Day At The Track

Veterinarian Dr. Michelle MacDougall always "On Call"

02:08 AM 24 Jul 2017 NZST
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Dr Michelle MacDougall preparing for show competition
Vicki Wright photo
Dr Michelle MacDougall at work
Jessica Hallett photo
Dr Michelle MacDougall competing in an Under Saddle Race
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Dr Michelle MacDougall having a little fun at the beach
Desi Dessureault photo
Dr Michelle MacDougall Eventing with her Standardbred
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Dr Michelle MacDougall competing in Dressage
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"Gotta get to the paddock. What did the paddock schedule say? Let me read it again...okay, I have to be in the paddock with the horse at 6:20 p.m., that's in ten minutes. The horse is ready, he's in the stall for one last time before we head up to the paddock.

"Alright, paddock time...fourth race, number...I forgot the number. Alright, I am the four horse...number is on...buckets are filled with water, wait...where's the sponge? Oh, there it is. Warming up in 15 minutes...jog cart is here...does this horse wear a tongue tie to warm-up?

Race time. We race in..."attention horsemen, 5 minutes, 5 minutes to post"...oh no, where's the bike?! on, tongue tie on, driver on, post parade out. Going to the gate at two-to-one, got a trip following the favorite...what is going on? He finished up the track, last quarter 32 seconds. I need to call the vet to see what's going on with him."

A horse race functions like a car. There's many parts that make it work. Even though the buyer only sees the car and the crowds only see the horse and driver, there's a complex web of parts that work behind the scenes to move the car and keep it running as there are many people and factors that contribute to getting a horse to the races.

These factors work like cogs, where each piece moves the next and if one piece stops working, nothing will function properly. There's many articles showcasing owners and trainers, drivers and horses; however, there's a key factor amidst the rest, one that maintains the health of the animal and is vital in its journey to the track, but is invisible to the spotlight. This piece doesn't work for the spotlight or for the winning title, this piece works for the sole purpose of the horse: the veterinarian.

A veterinarian is the first person called when an animal is acting out of the ordinary. When a horse finishes up the track, takes a bad step, stops eating, or anything abnormal to its typical behavior, trainers call the vet first.

The veterinarian is here now at my barn. It's almost eight o'clock. The horse just raced and the vet is already here. Her husband has a horse in the sixth race but she's here at my barn looking after my horse. She's scoping the horse and it's coming up with a flipped palette...explains the unfortunate events of the race.

My daughter is beside me, it's her horse. The vet is explaining what a flipped palette is to my daughter, she wants to be a veterinarian, too.

"A flipped palette is when the tissues in the airway constrict so much as to block the airway, preventing the horse from getting proper airflow throughout the race," Doctor Michelle MacDougall explains to her while allowing her to observe through the scope.

Doctor MacDougall reassures my daughter that the condition is treatable and the horse will be fine.

Besides treating the animal, veterinarians need to treat the trainers, too. While focusing on what the horse has going on and what the horse needs, the vet has to account for the hovering and concerned "parents".

Doctor Michelle MacDougall has been a veterinarian for large animals for nine years, since she graduated veterinary college in 2008.

She has centered her focus on large animals, only working with small animals as a volunteer and for very small amounts of time. She refers to her four-legged patients as "little babies". "They are all my little babies and they are all my favorite. I don't have a single best case and all my patients are special, it wouldn't be fair to pick just one," states Doc MacDougall.

I, myself, have been that same little girl, as have many horsemen across many racetracks. I have found myself concerned about my favorite horse but comforted by Michelle's words and teaching.

She has shown me the inside of a scope on multiple occasions for my own horses and had even taken me on as a student for the summer of 2015. Throughout that summer, I had my heart set on becoming a veterinarian, I was intrigued by the knowledge Michelle had given me.

She had shown me behind the scenes of her life, the ropes of becoming and actually being a vet. I spent the summer as her assistant and learned a wealth of information. However, and unfortunately, I have come to find that I do not have what it takes to follow in Michelle's footsteps. Michelle deals with the toughest parts of this business and of being a veterinarian.

