October 2016 - CPHA Spotlight: Neil Gray, DVM

Veterinarian straddles two worlds: high performance horses & their hard working counterparts in developing countries.

by Kim F. Miller

Horse ownership on the show circuit and in remote areas of Costa Rica has two things in common.

The first is coffee. Starbucks cups are ever-present among the well-heeled at our carefully-manicured show venues. In much of Costa Rica, coffee is a sustenance crop in which the work of harvesting and transporting the beans falls to the noble equine species.

The second is that owners in both communities care about their horses.

Otherwise, the two worlds have little in common and less overlap, but California veterinarian Neil Gray, DVM, wants to change that.

For the past four years, he’s travelled to remote areas of Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru and Nicaragua providing veterinary care to horses, donkeys and mules (“equids”) and, equally important, education to their owners. He’s done the work through various organizations, and currently is focused on spearheading a return to Costa Rica under the auspices of the Equitarian Intitiative, a non-profit endeavor begun in 2009 and strongly supported by the American Association of Equine Practictioners.

In a big picture sense, the ventures can be characterized as a Doctors Without Borders effort, but for working equids. Each project varies in scope based on the needs of animals and owners in the area, and on available resources. But all are driven by the mission that in helping the working animals of the world, they are helping the people who rely on them to earn their livelihood.

The need is big. The estimated 100 million-plus working animals support approximately 6.5 million families around the world. While the animals represent roughly 90 percent of the world’s equine population, they are served by just one percent of the world’s veterinarians.

Efforts to help these horses have been in place for many years. The United Kingdom has several well-established programs, including The Brooke, for which international dressage star Charlotte Dujardin is a global ambassador.

The Brooke was established in 1934 by Dorothy Brooke and began as the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo, Egypt.

Building U.S. Awareness

The work is less known in the United States and Neil believes members of the horse show community would be happy to help if they knew more about it.

Neil is a horse show guy himself. Before multiple neck injuries inspired him to hang up his stirrups, he was a regular contender in the amateur jumper and lower level Grands Prix. His practice is based in the Los Angeles area’s Burbank and serves a primary clientele of high-level hunter/jumper and dressage barns. When he stopped riding, having some extra time converged with serious travel addiction and learning what some veterinarians were doing for working animals in developing countries. “That seemed right up my alley.”

He has since taken several trips, with various organizations, and experienced the gamut of needs and abilities to fulfill them. Basic veterinary care is a common denominator in every region. Typically, equids needing the most help are those in the most remote locations where access to veterinarians is non-existent or very difficult.

Vaccinations, internal and external parasite control, wound care and castrations are typical issues. Vampire bats that sometimes carry rabies are a problem in several countries, making rabies vaccinations valuable. Tetanus, tick-borne diseases and equine infectious anemia are also common ailments.

Establishing sustainable care is the ideal for all of the veterinary missions. It starts with a commitment to returning vets to each region with some regularity and ultimately, passing along enough knowledge that local horse owners and practitioners can provide adequate care over the long haul.

Travelling in teams that typically range from 10 to 20 people, including veterinarians and other support staff, the groups accomplish a lot in little time. On a trip in Nicaragua this past February, Neil, five other veterinarians and their team members treated 600 horses in three days. The group also included a few veterinary students from the U.S. and Nicaragua, plus recent veterinary graduates from El Salvador.

Neil Gray, DVM, was an accomplished amateur jumper rider before deciding to devote considerable time to helping working animals in developing countries. He’s pictured here on High Cotton.

In some cases, the team was able to enjoy the benefits of their work right away. A horse that hadn’t eaten for five days seemed to be suffering a severe case of colic. Overcoming language barriers with the locals, the vets determined that, instead, the horse had been given an insecticide that was toxic to horses. The patient would have died soon had that discovery not been made.

“Most of the time the work doesn’t have an immediate response like that,” Neil explains. “What I feel makes it most worthwhile is passing on a little knowledge and helping the owners get a better understanding of what they can do to help their animals.”

Horsecare 101

It’s often very simple stuff: explaining that a raw spot under the saddle is causing pain and showing the owner how to alleviate it; or that a halter/bridle made of plastic is rubbing pressure points and showing how to wrap a piece of leather around the material to prevent that.

Given the remoteness of the locations, the veterinarians travel without any of the high-tech diagnostic and treatment equipment their clients benefit from at home. And they have to be careful about prescribing the most effective cure for many ailments: rest. “We have to realize and understand the economic ramifications of prescribing rest,” Neil says. “If the animal can’t tote the water or goods to market, does that mean the kids will be doing that? If a girl’s donkey has a bad saddle sore, does that mean she won’t be able to get to school?”

Rest does play its part and in a way that parallels recommendations in the show world. “The owners understand when it comes to losing the animal or resting, or resting the animal now so it will be healthy for harvest season,” Neil says. “It’s the same analogy as if I was treating a sporthorse who had a big class or final coming up.”

Compared to fat shiny show horses, the working animals Neil and his colleagues treat are often skinny to an extent that would shock most Westerners and they’re saddled with loads and tasks that would challenge a healthy draft horse.

