The Reality of Equine Practice in 2023

Amy L. Grice | VMD, MBA | Published: Issue 4, 2023

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When thinking about the current state of equine practice, it is important to consider a broad survey of data from both the world in general as well as the equine and equine veterinary industries. Current global and national economic conditions strongly influence current conditions in equine practice

The economic impacts of inflation, pharmaceutical supply chain issues, and global recession could all affect equine veterinary practices. Declining horse numbers, changing owner demographics, and corporate acquisitions of equine practices will impact the strengths and weaknesses of the equine world. High educational debt, changing student demographics, compensation issues, and family needs of equine veterinarians are also altering the landscape. There are significant challenges but many opportunities in equine practice. 

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While some economic indicators are currently worrisome for the equine world, others remain positive. Equine practice is highly dependent on horse owners feeling wealthy. When stock prices drop, people typically feel less financially confident, even if they only have long-term investments that they do not utilize for ordinary expenses. Last year undermined many investors’ portfolios. Unemployment rates typically rise in recessions but are currently low. In addition, unemployment rates among college graduates are usually significantly lower than for those with less education. 

Since most horse owners are in the educated segment, this bodes well for continued spending in the equine veterinary sector.  When looking at real average household income over the last fifty years, those in the top 20% have seen significant gains, while those in the other quintiles have remained flat. As most horse owners are in the top 20% of national income brackets, this means they have more disposable income to spend on luxuries like horses.

The COVID-19 Pandemic was kind to Equine Practices.

Most practices reported increased revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, with continued growth in 2021. Prepurchase exams increased along with horse sales. Many practitioners were much busier in the number of hours worked as well as emergencies seen. However, this increased workload also increased exhaustion and burnout among veterinarians. 

Equine Practices depend on Horses Remaining Popular and Numerous.

It is estimated that the number of horses in the U.S. has decreased by 23% in the last 10 years. Recent estimates of the U.S. equine population are 6 million (Brakke study 2014), 8.9 million (AVMA AAEP Equine Economic Impact Survey 2016), and 7.2 million (AHC Study 2017). However, the 2017 AVMA Pet Ownership & Demographics Survey suggested that pet horse numbers have fallen by 61% since 2012. The AHC study indicated that horses are located all around the country, with the top three states in order of horse population, being Texas, California, and Florida. Although the costs of keeping a horse have risen, over 90% of horse owners expected to continue to own the same number or more horses in 2022, according to a survey done by American Horse Publications in 2021. Fewer than 10% of respondents expected to own or manage a smaller number of horses in 2022 than they owned or managed in 2021.

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According to the American Horse Council’s 2017 Study, 1.3% of the U.S. population-owned horses, 29.2% of American household members participated in equine-related activities but did not own a horse, and 13.2% spectated at horse events but did not own or participate. This means that in 2012, almost a third of U.S. households owned horses or participated in some way in the equine world, which is very good news for the industry. 

The median age for horse owners at that time was 38 years old, for participants, the median was 22 years old, and for spectators it was 36 years old. Among non-owner horse activity participants, 38% were children less than 18 years of age, so there is a new group of potential owners in the wings for the future. Among horse owners, the study found that 22% had incomes of $100,000 – $149,000 and 28% had incomes over $150,000. The AHC is currently conducting a new survey, and the results will be important in predicting future conditions for the equine veterinary industry.

Horses are Increasingly Valued by Their Owners and Society.

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The 2017 AVMA Pet Ownership & Demographics Survey showed that 42% of horse owners considered their horses to be pets, 47% considered them as family members, and just 11% considered them as property. The increasingly common societal view of animals as sentient beings worthy of humane care is impacting equine sports. Social license to operate is defined as “an intangible, unwritten, and non-legally binding social contract whereby the community gives the industry the right to conduct its business.” In the U.S., the public is currently concerned and attentive to horse racing, particularly – catastrophic breakdowns, track surface, racing of two-year-olds, aftercare of retired racehorses, race-day medication, doping, and whip use. This broad public concern is likely to extend to many aspects of equine sport as social media shines a light on negative practices. Because veterinarians benefit monetarily from some of these issues, this can cause a loss of credibility with the public.

Equine Practice are Widely Varied in Size and Scope.

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According to AVMA 2022 statistics, equine veterinarians are a small fraction (4.1%) of the total number of private practice veterinarians, representing 3,785 of 78,717 total veterinarians. Of those, 65.7% are female veterinarians. Veterinary students are now 85% female on average. Of the members of the AAEP, 49% are over the age of 50 years. In 2016, 52.8% of equine practices had just one to two full-time equivalent veterinarians, while just 20.6% had six or more. 

With These Demographic Changes come Challenges.