"The hardest part is not being able to help the horse. Despite examinations, blood work, diagnostics, and all the hopes and prayers, there are going to be some times that I simply cannot help the horse. Those are the hard times," says Michelle.

Personally, I found that Michelle is strong, she is able to compose herself in these times, not for herself but for the sake of the trainer.

On the other hand, amidst the tough times are seemingly small joys that have an enormous impact.

"The best part of being a vet is being able to wake up every day and go to work doing something that I truly love to do, "Michelle says. "The best times come with watching a horse make its way to the racetrack after a long treatment or watching a foal come into the world."

Michelle has experienced it all and has played a vital role in each event.

In a nutshell, Michelle was born and raised in Maine. She became hooked on the outdoors as her daycare was a dairy farm that became a produce farm (Frugal Farmers) where she learned an honest day's work. She had an extensive career training and competing horses locally and regionally through high school and undergraduate school. She went to undergraduate school at the University of New Hampshire.

Michelle MacDougall graduated veterinary school nine years ago from the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

"I can't remember the exact moment when I decided to become a veterinarian and I can't remember wanting to do anything else," Michelle says. "Growing up I wanted to become a professional equestrian for the Olympics or World Games, but at the same time, I didn't have the 'horsepower' for that and so my mind was always set on becoming a veterinarian."

Around the age of five or six years old, Michelle said she was introduced to a retired Standardbred named Kimberly Blaze. During Michelle's first ever horse show, her pony to be ridden came up lame and so Kimberly Blaze had to step in and save the day.

Although Michelle had never ridden the mare before, she says Kimberly hauled her around the ring like a champ, earning her a ribbon in every class and reining Michelle in for a long-term passion for horses. Ever since that first show with Kimberly, Michelle has ridden many Standardbreds and "each one is unique in its own way." Michelle claims.

She had already fallen in love with horses from the show ring but had a newfound excitement when she later came across harness racing while working in Maine for a Standardbred veterinarian.

"I was introduced to this business in Maine," Michelle explained, "and there was no looking back. It was a new level of competition and excitement for me. They are just marvelous animals and simply love being a part of the sport.

"I have a huge competitive spirit and I just love helping a horse become stronger and better for their owners and trainers. I watch almost every race that my clients participate in. I love to see my patients excel on the racetrack," Doc MacDougall stated.

While working in Maine, Michelle had also met Jason MacDougall. He was one of the clients at the clinic she worked at when she graduated from vet school. He is a profession harness racing driver and trainer of 27 years. He has trained horses with Michelle for nearly ten years.

"Michelle is a good vet and she loves animals, it's simple as that. For me, Michelle holds me together. She started our breeding farm and she started this new way of running our stable. Our horses are now our pets. All of our horses have a home for life with us," Jason says, "Michelle keeps me balanced and level-headed."

Michelle has certainly had a reputable career working with horses. She has been a riding/driving instructor at Photo Finish Farm in Buxton, Maine. She has also been self-employed as a riding/driving instructor, as well as pleasure horse trainer for the past 25 years.

Competitively, Michelle has competed in Eventing, Dressage, Gymkhana, Pleasure Driving, Competitive Driving, Distance Riding, Drill Team, Racing Under Saddle (RUS) and public demonstrations. She has represented Maine and SPHO Maine in competitive events as well including the USCTA Trials in Gladstone, NJ, the Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA and again, in Columbus, OH.

She still continues to ride and compete. Every year, she takes a weekend to compete with a currently racing Standardbred in the SPHO National Show to showcase how versatile a Standardbred can be.

"Michelle is one of my closest friends, said Tioga Downs caretaker, Tabitha Teresczuk. "We travel together to the National Show each year and she's always there for me. Whether we are out riding, driving to our next show, or in the barn at the racetrack, I always have her to talk to."

Michelle began competing in the RUS program in Maine where the horsemen held a small circuit. The circuit followed the horsemen's own rules, with no governing body and no purse money, but with "the greatest fun in the world."