It’s a culture shock and “It could be depressing,” Neil acknowledges. “But I don’t find it so. Whatever direction you look in, the people are suffering more and they are doing what they can for their animals.

“I find it inspiring much more than depressing—to see how hard these people work, how much they are willing to do and how far they’re willing to travel to bring their animals to us. It’s very affirming that what we are doing is worthwhile.” Concerned about sedating a horse for treatment, Neil asked a Peruvian owner how far she and the horse had to walk to get home and was humbled by the answer: six hours—each way.

The vets aren’t the only teachers. “You can always learn a little,” Neil relays. For example, in Peru, horsemen use a “chalina” (scarf) to blindfold their pack animals as a means of restraining them for treatment.

“My kneejerk reaction was that that was crazy! But that’s what they’re habituated to. Even the quietest little meek horse would get worried if it didn’t have a blindfold on while being handled. You can always learn something from somebody else’s horsemanship and it was working for them!”

Tending horses in Mexico, vets sought to help a horse that was allergic to fly bites. A local professor accompanying the group pointed out a nearby Neem tree, which are plentiful in the region. Turns out oil from the Neem leaves is an effective insect repellent and one the owner had free access to: the leaves just needed to be crumbled and rubbed over the horse’s coat.

Owners in the countries Neil has visited often do a great job with rudimentary tools. A piece of metal sharpened into a blade, a handmade mallet and a rasp made of sandpaper wrapped over a wood block enabled one to do a nice job trimming his horse’s feet.

Neil’s next trip, returning to Costa Rica, is the one he’ll lead for the Equitarian Initiative and in conjunction with World Horse Welfare and Costa Rica Equine Welfare. The collaboration of like-minded in-country welfare groups and individuals is typical of most missions and critical to their success through outreach and logistical help.

The Costa Rican returnees will be caring for working animals in the Ngabe (Guaymi) Indigenous Reserve, launching off from the Pavones area famous as an especially “desolate and remote” surf region untainted by tourism. Like a lot of these trips, it’s an adventure just getting there.

Due to the extreme remoteness, the group of 10 to 12, including veterinarians and other team members, expect to have their hands full with 500-600 animals needing their help.  As with other missions, the team may include a farrier and other specialized care providers.

The trips bear no resemblance to luxury “voluntourism” travel. Rain, mud, dirt, hunger and cold are all part of the experience. Accommodations range from bunkhouses and farmhouses to tents on the dirt. Sometimes the volunteers are taken in by local families for meals and sometimes they’re on their own with a cookstove on the campfire.

Yet, “You find yourself realizing how much you like what you do,” Neil says. “Despite all that, you realize you are really having fun!”

A graduate of The Ohio State University veterinary school, Neil is grateful to have a career he is passionate about and one that’s enabled him to take time off from his practice for volunteer work. He got hooked on the working horse mission quickly and was equally quick to alter his practice so that clients would have top-quality care for their horses during his absences. He brought Maia Aerni, DVM, on board as an associate in 2014 and she is now a partner.

Neil’s former trainer DiAnn Langer is not surprised that he became devoted to this work. “Neil is a great vet,” she says. “He is and always has been very compassionate to all animals. He has always volunteered to help the CPHA and other worthy causes that would ask for his time and experience.  When the program started for working equids, it was a natural for him.

“Personally, I feel that because of the specialized industry we work in, we often lose track of the real world. Being involved in programs that give back to people and animals that are less fortunate keeps one humble and in tune with real life. I believe Neil feels the same.”

The next time we lift that Starbucks cup to our lips, hopefully we’ll pause to consider the horses, donkeys and/or mules who helped get it there and the easy thing—a donation—we can all do to make their lives a little better.

About the California Professional Horseman’s Association: the CPHA provides a forum, voice, and many valuable programs and benefits for equine industry professionals throughout the region, including those who live elsewhere but compete and/or work within it regularly. Members can be trainers and anyone else who earns at least half their income from working with horses. CPHA also hosts prestigious medal classes and finals for juniors and amateur members. For more information on the organization’s good works and getting involved, visit www.cpha.org.

How We Can Help

Veterinarians on Equitarian Initiative missions, and those involved with most similar efforts, pay their own travel and in-country expenses – not to mention absorbing the cost of time away from their practices. Donated funds all go to medicines and supplies for the working animals treated, plus the cost of getting those supplies to the remote locations where they are administered.

Funding needs range from the approximately $10,000 basic costs for the Costa Rica return trip in January to big picture ideal of much bigger chunks – say $500,000 – that would ensure sustainability of ongoing visits far into the future. Short or long term, the more money raised, the more good can be done.

“Coming through once or twice with a white hat on as a savior doesn’t really do anybody any good,” Dr. Neil Gray asserts. “That may relieve the animals’ suffering for a day. But the real goal is to raise the level of care and the level of horsemanship.”

Equitarian Initiative is a non-profit 501C (3). Donations are much appreciated and easily made through www.equitarianinitiative.org or via Facebook.