One of the most stressful and alienating aspects of equine practice is the need to provide emergency care 24/7/365. This need contributes to high attrition in the field, perhaps because new female entrants often have more family responsibilities. The 2012 AAEP Owner Trainer Survey showed that one of clients’ top priorities in choosing a veterinarian is the availability of on-the-farm emergency care. In the last 20 years, about 50% of new graduates who were AAEP members have let their membership lapse within five years of graduation. The number of new graduates entering equine practice has also been decreasing. From a high of 5.7% in 2003, this number fell to 1% in 2019 before rebounding to 1.4% in 2020 and 2021. In addition, 97 new graduates entered equine internships in 2021. Generally, about 100-110 new graduates enter equine internships each year.

There is Currently a Shortage of Veterinarians to Fill Available Jobs in All Sectors.

In 2021, the AVMA reported that there were 18.5 jobs for veterinarians per veterinarian jobseeker. Salaries, work hours, and emergency service requirements are more attractive to many young graduates in the companion animal sector than in the equine sector. Veterinary unemployment climbed to 1.8% in 2021, up from 0.7% in 2020, according to the AVMA census. This means that 1.8% of veterinarians were looking for employment, enrollment in an internship, residency, or working outside of veterinary medicine. 

In addition, the AVMA 2021 census study revealed that 44% of veterinarians have considered leaving the veterinary profession, up from 38% in 2020. Moreover, 39% of veterinarians said they have considered leaving the veterinary profession within the last five years and 23% said they have considered leaving within the last year. Approximately 26% of veterinarians in 2021 indicated they want to work fewer hours, citing such reasons as better work-life balance and mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and burnout, followed by feelings of being overworked and issues relating to childcare and childbearing.

In a recent study of AAEP membership, associates are among those most likely to be considering a career change. In fact, four out of 10 associates are considering leaving equine medicine, primarily due to lifestyle and/or income concerns.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected veterinary employment to grow 19% percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for other occupations, with 16,800 veterinarians projected to be added. Geographic maldistribution is likely to remain a problem in the profession, which could leave some areas underserved. 

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As the U.S. population increases, the pet ownership percentage is forecast to remain stable, so demand will continue to increase. Regarding job listings throughout the veterinary industry on the AVMA Veterinary Career Center and other job sites, the AVMA reported that 70% come from corporate or consolidated practices, and 30% percent from independently-owned practices. About 35% of veterinary associates are employed by corporate practices, while the remainder work for independently owned single or group practices.

More From This Issue: Finding the Right Practice

Veterinary School Graduates Struggle with Educational Debt.

inancial professionals state that a debt-to-income (DIR) of < 1.4 is reasonable for those in the medical field. In 2021, the DIR for recent graduates entering full-time equine practice was 3.7. According to the AVMA 2022 State of the Profession Report, the average debt of those with debt was $186,430 in 2021, with 11.3% having debt levels at or over $300,000 and 1.4% having debt levels at or over $400,000. Those who attended offshore veterinary schools were more likely to have high amounts of student loans. About 30% of equine-focused graduates had no debt compared to about 20% of graduates entering companion animal practice. Graduates with no debt numbered 16%. 

The combination of growing attrition, high educational debt, emergency service requirements, lower compensation than companion animal positions, and intense work hours in equine practice is a significant challenge to the industry. Fortunately, the strength of the equine industry, despite the current economic downturn, allows continuing opportunity.

Our profession will likely continue to have robust demand and can continue to stay strong into the coming decades through the adoption of new paradigms. Practices are increasingly embracing the changes needed to keep equine veterinarians in equine practice. Through flexible work schedules, improved practice cultures, shortened work weeks, emergency service coalitions, stronger boundaries between work and personal life, and higher compensation, the tide is turning on the loss of exceptional talent that we have been experiencing. These new paradigms allow our changing workforce to have the flexibility and support that they need while still keeping practices financially healthy. Embracing the changes will keep the equine veterinary industry strong for the future. 

This article originally appeared at https://equimanagement.com/articles/the-reality-of-equine-practice-in-2023 

About the Author

Amy L. Grice, VMD, MBA

Dr. Grice was an ambulatory equine practitioner in the Hudson Valley of New York for over 25 years, serving as the managing partner of the thirteen-doctor equine referral hospital in Rhinebeck, NY. At the end of 2014, she retired from clinical practice to concentrate on veterinary business consulting, and moved her residence to Virginia City, MT. 

Dr. Grice received her BA in Biology from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and completed her veterinary education at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. She earned her MBA with a concentration in ethical leadership from Marist College School of Management in 2014. 

Dr. Grice is a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), where she served on the board of directors from 2015-2018, and is currently serving as treasurer (2021-2023). She is also a member of the AVMA Economic Strategy Committee (2018 – present).  Dr. Grice is a frequent speaker at educational seminars for veterinarians across the country, as well as the founder of Decade One, which leads networking groups for equine veterinarians early in their careers. In addition, she consults with a diverse range of veterinary businesses and collaborates with industry partners to bring business education to veterinarians. Dr. Grice aids with transitions of ownership, strategic planning, financial projections, and other solutions for private practitioners. 

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