Have you ever wondered who the young person trailing behind your vet is? They appear, at best they’re introduced as “so-and-so, who’s seeing practice with us”, and then they disappear, never to be seen again…

Well, the odds are they’re vet students who are “seeing practice” with your vet.

Training as a vet is a long process – vet students spend 5 or 6 years at university doing lectures, practicals and clinical work. However, in that space of time, they also have to do the equivalent of an extra year of “EMS” (Extra-Mural Studies, generally known as “seeing practice”). This is their chance to get out of the lecture theatre, away from the ivory towers and out into the real world of practice!

As vets in practice, our job is to take these students and teach them the nuts and bolts of veterinary practice. They’ll learn the science, and all the theory, at vet school; however, there is also an art to veterinary practice, and that’s our responsibility. For example, if the client can’t afford the best treatment, how do you proceed? Or if a client refuses consent for a surgical procedure, what other options can be explored?

At the vet schools, students tend to learn a lot about the more esoteric and uncommon diseases, operations and procedures – this is because they operate referral hospitals (although Nottingham uses an expanded version of the EMS system for virtually all their clinical tuition). Although they do have first opinion practices, in all seven schools the teaching tends to be biased towards the rare and exotic. Out in general practice, however, the axiom “Common things are common” applies – for every septic pedal joint, there are dozens of simple hoof abscesses!

It can also be useful to us having students along (opening gates, for example – sounds silly, but when you have yards with five or six sets of gates, it gets very time consuming stopping to open and close each set!). In addition, though, they will often have learnt new approaches, new solutions to problems, that we can use. For example, I once had a student along with me when I was dealing with a stallion with an injury in a VERY sensitive area. To examine it properly, I would need to nerve block the whole area – time consuming and potentially dangerous. However, my student at the time had learnt in her pharmacology lectures that it had recently been discovered that one of the local anaesthetic agents I was carrying was effective through the thickness of the skin. We therefore applied it with gloves – and managed to numb the area enough to examine him properly.

In one practice where I worked, I did an awful lot of equine dental work. In some situations, we used a powered dremel; however, we didn’t routinely carry it, so if there was an intermediate case, we’d usually try and complete the work by hand, rather than come back later. Now, I can assure you that rasping down large hooks and ridges is physically very hard work! Having a student to alternate with makes it go much faster and more efficiently – which often means less time and sedation.

The big problem vet students have, however, is getting enough clinical experience in practice. Some clients are, sadly, unwilling to allow a student to carry out even simple procedures (like giving injections, or drawing blood samples). If you think you might be in that situation, I’d like you to consider three things…

  1. The vet will be closely supervising, and will be in a position to step in at any point if they aren’t happy.
  2. We wouldn’t ask the student to do it if we thought they’d make a hash of it.
  3. Most importantly of all, if they don’t get a chance to practice as students, they won’t develop the skills they need as graduates. That means they won’t get the experience they need if they’re going to grow into good horse vets – because they didn’t get the practice they needed as a student under controlled conditions.

So, for the sake of your horses in the future: please allow the student to carry out any procedures that your vet thinks they’re ready for!