These RUS races had 'gentlemen's starts' where each member of the race starts off equally without the use of a starting car, breaking horses, men and women riders, trotters and pacers. The race was for the fun of the horsemen and spectators, as an exhibition race.

Later, the RUS race made its way to Tioga Downs as a USTA sanctioned race. Michelle earned a RUS license and qualified her mount, One More Lap. She was ecstatic as her previous RUS races had been on fair tracks with retired older horses and now, it was on the lightning fast Tioga Downs surface abroad fit and healthy racehorses.

Qualifying One More Lap became more than her first USTA RUS race, but her most memorable moment in the division. After crossing the finish line, Michelle began to pull the horse up. However, the rhythm of the movement wasn't there, the horse and Michelle pulling opposite ways and so, Michelle landed on her head.

"There was a bit of fuzziness for a while but not to worry," Michelle told everyone. "I came through the experience undaunted and rode the mare the next week to a spectacular second place finish."

The next RUS race Michelle competed in was on Current Image at Colonial Downs.

"What a difference racing Tioga Downs and Colonial Downs," Michelle explained. "From the top of the stretch at Colonial Downs, the finish line looked like it was simply never going to come. But it was just as exciting. Except I missed the start, oops."

As a rider, Michelle has many achievements and awards.

"As many people know, showing horses awards the rider with a ribbon. It is neither money nor fame, it is a silly little colored ribbon," Michelle says.

"But, to us riders, that ribbon is so very important. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to fill rooms with my ribbons, trophies, plaques, blankets, pictures, and more.

"However, the best awards are the memories," Michelle added. "The time shared with the horse; the long hours schooling the moves; the cleaning, packing, grooming; the re-cleaning, repacking, regrooming; the anxiety and nerves; and finally, the achievement.

"The physical awards are wonderful, but the memories are the best," Michelle said. "Good friends, good horses, great times. There's not much better than."

Michelle has been featured in books, magazines, and multiple published articles in the United States, Canada, and abroad. She helped edit and compose a Veterinary section in a book, "Retraining the Harness Racehorse" by Robyn Cuffey and Maryanne Donovan-Wright.

She serves on the board of "Futures for Standardbreds" which helps place Standardbreds in good homes when their racing careers are finished. She also participates as a member in numerous other Standardbred related groups.

As a horsewoman, Michelle assists her husband with the MacDougall Racing Stable whenever she gets a free moment. She has also helped her husband start a small Standardbred breeding operation based out of Florida.

The breeding operation began out of availability, as Michelle puts it. "My husband has been involved in the business for over 30 years. But he did it like a man...not a woman...he never got attached."

Once Michelle entered the picture, horses became pets rather than a business commodity. Selling horses became heartbreaking and nearly impossible to follow through. Thus, the breeding farm began.

Most of their breeding stock is from horses that Jason had previously raced. They were all well bred horses, but were finished in their racing careers. The first mating pair produced Conman's Dream.

"He's not a world beater," Michelle said. "but he was successful in his two and three-year-old Florida Stakes career and should make a decent overnight horse. He has a home for life!"

Michelle's favorite horse throughout her life was a horse named Monte Carlo. He was her first horse, a Standardbred.

"Together we ruled the world!" Michelle said.

Her current favorite riding horse is College Major, her mount for the National SPHO Horse Show. Her favorite racing horse is Conman's Dream, her "homebred" and first foal. "There will be none more special than the first born!"

As a veterinarian, Michelle began as an assistant at Blackstrap Hill Veterinary Clinic in Cumberland Center, Maine. After she graduated from vet school, she became an associate of the practice. Later, she branched out on her own creating her own business, Michelle MacDougall, DVM.

Currently, Michelle works for herself as an equine veterinarian at Tioga Downs during the spring and summer months and at Pompano Park during the fall and winter months.

