In my 14 years at The Horse, I’ve been to a lot of veterinary meetings. (No, really, a lot of them.) But I had never attended an American College of Theriogenology (ACT) annual meeting until a couple weeks ago.  What’s theriog …. uh, that, you ask? It’s the study of animal reproduction.

Equine veterinarians wanting to specialize in reproduction complete an internship in therio and then take an ACT exam at an annual meeting to become boarded. Once they’ve passed the test, they carry the letters “Dipl. ACT” behind their veterinary degrees—often you’ll see veterinarians with this designation practicing as specialists at equine referral practices or in veterinary teaching hospitals, and you’ll see many of these veterinarians as sources in breeding-related articles on TheHorse.com.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

The meeting, which took place Aug. 7-10 in nearby Louisville, Ky., brought together about 400 veterinarians with mixed-species interest. The group was tight-knit—even in a hotel ballroom full of mixed species veterinarians, the rapport was palpable. More than one veterinarian described the meeting as “intimate,” which is exactly the adjective I would’ve used to describe the idea exchange among veterinarians in the equine abstracts room (which is impressive, given that the room seated 170 people and at times was standing-room-only).

The veterinarians are dedicated to their craft—equine fertility and conditions of the reproductive tract—and some of them really have a great sense of humor about it, which makes this group of people fun and interesting to spend time around. A few years ago at the AAEP convention, for example, celebrated stallion researcher Dr. Dickson Varner of Texas A&M pulled out a harmonica and began to sing, “Stud is a Four-Letter Word,” a song he had composed, before taking his audience on a “sperm’s eye view” tour of this cell’s life, a wild ride from formation to joining with an oocyte to create a pregnancy.

This lighthearted humor is one that helped keeps spirits high during this meeting, from my vantage point, because everyone was really missing their dear friend Dr. Michelle LeBlanc, a world-renowned theriogenologist who died in April after a long battle with cancer. I could sense a little of Michelle, a firecracker of a lady with a sweet and kind yet determined spirit, in each equine lecture, as her colleagues dedicated their presentations to her memory, referred to her in the present tense (“Michelle does the procedure this way.”), and honored her with tributes. And having missed her memorial, it gave me a chance, too, to pause and remember her, along with our last conversation we had back in 2012.

The icing on the cake of a great day spent with great vets was the material I learned. I felt honored to meet and interview Dr. Temple Grandin (designer of livestock handling facilities and focus of a recent HBO movie) who spoke on handing methods—of all animals, though a good segment was focused on horses. I listened to interesting presentations by interns and experienced veterinarians alike. Here are a few things that stood out to me, both repro-related and not:

  • Usually I don’t recognize much of what I see in ultrasound—I’ll squint and try with all my might to see a tendon injury or an ovulatory follicle, all while looking at what could be a low-res photograph of the night sky, for all I know! But Dr. Maria Schnobrich showed ultrasound scans of the different accessory sex glands of geldings in a way that even I could understand. Take Home: You can tell a lot of what’s going on with these glands—even in geldings—with ultrasound exams and measurements, and you could potentially detect problems such as prostate tumors with this modality.
  • Dr. Grandin described many fascinating situations where she’s managed fearful animals. One thing she explained is that it takes 30 minutes for a fearful horse to calm down. In our “it’ll be okay,” solve-everything-in-an-instant society, a simple chance to calm down isn’t always necessarily the first thing we opt for, so that was a good reminder.
  • Pain can manifest in myriad ways, and it’s important to catch it and treat early before “windup” causes dysfunctional pain. (Watch for a related article on TheHorse.com next week.)

On that last point, my phone ran out of memory at the end of a video from Dr. Chris Sanchez, who gave a presentation on equine pain and its impact on reproduction. I asked her what types of pain (besides lameness and colic) the owner would be looking for in their horses.

Her response, aside from noting that back and neck pain can be windows into what else in the horse is painful: “One of the underappreciated kinds of pain is eye pain,” said Sanchez. “If you’ve ever had an eyelash under your contact lens or anything else, you know that eyes get painful very quickly. So I think one of the things owners can do to pay attention to the eyes is if your horses wear fly masks—which is great, they do a lot to protect the eye—take those fly masks off at least once a day and look. By the time you get tearing all the way down to beyond the fly mask, that’s going to be a pretty painful eye.”

So, on these lingering summer days, check beneath those fly masks and make sure everything is fine with your horses’ peepers.

What’s a basic but invaluable tip you’ve learned from your veterinarian about monitoring your horse’s health daily and providing care?