Undercover Superheroes: A Day in the Life of an LRK3DE Vet

While we’re all staring wide-eyed in wonder at the horses and riders who tackle the unbelievable challenge that is the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event, there’s an unseen hero hiding in the background. You may have walked right by them without a second glance on April 29th. They may have even been standing right next to you. Like Clark Kent in his business casual, the veritable army of veterinarians working at LRK3DE go almost completely unnoticed until they’re needed.

Dr, Chris Elliott stands in front of the iconic Bruce Davidson & Eagle Lion statue at LRK3DE

Dr. Chris Elliott was one such undercover hero. As an FEI veterinarian, Dr. Elliott was one of the many vets who were tasked with the job of standing by to help the horses running in the past weekend’s CCI5* and CCI4* events. While he has been working at FEI events for nearly 15 years, he also stays busy with a full roster of clients from Palm Beach Equine. In the past, he’s held titles including Private Athlete Veterinarian, Team Veterinarian, Permitted Treating Veterinarian, and Official Veterinarian. At the 2023 Winter Equestrian Festival, he was the Veterinary Services Manager for FEI Competition. His goal as an FEI veterinarian working at events like LRK3DE is to collect the whole five-star set. 

“I’ve now worked at Badminton, Burghley, Adelaide, and Kentucky. I’m working towards trying to collect the set of all the five stars around the world,” said Dr. Elliott. “And then I’ve worked at two Olympic Games, two world championships, a European championships, all for eventing, and then for dozens and dozens and dozens of eventing competitions. All the way from the tiniest little pony club eventing day, in the pouring cold rain during my internship, through to some of the some of the most amazing cross country venues around the world.”

At a show as big as the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event, Dr. Elliott is one of a veritable army of veterinarians. The USDA veterinarians are there to supervise and manage the quarantine process. The team vets are there to treat and care for horses on national squads, like Dr. Susan Johns, the current veterinarian for the American Eventing Team. Then there is the veterinary delegate, or chief FEI veterinarian. This vet supervises and manages everything that’s going on at the horse show and is the decision maker. At LRK3DE, this role was filled by Dr. Anne Baskett. There are the treating vets who stand along the cross country course, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice to help. Last but not least, there are private athlete veterinarians that travel with each rider to supervise the care and treatment of their horses specifically. 

According to Dr. Elliott, “There was probably somewhere between 30 to 35 veterinarians present at the Kentucky horse trials, with probably another 40 or so veterinary students as well.”

Events like LRK3DE provide veterinary students with a crucial learning opportunity that they can’t get anywhere else. Dr. Elliott remembers starting his own FEI veterinary career in much the same way as these students. “I certainly started my career right from the very beginning of graduating, just standing next to more experienced veterinarians on course, discussing scenarios, thinking about how we would go and manage an incident with our horse the best we can. Each and every course we go on shows us something new or we see something different. We learn through the process. Many 1000s of hours on cross country courses is what is required to become good at this kind of unique skill set.”

The Zoetis Vet Lounge at LRK3DE. Photo by Dr. Chris Elliott

Cross country day is the biggest day of the event for Dr. Elliott. His day began at 3am when he drove back from a veterinary conference. He picked up a veterinary student at Hagyard who was shadowing him for the day and then continued on to the horse park. “So I picked her up at seven and then we were in the Zoetis Veterinary Lounge by about quarter past seven, where we had some breakfast,” said Dr. Elliott. “Then I signed out my radio, double checked that I’ve got all my cross country maps, talked to the veterinary delegate, and made sure that they know I’m present and accounted for and then just chat to them about anything extra I can do.”

Next, Dr. Elliott heads out to the cross country course to make sure he’s familiar with his designated section before the first rider leaves the start box. Once there, he develops a plan and familiarizes himself with the area so that he’s ready for any emergency that may occur in his section. Far from standing by and waiting for an emergency to occur, these veterinarians are always prepared for any scenario that may come their way. 

“So, for the five star I was looking after the Rolex Grand Slam, fence 10ABCD, and then fence 13, which is the Blade and Bow Bourbon table,” said Dr. Elliott. “I parked my car in an appropriate location and then walked the area, making sure that I knew how to access the takeoff and landing of all of the jumps and looking after all the components and then worked out where I could stand to see everything going on. Then I worked out how I would attend to horses if they were pulling up before or after 10 A, 10 B, 10 C, or 10 D and then know where the galloping lane is from 10 D onwards. I also make certain I know where the horses would come back into my vision going into the takeoff side of 13 and then on the landing side, as well.”

Dr. Elliott stands in front of the dachshund on the LRK3DE cross country course

Each veterinarian on the course has their own section of fences that they’re responsible for. Far from being overloaded with multiple fences per vet, there’s almost one vet per fence. For example, there were 28 fences on the CCI5* track, with a little over 20 veterinarians on course. The main role of the treating veterinarians is to react if there’s an emergency situation in their section, but they can also radio the veterinary delegate if a horse looks as though it is too tired to continue. 

