Bluegrass country is rich in equine heritage, population and stature – so much so that Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” With four major equine clinics in the area, though, that title could quite accurately also be “Horse Hospital Capital of the World.”
Nowhere else in the world has central Kentucky’s density of equine hospitals, world-renowned veterinarians and scope of procedures, diagnostics and surgeries available.
“It’s national and international opinion that this area is certainly unique to the world,” said Dr. Ed Squires, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science and new executive director of the Gluck Equine Research Foundation at the University of Kentucky. “The number and quality of vets in this area is amazing. There are some tremendous resources here.”
Medicine is a vital part of the state’s equine economic landscape. Kentucky has some 320,000 resident horses. Nearly 52,000 people work full-time directly in the industry, according to a 2005 Deloitte Consulting study for the American Horse Council Foundation. The industry generates thousands more paychecks indirectly.
Kentucky’s horse industry produces goods and services estimated at $2.3 billion annually, the 2005 study found, and the national equine industry has at least a $3.5 billion impact on the state’s economy.
Hagyard Equine Medical Center, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, Woodford Equine Hospital, all in the Lexington vicinity, and Equine Services in Simpsonville, are large contributors to those numbers. Together the horse hospitals employ some 500 full-time veterinarians, nurses, support and office staff.
The establishments perform upwards of 13,000 equine surgeries annually at costs of several hundred to many thousands of dollars apiece – with diagnostics, follow-up care and medication additional.
All four hospitals offer services of every ilk – from farm calls for routine and emergency care, to the latest in advanced services on their campuses. Each can claim vets who are leaders in research and development, ranging from stem-cell therapies to podiatry to cutting-edge surgical procedures.
First clinic opened in 1876
Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, across from the Kentucky Horse Park on Ironworks Pike just north of Lexington, is by far the oldest of the clinics. It was founded in 1876 by Scotsman Edward T. Hagyard, who first came to Kentucky to treat a valuable shorthorn bull.
The practice grew and the founder’s nephew, Dr. Charlie Hagyard, was joined by Drs. Arthur Davidson and William McGee, which in 1951 prompted a name change to Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Associates. In 2004 this evolved to Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, with the individual departments – Hagyard Laboratory, Davidson Surgery Center, McGee Medicine Center and McGee Fertility Center – honoring the firm’s founding vets.
Dr. Andy Clark is the current CEO of Hagyard, which today is owned by 17 vets in the practice. An equine vet for 20 years, Clark’s own practice was sidelined by serious injury when a horse kicked him. He went back to school, earned his MBA and spent several years consulting for major North American equine clinics, including Hagyard and Rood & Riddle, before taking his current position in 2005.
The equine vet industry was in dire need of new blood a few years ago, said Clark. “Of 3,500 North American vet school graduates, only 74 went into equine practice. That’s clearly not enough,” he said. “I remember sitting in Dr. (Bill) Rood’s office, and he said that we as a profession need to take over and promote ourselves. Out of that came the Opportunities Weekend, held Labor Day weekend.”
The local equine medical community initiative “brings in 500 vet students, all expenses paid, and takes them through the clinics, to farms, around Lexington. In just seven years, the number of graduates going into equine practice has tripled.”
Attracting and retaining customers, staff, associate vets and new owners to the company are four of Hagyard’s constant goals, Clark said. The clinic has an extensive intern and extern program that draws promising vet students and new graduates from all over the world. And Hagyard has a strong relationship with Colorado State University, which supplies qualified students during the busy seasons.
Externs at Hagyard, as at the other area clinics, spend several weeks observing all facets of the organization. Interns, who have served an externship and gone on to graduate vet school, stay a year.
“Out of some 200 externs, we’ll take about 20 interns,” Clark said. “Of those 20, about 10 percent will join the staff.
Rood & Riddle, on the northwest edge of Lexington, was founded by partners Dr. Bill Rood and Dr. Tom Riddle. Ownership now includes 12 other staff vets. Rood and Riddle opened the clinic in 1986, during a major correction in the Thoroughbred industry, just a few miles from Hagyard-Davidson-McGee.
“We were definitely aware we were making a bold move, but we felt strongly that we could make a go of it,” said Riddle. “We’re still enthusiastic and positive thinking.”
Rood & Riddle’s growth has been a combination of planning and reacting. “We bought 24 acres in the beginning,” said Riddle. “We thought we had more than enough room for expansion, but we’ve pretty much used up all the room we had.” They recently purchased another 25 acres nearby.
The clinic’s surgery services are its claim to fame, Riddle said.
“Dr. Larry Bramlage has an outstanding reputation, both here and abroad, and we have an outstanding orthopedic surgery team. Dr. Rolf Embertson heads up our soft tissue, respiratory, upper airway and reproduction team.”
Woodford Equine Hospital, located on U.S. 60 outside Versailles, became a freestanding enterprise in 2004 after operating with a small animal practice. Its new facility opened two years ago.