In the spring of 2011, Michelle and Jason moved their stable from Maine to New York upon Jason's judgement of a better fit racetrack, at Tioga Downs. At the end of that meet, their stable was then moved to Colonial Downs in Virginia for the fall. The move to Florida was on a recommendation by fellow horsemen.

They suggested trying a training center in Florida for the winter. In that winter of 2011, they moved to Reveille Farms in Astor, Florida. In 2012, they purchased their first Florida home and began the breeding program. "Now we have oranges on our license plates!" Michelle said, "We get to have Florida winter weather and New York summer weather, it's beautiful all year long. It's perfect!"

Michelle's days and nights are filled with work. "I do not take days off, I do not take vacations." She works seven days a week, for most hours of the day. "I do vet work until vet work is done, I assist my husband with the stable, and then once I am home, I continue with records, billing and paperwork. I easily put 16-18-hour days, seven days a week. It's not a job for the light-hearted but I love what I do.

"My clients are very understanding that when the races are going on, I will be assisting my husband's stable," Michelle added. "I also make a point of watching every race that I can, so when I am not helping in the paddock, I am sitting somewhere watching the monitors. I like to be able to see the horses at speed as well as examine them up close, and being in the paddock and watching races lets me do this.

"My clients seem to appreciate this and they are very willing to schedule examinations or treatments before or after the races."

Michelle starts her day early in the morning with a list of clients already written up. However, that same list becomes longer and longer throughout the day. She deals with everything from emergencies in the barnyard to last minute Coggins, which actually seem like emergencies to frantic trainers.

"Michelle is dependable. She's always available when we need her. She maintains professionalism and is reasonable in every aspect. Michelle is considerate of both the trainer and the horse," said trainers Mario and Desi Dessureault.

Michelle is able to compartmentalize between her personal and professional lives.

"I try to treat all my horses with the utmost respect." Michelle explained. "I try to treat all patients as if they are the next world champion. I definitely try not to take anything for granted,"

One of Michelle's long term professional goals is to open up her own surgical facility.

"I very much enjoy surgery and figured as I get older," Michelle said. "The hours I currently keep might start to catch up to me. It is not out of the question, but I currently do not have anything in place.

"As far as I am concerned, I am quite happy to continue practicing within the barn areas of the racetrack. I think I have the ability to help the horses, I enjoy what I do and I can manage the hours. For now, I am content to stay as I am, but that is not ruling out a future in surgery."

Although Michelle hasn't built upon her surgical dream, she has greatly impacted her current practice with the creation of a new treatment. It's called the DABS and it is a soft tissue internal blister.

The procedure has helped many race horses overcome potentially career ending injuries such as bowed tendons, suspensory's, and other lower limb soft tissues by using their own blood properties in the treatment. Trainers from across the country have traveled to Tioga Downs and Florida to have the procedure done.

Driver and trainer Nick Surick said "Following the advice of an owner, I sent over one of my horses to Michelle for the procedure. Although I was hesitant, I was also sure that without it, the horse would need to be turned out with a chance of not racing again. After Michelle's procedure, I have had great success and she has done other horses in my barn as well."

From Coggins testing to career saving treatments and everything in between, veterinarian Michelle MacDougall has done at all, all the while tending to the trainers and horses simultaneously. She has become very well-known and has had a remarkable background working with horses in such a short period of time. There is certainly more to come.

Alright, it's one week later, Michelle treated the horse for the flipped palette and I followed her advice to-a-T. We have the four hole in the fifth race and our odds seemed to skyrocket after last week's start.

The horse is on the track, everything seems to be going well. Last quarter 28 seconds and change, good. Thanks to Doc MacDougall this horse is back to its normal self. I have to remember to thank her later.

Thank you to Doctor Michelle MacDougall and all veterinarians for everything you do, from all horsemen, owners and trainers, and horses.

by Jessica Hallett, for Harnesslink

Jessica Hallett is a new correspondent for Harnesslink. Jessica, 18, lives in Margate, Florida and will be attending Nova Southeastern University this fall. She is the daughter of Pompano Park/Tioga Downs owner/trainers John and Michelle Hallett.

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