“If we as the treating veterinarians out on course see something that we might be concerned about, we will radio that to our veterinary delegate and say ‘hey, this horse may be looking tired, or this horse might have a little speck of blood somewhere.’ If we notice something, we report that to the veterinary delegate in control,” said Dr. Elliott. “Almost always the veterinary delegate is watching it on TV, so they can easily just focus on that horse on the television and monitor it closely. The veterinary delegate will communicate with the ground jury about the concerns of that horse and it is the ground jury and the veterinary delegate who will then come to a decision if they would like that horse stopped for whatever reason.”

In an emergency, Dr. Elliott’s job would be to stabilize the horse, get it off the course and into the hands of another veterinarian back at the stables, and then get back to his assigned section of the course before the next rider comes through. “The role of the veterinarians on cross country course is emergency triage. You can think of them almost like the EMTs. We’re positioned strategically around the course so that we can act quickly and promptly get to these horses as quickly as possible. And then we have our emergency kit bags to be able to provide treatment to injuries that may occur out on course. One of our roles is to stabilize the patient, address the suspected injury that we have, and then get that horse on to horse transport.”

While many shows have no better option than to transport the horse back to the stables, the Kentucky Horse Park is in a great position to provide the horses with the best care possible. “We are literally across the road and down the road from two of the world’s leading equine hospitals, Hagyard and Rood & Riddle. If there is an injury, often the horse will be taken directly to an off-site veterinary clinic to have second opinions, specialist treatment and diagnosis.”

Dr. Elliott stands on the LRK3DE course. Photo by Dr. Chris Elliott

In terms of transportation, Dr. Elliott said not to worry too much if you see the horse ambulance pull up on course. Often, it’s not related to the severity of the injury, but is simply the easiest way to get the horse back to a more controlled environment. “One of the key goals of our treatment protocols is to minimize any further damage. If we are suspicious of an injury, we will utilize transport as much as possible, because that’s going to be the best welfare for the horse,” he said. “Another factor that we need to think about is crowds. There’s a lot of crowds out there and getting these horses to walk back through those crowds can at times be challenging, because there’s just people everywhere and also it can be a challenging scenario for the horses who are used to galloping through the green fields to then be asked to walk home through a crowd.”

At the end of a hopefully uneventful day, there’s one more important task the treating veterinarians need to attend to. “At the end of the day, all of the veterinarians around on course come back to the finish.” said Dr. Elliott. “We return our radios, and we have a quick little debrief on what things occurred on cross country today. And, like all good medical systems and all good processes, we talk about what went well and what could have potentially been improved. Debriefing and being honest with ourselves to ensure that we are providing the very best of care is vitally important.”

It was a long day at LRK3DE for Dr. Elliott. Photo by Dr. Chris Elliott.

Being a volunteer vet is a labor of love. Often, these veterinarians don’t get paid or don’t get paid much and work long hours. Dr. Elliott’s day was a bit longer than most, thanks to driving back from a conference and from having some clients in the show jumping division at the end of the day, but his Saturday began at 3am and ended at 11pm. Despite the long hours, he says that it’s one of his favorite things to do. “For me and I think for a lot of veterinarians, the reason we enjoy working in competitions in a multitude of different roles is that it’s something different than our day to day veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Elliott. “Normal veterinary medicine is stressful. It’s very rare that clients ring you up and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to pay you some money to come and look at my totally normal horse and we can all have a big smile about it.’ You know, it’s a strange relationship veterinarians have with their clients because we love seeing our clients. We love seeing the horses, but it’s usually because something’s not quite right with them. And so doing competition work gives you a change of scenery.”

Of course, it does help to have a great sponsor like Zoetis, who provided the vets with breakfast, lunch, and a nice spot to debrief and network in the Zoetis Veterinary Lounge. 

Dr. Elliott says in a perfect world, you’ll never know that these veterinarians are there at all.  “It’s a whole layer of support that ideally, no one knows about. On one hand, we want you to know that we’re there supporting you and your horse. But on the other hand, we’re in the background so that riders and grooms can focus on their performance. We’re there in the background making sure that this competition runs well and that everyone’s being looked after.”

Next time you’re out on course and see someone in the background with only a stethoscope or veterinary pinny to mark their presence, don’t forget to say thank you. These vets work hard to make sure that everyone, horses included, can enjoy this sport in a safe way. 

A long career (and, more importantly, a long and healthy life) is always a goal for our horses. Ask your veterinarian about Zoetis’ line-up of health support options that can help support your horse for a long-lasting and comfortable career and life.

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