Referring a Horse

Referral centers are those clinics or hospitals that offer diagnostic and therapeutic options not readily available or possible in a field (barn) type situation. These can include diagnostic modalities such as endoscopy with or without a treadmill, ultrasound, scintigraphy, and radiography, just to name a few. Referral centers can also offer a wide range of surgical care--on an elective or emergency basis--such as colic surgery, soft tissue surgery, and orthopedic surgery (such as fracture repair or arthroscopy). Furthermore, most referral centers are staffed with multiple specialists. These people are highly trained in their areas of interest, such as reproduction, medicine, surgery, radiology, etc. They can perform procedures many veterinarians are not comfortable performing, or they have seen many more "rare" diseases than an average general practitioner. Referral centers can also offer around-the-clock care for those animals requiring frequent administration of drugs and/or intravenous fluids, or for horses which require multiple diagnostic tests or intensive management. Referral centers can also offer peace of mind if a second opinion is needed, especially to confirm a terminal disease.

The initial conversation between a veterinarian and a horse owner about potentially sending a horse to a referral center/equine clinic hopefully will not be in a rushed manner, but too often it is. I prefer to have this conversation well before there is an actual emergency. I think all horse owners should decide ahead of time, before there is a crisis, if they want to--or financially can--send a horse to a referral center for colic surgery, for example. Too often, when emotions are running high, the wrong decision is made for the wrong reasons and the end result sometimes is not a happy one.

In a perfect world, all horses could receive the best medical or surgical care and cost would not be a problem. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world. So for many horse owners, the cost of the needed procedures becomes an issue. It is never an easy decision, but some people might have to decide between feeding the family and buying colic surgery for the horse. The costs of medical and surgical procedures vary greatly by region, so I won't even attempt to offer ranges. Your veterinarian should be aware of the costs of common emergency procedures at your nearest referral center, so ask him/her.

Elective medical or surgical procedures are obviously not performed on an emergency (middle of the night) basis, so there is more time to research not only costs, but risks, success rates, and potential lay-up time.

Twenty years ago, there were very few equine referral centers not affiliated with a university teaching hospital. Now, with many more veterinarians becoming boarded specialists in a variety of areas, there are equine referral centers staffed with specialists in more areas of the country than ever before. In most areas of the United States, a good equine referral center is often no more than a few hours' drive away. We're very fortunate in this country to have such easy access to equine care.

While traveling with the United States Equestrian Team in Western Europe, we were sometimes faced with having to drive up to 12 hours to get to an equine referral center. One referral center in Spain would not take after-hours cases (this was a Saturday night and we would not be seen until Monday morning even though we had a horse with a very painful colic). So, be glad we have such good medical care here--not just for humans, but also for our beloved horses.

Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of referring your horse to a university or clinic and what options might be available in your area should the need arise.

About the Author

Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, owns Early Winter Equine in Lansing, New York. The practice focuses on primary care of mares and foals and performance horse problems.

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