Thursday, March 29, 2012
Dr. Kristen Pastir, Association Veterinarian
Dr. Kristen Pastir says she knew she would be a large-animal veterinarian when she was born. It's hard to tell if she is joking. The first-year Tampa Bay Downs Association Veterinarian, who considers herself an advocate for the track's Thoroughbred population, rode hunter-jumpers from an early age and found herself more comfortable around them than most people. Determined to answer her calling, Pastir attended the pre-veterinary medicine animal program at the
University of New Hampshire and graduated from Cornell's in 2007. After completing an internship at New England Equine in College of Veterinary Medicine Dover, N.H., she opened her private practice, Granite Glen Equine in , focusing on sport horses. Pastir joined the New York Racing Association as an Associate Examining Veterinarian in 2009, working meetings at each of the NYRA's tracks -- Groton, N.Y. Saratoga, and Aqueduct. At Tampa Bay Downs, she works in concert with Dr. Robert M. Calley, inspecting each day's entries, conducting random pre-race testing for illegal substances and handling emergencies as they arise. The 29-year-old Pastir is the founder of an adoption chapter called Two Turns Thoroughbreds, which has found new homes for 20 horses, many of which she retrained before adoption. She owns two retired Thoroughbreds, Proud Escapade and Desert Scents, a Dutch Warmblood named Denny and a dog, Belmont . Tyler
I really think some people are born bonding more to animals than people. That certainly was the case with me. Growing up, I felt more comfortable telling things to my German shepherds, Ginger and Heidi. A lot of people think my job is hard because horses can't tell you what is wrong, but if you're in tune with them you can tell. It's not as much of a mystery as you might think.
Someone can be very book-smart, but that doesn't mean you're a good vet. A lot of what we do is cut-and-dry – they are either lame or they're not – but at the same time it is a feeling, knowing when a horse is sore or when it is just stiff. I believe some people have the knack of reading them. For me, it is truly a calling.
My feeling about being with horses is really the same now as it was when I was riding as a young girl. We didn't own horses – I rode at a public stable – so I only got so much time with them, and I wanted to make that time the best I possibly could. Not all of them had the best lives, but I believed I could be good for them for that hour or three hours I was with them, whether it was on a trail ride or some other activity.
On race days, Dr. Calley and I usually begin between 7-8 a.m. by examining the horses that are entered that day. He and I split the barn area, and we switch every other week, which has enabled both of us to get to know the entire horse population and to have a fresh set of eyes looking at every horse.
Each horse gets the same exam, whether it is a stakes horses that just shipped in or a $5,000 claiming horse we've seen a half-dozen times. The stakes horses do make it fun, because they are true professional athletes. Regardless, I don't look at who the trainer is or if the horse is the favorite. What it comes down to is this: Is the horse sore or not? That's all that matters when it comes to deciding if it is fit to compete that day.
All in all, the exam is fairly superficial, but we still can tell a lot. We palpate (feel) the front legs, then we pick up each leg in flexion and palpate the joints, see if there is any change in fluids. Generally, we don't palpate the back legs unless we feel we have a reason. We keep a record on every horse that runs, so if a horse has joint fluid and is a little stiff, that is concerning. We also check for heat or swelling and see if the horse feels any pain on palpation. Horses are symmetrical, so if you feel down one leg and the horse has a big tendon and the other leg is not like that, you know 'OK, this is a true problem.’
The biggest part of the exam is watching them jog. Many horses in this population are older and run frequently, and a lot of them need warming up to feel good and feel like running. I'm sensitive to that, because I'm a runner and I need warming up. There is a huge difference between a horse being stiff and being sore, and that is part of the art of what I do – knowing the difference.
Most trainers strive to do the right thing by their horses. But I've heard it said 'This horse has a funny way of going.' I watch it jog and I can see it's not a funny way of going, it's lameness. There are ways a layman can tell. Sometimes, when the painful limb hits the ground, the horse's head goes up – we call that 'On the nod' – signifying the limb is really sore.
In other cases, a horse may be stiff – we call that 'crabby' – but I can tell watching it that it is not hurting and just needs to warm up and stretch a bit. For me, that part of the exam is an art. Often, it is the way they look at me that tells me how they are feeling. I can sense that they are not hurting, and they'll go out and look absolutely pristine. They just needed to warm up and stretch a little bit.
One disadvantage of the pre-race exam at any track is that these horses are, literally, athletes, but all we do is pull them out of their stalls and make them jog a short distance within a narrow shed row with a usually uneven surface. When you are dealing with 90 or more exams a day, that is the reality of the situation. So if I am about to scratch a horse but I'm not sure if it is the shed row or not, we'll take the horse on the pavement or the grass to jog more extensively.
During the races, either Dr. Calley or I am on the track, while the other one does the blood-gas testing for 'milkshaking,' where unscrupulous trainers buffer the blood to give their horse more endurance. A random drawing is held beforehand to determine which horses will be tested, and it is done 45 minutes or an hour out from post time. All graded stakes horses are tested.
