable and it's also when he remembers the response of an early mentor, in veterinary school, when asked why he did farm animal practice.

“This,” he told Hunt, “is the one thing I can do that's going to help a guy put bread on his table.”

“And I've always taken that with me,” Hunt says. “Especially with the emergencies where you have an animal that's going to die, but if you do the right intervention, it's going to live and stay in production. That's always been a very impactful, meaningful part of my job. Especially the dystocias, where somebody has well over a year's investment and you have a matter of minutes to make the difference. If everything works out, you may have a million-dollar commodity at the end. But we also need to recognize early, hard as it is, if this is not going to be a viable individual and you need to cut your losses now.”

But even when the stakes aren't quite so awful, the engagement is perennial. Hunt invokes another mentor, from his first experience of practice out in California. When filling a vacancy, Charlie Bowles would ask the interviewee whether he or she were here for a job.

“Yes, Dr. Bowles, a job.”

Hearing that, he'd immediately ask the candidate to leave. Then, as they got to their feet in confusion, he would add: “If you want a career, a profession, I'll give you that. But if you're just here for a job, go to a factory somewhere.”

For Hunt, as for so many horsemen, life and work are seamless. That may mean that he never stops working–but it also means he never stops living.

“Because you dedicate your life to what you're doing, that becomes your whole personality,” he says. “I know that won't ever be a life goal for some people. And we do have a huge problem with recruitment of young veterinarians. That whole work-life balance issue is in play, people are pressing for a four-day week. But that just appalls me. Because if I'm on an operating table, having a serious procedure done, I don't want someone that plays golf half the week. I want somebody that looks like me: gray hair, worn out, and does like 5,000 of them a year. Billy Strings didn't get good playing guitar four days a week.”

But that very analogy introduces the paradox that Hunt, while fanatically immersed in his vocation, also has an unusually wide hinterland. If his focus is out of the ordinary, then so is his perspective–from farrier to pilot, musician to trainer.

“I'm a very distracted person!” he admits. “I have a little hobby farm, raise horses, cattle. Work is my biggest passion, and everybody's always fussed at me about how much I put into it. But having always had these other distractions, I've never experienced burnout.”

And, actually, one of the things that keeps him fresh is precisely those young proteges he wants to infect with the same sense of vocation: whether Hagyard interns, or the Flying Start students he addresses every year.

“Boy, there's nothing more rewarding than just seeing that bulb come on,” he says. “And you know they're hooked. 'Yeah,' you say, 'Got this one.' And from my own point of view, they probably help to prevent burnout as well. I love hanging around young people. They're energetic, their minds are bright, they want to learn.”

Few among them, however, will have as many sanctuaries from the pressures of their calling. He's always played the guitar, for instance. Americana and country music, garage bands, college bands, and he's still doing party gigs. The pilot's license? He got that back in California, flew for a few years until deciding he wasn't really being careful enough (“scared myself a few times, my passengers probably more”). Nowadays he makes do with the exhilarations available on terra firma with a motorbike.

First and foremost, however, Hunt remains ever a horseman. The bond was forged very young, showing in rural Georgia in the early 1960s.

“My mom was passionate about horses, and my older brother's a trainer, so it's definitely in the blood,” he recalls. “He and I were both farriers from quite a young age. I've always dabbled with racehorses. I had good friends that would take them for me, and was then lucky enough to be an assistant trainer under my brother, so for quite a long time rode on the track every morning before surgery.”

He still puts in a lot of saddle miles on the farm. And that's why Hunt is the horseman's vet: because he has always been one himself.

“I wanted to be frontline, saddling horses in the paddock, just experiencing everything,” he explains. “And that's a reason I still shoe horses, too. If I'm going to be talking the talk, I better walk the walk.”

The coalface was where he always learned best and he even paid his way through the University of Georgia by farrier work and breaking horses. He wanted to know the animal inside out. He has always loved physiology (cardiovascular his graduate specialism) and biomechanics and, with his background, naturally podiatry too.

“But the one thing you learn is that whatever you're working on, a foot or any other part of the horse, you can't separate from the whole,” he says. “You always need the 'global' picture, and every application is a little different depending on the horse, and the client.”

Coady Photography

So has that grasp of functionality given an extra dimension to his aesthetic admiration?

“I hope so,” he says. “If anything, I'm probably not critical enough. Evaluating sale horses, say, I tend to be a little bit too much of an optimist. I see all the upside.”