While Woodford operates on a much smaller scale, the clinic offers nearly everything its larger neighbors do.
Woodford founder Dr. William Baker is the pioneer on a procedure now used by veterinarians worldwide – arthroscopic surgery. Developed for humans, he did it first on a horse in 1982.
“I did my homework,” Baker said. “I tried it on a lot of cadavers.”
Woodford also was first with an equine neo-natal unit, which opened in the late 1970s. Today, it is involved in research with the University of California/Davis on stem-cell treatments, which are proving to be extremely effective in a number of areas, including ligament repair.
Like its Lexington neighbors, Woodford has a pharmacy, with a twist – a drive-through window.
“We’re unique in that,” Baker said. “It’s combined with our lab, so other vets can drop off samples, we process them, and then fax or call with results.”
Dr. Scott Bennett’s Equine Services in Simpsonville caters to show and performance horses, while the Lexington area hospitals handle mostly Thoroughbreds.
“We’re multifaceted,” Bennett said. “We were the first in Kentucky to do embryo transplant, and in 1984, we performed the first inter-species embryo transplant in the world.” The result: a zebra foal born from a Quarter Horse mare.
Equine Services also operates a breeding and training farm, standing 10 to 12 stallions, mostly American Saddlebreds.
“It’s three minutes away from the clinic,” Bennett said. “We have our reproductive center there and can do evaluations in our riding ring. One new development is the ability to do a video endoscopy while a horse trains.”
Competition among the best
With so many top-shelf hospitals in the area, veterinarians and horsemen all acknowledge the competitive nature of the market. Mike Owens, manager of Thoroughbred breeding operation Cobra Farm, said having so many vets from which to choose is a good thing.
“We have the best clinics in the world,” he said. “They see and do it all every day. We’ve used all [the area clinics], but it comes down to a comfort standpoint, who you have confidence in.”
Art Zubrod is manager of Brittany Farms in Woodford County, the leading Standardbred breeder in North America. He says he likes to see the competition.
“There are certainly enough options in this area,” Zubrod said. “That keeps the practices on their toes.”
“There’s competition, that’s for sure, but it’s done in a professional manner,” Riddle said. “In this area, it’s a blessing that there’s plenty of work. If we have a piece of equipment that breaks down, we can call Hagyard and vice-versa. It’s a very comfortable environment.”
“We all trade ideas and thoughts, but as in all business, there’s competition for market share,” said Woodford’s Baker.
The current economic climate has affected the four clinics differently.
Riddle said his operation has laid off some part-time employees, and they are seeing horse owners more carefully assessing the cost-benefit of an elective procedure.
Bennett said his Simpsonville practice is actually bucking the economic trend and just opened a second clinic near Indianapolis. “This is the time to expand,” he said. “We saw that in the ’80s. Everyone thought we were crazy, but our business is up 15 percent.”
Baker said expansion of Woodford Hospital, built for $7 million two years ago, is on hold. “Our goal has been 20 percent expansion a year, which we were doing on a steady basis when we opened the new facility,” he said.
Clark expects to see the day when the larger clinics will share in major investments such as Hagyard’s new MRI machine. It acquired the state-of-the art diagnostic tool, valued at $2 million, when clinical MRI firm NVIS approached the hospital as a test site for entry into the equine marketplace.
“We built the facility, and it’s a fee-for-use on the machine rather than outright purchase,” he said.
“I foresee our practices working together,” Clark said. “As time goes on, probably we need to move toward collaboration.”
Hagyard Equine Medical Institute
4250 Ironworks Pike, Lexington
Ownership: PLLC (17 veterinarians)
Veterinarians on staff: 60
Total staff: 120
Interns/Externs: 15 Interns; up to 200 externs a year
Surgeries annually: 6,200
Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital
2150 Georgetown Road, Lexington
Founded: Hospital opened 1986; Rood & Riddle practice formed in 1982.
Ownership: PSC (14 veterinarians)
Veterinarians on staff: 58
Total staff: 225
Interns/Externs: 18 interns; 8-10 externs
Acres: 24; separate pharmacy; has acquired 25 more acres
Stalls: 140 hospital stalls and 18 holding pens
Surgeries annually: 6,000-plus
Woodford Equine Hospital
3550 Lexington Road, Versailles
Founded: 2004 (after spinning off from Woodford Vet, which opened in 1961 and includes small animals). Moved into new facility in 2007.
Ownership: Drs. William Baker, Alan Dorton, Hernando Plata-Madrid, Christopher Johnson
Veterinarians on staff: nine
Total staff: 35
Surgeries performed annually: 900
Equine Services PSC
9460 Shelbyville Road, Simpsonville
Ownership: Sole proprietorship (Dr. Scott Bennett)
Veterinarians on staff: 7
Total staff: 31 (including Indianapolis facility)
Interns/Externs: 4 interns, 2-4 externs.
Acres: 10 at clinic, 120 at breeding and reproductive center
Surgeries annually: 650