Not only is milkshaking illegal, it's harmful because you're pushing the horse beyond its physical limitations. Most breakdowns occur when the muscles and ligaments have become fatigued and can no longer support the skeletal structures. When a horse that has been 'milkshaked' reaches the stretch and should be tired, but it's not, that can cause undue stress on the rest of their body. And by messing with a horse's blood pH, you can kill them. That is why milkshaking is not safe and it's not right and why testing is necessary.
Our job on the frontside is to watch them in the paddock. If a horse flips and hits its head, and we can't discern how serious the damage is, it has to be scratched. Horses do silly things, and our job on the track is to make sure everybody stays safe. We're also there for emergency coverage if a horse comes back sore or breaks down. Heat stroke can also be an issue, especially this time of year. If a horse bleeds from the nostrils excessively and it looks a little wobbly, we'll ask that it be given a ride back to their barn.
A guy at Tampa Bay Downs jokingly calls me 'Cornell' after Robert Pattinson's character in the movie 'Water for Elephants.' In the flick, the character leaves the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to join the circus, only to discover his ideals and principles regarding the treatment of animals clash with the circus owner's view that 'the show must go on' no matter what.
I don't think I was as naïve as that character when I got to NYRA! But I have to admit, working at the track has been an eye-opening experience. When I started in
, I was told "Your job is not to be the (horsemen's) friend. It is to take care of the horses." New York
I have found that many people on the backside really do love their horses. But this is a business. There are tons of little tricks to get a horse past the exam, but for us, that is the benefit of having a lot of experience under your belt. When I was in
, trainers figured out quickly I was strict. A horse can always run another day. They have to be at a certain threshold for me to pass them. New York
I think for me the biggest disillusionment at the racetrack was meeting some very nice people who I found didn't care that much about the horse or didn't know enough to make good decisions. They are very few and far between, but they are there. I learned I had to put a wall up. I can be friendly, but whether I am friends with someone or not, it's not going to make a difference in my decisions.
I'm not here to be friends with the horsemen. I'm here to look out for the horses and be their voice.
When a horse breaks down, we are the last ones with them. We're the ones who have to look them in the eye and kind of take what every human has done to that horse in its life and take responsibility for it. Every horse I have put down plays over and over and over again in my head, and I remember every single one.
So even if things were done to cover up and get them past us, we are the ones who let them go out there. I take it very seriously and I take it to heart, because the only reason I am here is that I love horses.
This can be a scary job because horses are unpredictable. They will beat you up. My right index finger will never be the same; it was bitten doing a dentistry procedure. The most serious I've ever been hurt was last spring at my private practice in New York, when I was doing a reproductive ultrasound on a mare and I got double-barreled – I went to lift her tail to wrap it, and she fired out with both hind legs and sent me flying. She was sedated, too!
I was unconscious for a while. She left a big horseshoe imprint on my side. That was a very scary day. You have to give them a little leeway because they have so little control over their lives, but she was just a mean animal.
I couldn't walk for a while, but I went back in a few days and ultrasounded her, and she was in foal. I told the owners "Good luck, but I'm not coming back to take care of the foal!"
My motivation to start Two Turns Thoroughbreds was to find an outlet for those horses that didn't want to run any more and had no place to go. It is similar to TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) – the goal is to retrain race horses for a second career. We've already adopted out 20, many of which I retrained and found homes for myself. It's been fun, and it's good for me because I knew them in
. I mostly retrain horses for hunter-jumper careers, because that was my discipline as a girl. New York
Some people think Thoroughbreds are wild and crazy when they get off the track, but most are not hard to retrain. They get ridden every day as race horses. You just have to translate what they know from here into what riding people use as cues.
Thoroughbreds are incredibly honest, they want to please and they can do anything. And most of them are kids' horses, because they no longer want to run so kids can tool around on them, take them over little jumps and on trail rides, and they're happy.
One of my personal horses, Proud Escapade, used to run at Tampa Bay Downs. He won five races but only earned $42,000, and by the time he was 4 years old he was 'old' and 'done' as a race horse because he was no longer sound for racing. But to the rest of the horse world, he was a baby. He's 7 now, lives on a farm in
and is doing fine. Like so many ex-race horses, he has great potential for a productive career. New York
I'll be going from here to Colonial Downs in
Virginia as an Association Veterinarian, then I'm probably going to to do private practice. It's a really tough circuit to break into because it's big trainers and big horses and all the best vets in the world are there, but I figure if I'm going to go somewhere and not know if I am going to make money, it might as well be Saratoga. Saratoga
People I know ask, 'How can you still love racing?' and I always think of the first time I saw
run in the 2010 Metropolitan Handicap at . He was coming down the lane and digging in, and Musket Man came up on his side, and Belmont
just found more. And I thought, 'This is what they've been bred for.'
I guess that is the addiction for me to keep coming back. The negative aspects will not erode my principles and my standards. I do have days when I think I am getting jaded, and then you hang out with the horses and think, 'This is why I'm here. This is their life.' And nothing will ever change that.