Not a typical sales vet, then!

“I think we should recognize the good qualities in a horse and then see if there are any holes,” he replies. “But you're just defining potential risk, things that are unpredictable. There are very few black-and-whites. It doesn't mean that he can't be a Grade I horse.”

Hunt will, moreover, be rather more forgiving of imperfections in the elite models–because those won't stoop to be troubled by trifles.

“There are probably six or eight radiographic things that I consider 'unforgivable' no matter how good a yearling is,” he admits. “But these little lumps and bumps, these incongruities or blemishes? I just don't get excited about those. Of course, you might have to wear different hats for different buyers. Some people just won't have anything to do with a horse once they've heard any kind of negative. Others, some of the trainers especially, are more willing to take a swing.”

After his stint in California, Hunt had returned to Georgia to work on faculty when invited to Lexington to meet Dr. Paul Thorpe at Hagyard.

“They were looking for a surgeon and it took about five minutes to know what I was going to do,” Hunt recalls. “He was the most like-minded guy, already doing a lot of the things I had ideas about. But the biggest thing was just his philosophy, which was very much that of a food animal practitioner. He knew how to keep things simple, not to cause complications. And he was a true pioneer.”

Often, presumably, innovation happens only because there's no alternative but an experimental gamble?

“Exactly,” Hunt replies. “If you're looking at a situation where an animal's not going to survive, you really don't have anything to lose–so long as you're not going to create extra suffering. It's worked many times, and it's extremely fulfilling when it does.”

Many of his own breakthroughs Hunt modestly ascribes not to extraordinary perception, but to sheer exposure.

“Just the numbers, the traffic that we'd see, you recognize deficits and where things need to be improved,” he explains. “Some of the techniques we'd use on colics, abdominal surgeries, dystocias, you do enough of them, you'll figure out ways to reduce your complications. We were able to design more efficient techniques for some of the limb corrective procedures. We did a lot of the first standing fracture repair. And I have a passion for imaging, so I had the first nuclear scintigraphy–a gamma camera–in this area, back in the early '90s. And then we brought in digital radiography as well. We don't have to mention that we were a little slow on some of the other things! But those got us off the blocks pretty well.”

In terms of surgery, Dr. Robert Copelan furnished Hunt with “the most influential 15 minutes of my entire life” during a lecture in 1982. “He drove it home that if you got one shot, it better be perfect,” Hunt recalls. “With these high-intensity athletes, you don't get it right the first time, you may as well not show up.”

In striving to meet those standards, Hunt has penetrated deep into the mystery of how physiology relates to performance, maybe even to competitive spirit. So is the elite Thoroughbred also superior in adversity or is there no real pattern?

“Totally different species,” Hunt says flatly. “Your Breeders' Cup horse, that's a whole different animal. Yes, even as a patient.”

But not always in a good way, it seems.

“By far the worst animals you want to do a colic surgery on,” Hunt remarks. “Whether it's catecholamine levels or just their immune response, they're just geared so tight, wound so tight… The heart's so in tune, it's ready to stop any second under anesthesia. We hand recover everything on a big thick mat, and their flight instinct is wide open, so you're going to have your best people with them.”

Hunt also reckons these superior athletes the most vulnerable to injury.

“Because they don't tell you when they're hurting like regular horses,” Hunt explains. “They have the same number of injuries, but we have to watch them so close because they're not going to tell you something's wrong. You have to dig deeper on them. They can have a little stress fracture somewhere that could propagate into something more serious. That's where the advanced imaging comes in. They're all going to light up changes on a PET or nuclear scintigraphic scan. It's then our duty to figure out if something is going to become structurally unstable, and place the horse at risk.”

Hunt is well aware of the high stakes for the industry, monitoring this stuff, and anticipates a strengthening of vigilance, whether in screening or track surfaces.

“I hate all the negative publicity,” he admits. “Most of our track [maintenance] people are phenomenal. One injury is still one too many. But when you look at the raw numbers, 1.5 or even 1.8 per thousand starts, that's still an infinitesimally small number. I think what really needs to come out is the attrition rate on horses that didn't make the track. There's no published data. What if a trainer has 300 horses enter their program, and only 20 of them surface? We really need to fine comb some of that stuff.”

He also recognizes that some vets have been complicit in the reputational damage caused by pharmacist-trainers.

“Medication is beneficial, used appropriately,” he says. “But I mean, as far as injecting joints, things like that? My horses just won't run.”

