What Does It Take to Be an Equine Veterinarian?

Katie Navarra

Learn what it takes to be an equine veterinarian.

Ask any animal loving kid what they want to be when they grow up and the answer is usually, a veterinarian. Dr. Kianna Spencer always dreamed of working with horses. A 5th-grade science fair project about horse coat color genetics sparked an interest in equine reproduction. It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she decided to pursue a veterinary degree.

However, plenty of equine veterinarians don’t decide on a career until later on. In college Dr. Carrie Finno wanted to be a horse trainer. Her parents encouraged her to consider vet school. Today she spends her days researching equine genetics, specifically diseases that affect the horse’s neuromuscular system, at the University of California Davis.

Both doctors share their insights into their journey of becoming an equine veterinarian. 

What type of training do I need to become a vet?

A strong undergraduate education is required to be competitive for admission to vet school, explained Dr. Finno. Veterinary experience is also evaluated within the applicant pool. Before Dr. Spencer applied for vet school she sought out other opportunities to strengthen her resume and broaden the scope of her experiences. 

“This included shadowing and working at multiple equine, small, and mixed animal practices. In addition to this, I spent a few years working at a large horse breeding farm,” she said.

At a minimum it takes eight years of schooling to become a vet. That includes four years to earn an undergraduate degree and another four years of vet school. Dr. Finno explained that after four years of DVM training, graduates can either elect to go directly into private practice or sign up for an internship, which typically provides an additional year of clinical training.

What does the path to a career look like?

An individual’s journey to working full-time as a veterinarian depends on their end goals. Many vets choose to go right to work after earning an undergraduate and DVM degree. Others, like Dr. Finno and Dr. Spencer, chose to pursue advanced training in specialized fields. That can range from one to five or more years of schooling.

Here’s the path Dr. Finno followed to becoming a veterinarian and her current role as an associate professor.

  • Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Italian
  • DVM from University of Minnesota 
  • One-year internship
  • Three-year equine medicine residency
  • Four-year PhD program
  • One-year post-doctorate

“That is 13 years of training after college!” she said.  “My parents kept asking if I had a “real” job yet,” she said.

This is Dr. Spencer’s path.

  • Bachelor of Science in Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences with a minor in Equine Science 
  • DVM from The Ohio State University 
  • One-year internship
  • Associate Veterinarian position
  • Enrollment in Large Animal Theriogenology

Optional advanced training can lead to board certification. Reproduction, sports medicine, ophthalmology and dentistry are a few examples. Board certification increases job opportunities in both private practices and university settings.

How much do equine veterinarians earn?

Newly graduated veterinarians average a starting salary of $45,000 - $60,0001 in private equine practices. Associate veterinarians may have an opportunity to earn a bonus for meeting revenue goals above and beyond their basic responsibilities.

As in any career, longevity brings pay increases. In 2019, the median annual wage2 for veterinarians of all animal types was $95,460. By age 50, veterinarians are often making around $140,000.

How much does vet school cost?

Tuition costs start with an undergraduate degree. Costs and fees for a four-year degree vary based on the school and can vary widely based on the individual school chosen. The average yearly cost for a 4-year1 institution is $20,471 for in-state students and about $26,427 for out-of-state students. That makes the average cost of a 4-year undergrad degree: $81,884 - $105,708.

Veterinary schools also have varying tuition prices. For example, the 2020-2021 tuition fees for UC Davis Veterinary School ranges from $32,127 to $44,372.3 Tuition at Texas A&M Veterinary school ranges from $53,930 to $70,489 per year4 based on residency. Multiply the sample tuition rates here by four years and vet school can add approximately $128,000 to $281,956 to the costs of earning a DVM. Board certification and advanced training add to that.

“I realized that veterinary medicine has a high debt to income ratio. It is easy to get in the mindset of “accomplishing the dream at any cost” and look past the large sums that you are borrowing,” Dr. Spencer said. ““I wish I had more information on the financial burden that a veterinary education would hold. If I could go back in time, I would enroll in financial management courses during my time in undergrad.”

What are the challenges of a veterinary career?

A career as a veterinarian is incredibly rewarding, Dr. Finno said. However, she believes it is important to consider the following:

  • Ensure this is the right choice before applying to school. Working closely with a veterinarian can help with this.

“In particular, be sure to experience the difficulties associated with humane euthanasia in veterinary medicine and the pressures that DVMs are subjected to,” she said. “You want to make sure you understand all of the positive and negative aspects of this career choice.”

  • Maintain a sense of humor and develop strong friendships throughout schooling and hands-on training.

“There can be some really difficult moments, both in school and during your subsequent career, and it's so important to have the right perspective and support structure,” she said.

Parting advice

Veterinarians tend to be extremely driven and motivated towards achieving goals, often with a perfectionist personality. These attributes are part of being a successful veterinarian but can also encourage work to take precedence over a personal life. 

“Having a good work-life balance can help to lower stress, increase productivity and reduce the risk of burnout, making long-term success a more sustainable goal,” Dr. Spencer said. “Every day the veterinary profession becomes increasingly more aware of the importance of work-life balance in the aspect of mental health. Many schools are prioritizing the arming of new graduates with more wellness resources and tools than ever before.”

 It is easy to get caught up in the several years, internships, residencies, etc., and see them as a tunnel with your goals being the light at the end. But veterinary school, jobs in the field, and other opportunities are some of the most rewarding and fun experiences of your life. 

“I absolutely love my job and all the years of training are worth the excitement I feel every day when I come to work,” Dr. Finno said.

1. Equimanagement. “The Cost of Becoming an Equine Veterinarian.” https://equimanagement.com/articles/cost-equine-veterinarian-28435.

2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Veterinarians.” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinarians.htm.

3. Education Data. “Average Cost of College & Tuition.” https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college.

4. UC DAVIS. “2020-21 Tuition and Fees for the School of Veterinary Medicine, DVM Degree Program.” https://financeandbusiness.ucdavis.edu/student-resources/tuition-fees/professional/dvm.

5. Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Estimated Cost of Attendance for Veterinary Students.” https://vetmed.tamu.edu/dvm/admissions/tuition/.

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