He says that much of it is simply due diligence. If a horse betrays some kind of pain, maybe a gait discrepancy, you must be confident that nothing is structurally awry. But medication remains important in keeping a horse in balance.


“If you're training hard, doesn't matter if you're human or horse or dog, there's not an athlete in the world that doesn't have a sprain, a minor injury, something where he needs an aspirin or whatever to stay balanced,” he emphasizes. “And that's where horses can get in trouble. Nothing else on earth runs 40mph supporting 1,200lbs on a structure the same diameter as our legs. And I think maybe the pendulum has come back too far. If we allow them to run imbalanced, we're not really taking care of them. These are high-speed, high-intensity situations.

“If not necessarily with the naked eye, then riding, you can tell when a horse just isn't right. They're vibrating, moving a little rougher. And those horses are prone to further injury, usually in another leg. When everything comes apart, they're protecting themselves and suffer an overload. Recognizing those, it's a challenge. But my own philosophy is, just take care of them. No race in the world is worth the life of a horse.”

Quality being drawn to quality, Hunt's clients themselves dependably show the best of our industry. In turn, that has secured him privileged access to greatness in the breed. Arrogate, for instance, from his youth at Clearsky right through his track career. Empire Maker was another cherished Juddmonte customer, not least because of Hunt's familiarity with his dam Toussaud as “one of the most fun horses you could ever communicate with.” Equine character of that kind has always been a lock to which Hunt has enjoyed seeking a key.

“I love the quirky stuff,” he enthuses. “Because once you get inside their head and figure out what they're trying to say, it's very rewarding. But it's just another spin on the game. I hate a lot of pressure on horses. The way I grew up, you just learned to be a cowboy and they were forced into everything they did. You manhandled the horse and basically overpowered them. Around here there are so many good horsemen that know better than that. They truly communicate with their animals, and the horses tell them how much pressure they need to get a job done.”

Even going to scope a horse at the sales, Hunt will notice and enjoy a horse's rapport with exceptional people. Whereas if he sees someone trying to bully a horse, “that's when I'm going to get bumped in the head!” Every horse has a lethal weapon on each corner, and that's why you want your vet to be a horseman. In a confined space, mutual trust is priceless.

“Usually, when I've gotten hurt, it's my own fault,” Hunt says, raising a hand. “This finger is broken and it's sort of my fault, but it's my dog's fault too! Just wrong place, wrong time, not calculating it right. There are very few times as a veterinarian that you should feel in jeopardy. You just evaluate the situation, decide who's dangerous. These really tough mares come in for a reproductive surgery, you touch them and they start double barreling. But we have tons of medications for those situations. Scoping, same thing. Some of them just get the wrong person on the head.”

Toussaud at Juddmonte Farms, 2003 | Horsephotos

Skilled and delicate as the role is, it also calls for great stamina: mental, physical, emotional. Hence the imperative for unflagging vocational engagement. If Hunt never backs off, never switches off, that's because the magic abides even through the bitterest hours. It all comes down to a horseman and a horse.

“Just doing the right thing by them, trying to keep them out of harm's way,” Hunt says with a shrug. “I've loved the latitude to be innovative, when needed, whether in surgery or some of our treatments, some of the training techniques. And then the people I've been able to work around, not just my mentors, but the clients as well. I've learned so much from them.”

Hunt is well known for making more farm visits than most. He's been going to some for 30 years–including some of the real superpowers, but also others whose boardrooms are a kitchen table–learning human and equine traits through the generations.

“I'd love it if all I had to do was walk in the surgery room every day and not drive 200 miles,” he says. “As it is, I get three days in there and usually three days on the road, sometimes four. But that means I can do a lot of volume without the clients having to stress their horse.”

What tells you everything, ultimately, is the one alternative Hunt might entertain to a dream career.

“Oh,” he says with a chuckle. “That would be taking a string of eight grass horses to Colonial Downs middle of July, and having me a little camper and riding those horses every day. I love it down there, during the heat of summer. I'm from Georgia, remember! But I think there'd still have to be a veterinary quota I'd have to fulfill daily and then I could go do other things.

“Just by nature of this job, I do a lot of everything. And my clients are basically my family. I try not to let that skew the clinical judgment. But I don't have a single one that can't call me at midnight if they have a question. And I have a huge weakness for becoming attached to the patients. But, you know, that just makes me the luckiest guy in the world.”

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