Kirk Pollard, DVM, pulls up to a gray barn on an already hot Saturday morning. As he walks into the barn aisle, a shaggy white Percheron gelding sticks his head over the stall door, reaching to greet his familiar visitor. In a dulcet voice known to soothe equines and humans alike, the veterinarian greets his longtime patient. He runs a gentle and knowing hand along the draft horse’s speckled side, and the horse nuzzles him in return.
Pollard, aka Dr. P, is the James Herriot of the equestrian community Orange Park Acres in Orange County – and beyond. Like the much-loved veterinarian-author of “All Creatures Great and Small,” his daily rounds run the gamut from drama to comedy, and sometimes, inevitably, to tragedy. Pollard and his business partner, Dr. David Treser, have run Equine Veterinary Associates, Inc. for almost 40 years. It is one of the most highly regarded equine practices in Southern California.
“What makes Kirk stand out in the industry is his unwavering dedication to maintain a practice culture that sets the standard in the field of equine veterinary medicine,” says Treser. “He attends multiple veterinary conferences a year to stay on the leading edge of new developments in equine medicine and surgery, and continues to polish his skills, knowledge and expertise. Kirk works for some of the most well-known and established clients and stables in the Orange County area, and he also enjoys the ‘companion animal’ side of equine veterinary medicine where horses are loved and cherished family members.”
Being a large animal vet is a physically and mentally demanding profession. There’s a classic scene in Herriot’s well-known memoir where he was shoulder-deep in a cow, trying to save an unborn calf – in Pollard’s practice, it would be rescuing a horse with severe colic from an untimely demise. And in any veterinarian’s work, there are times they have had to make the wrenching decision that an animal can’t be saved.
It makes you wonder what keeps Pollard, and horse vets everywhere, going.
“You’ve got to care about the animals,” says the vet, sitting in a hot and dusty tack room on a recent working weekend. “There’s a love of working with animals that you always feel close to. In the end, it comes down to really enjoying working with them. Even the ones that don’t want you, you realize that somebody has to help them.”
My husband, Terry Dowdall, and I moved to Orange Park Acres last February, along with our two horses, Amore and Emma Golda, both drafts – the large, heavy horses traditionally used in farm work but also ridden under saddle. Pollard had been our vet for many years, but the relocation made him our neighbor as well.
The recent PBS adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small” was the first TV show that Terry and I watched in our new home. It prompted us both to reflect upon the commitment, scientific acumen, profound humanity and sheer grit demanded of veterinarians. And it reminded us of Dr. P.
Our own senior gelding, Amore – that’s him in the opening paragraph of this article – wouldn’t be alive today were it not for Dr. Pollard. Amore had been abandoned in poor health, with several chronic conditions undiagnosed. While Dr. Pollard soon had him on track and enjoying a good quality of life, one ailment proved particularly difficult to treat.
Pollard persisted in testing, applying the latest scientific developments, and shifting strategies as needed, until Amore was comfortable and his condition was under control. Sometimes, he would drop by just to visit Amore and, as he would say, “administer carrots.” No wonder that big white horse loves him.
We are certainly not the only ones with such a tale to tell. Pollard has tended to the showbiz steeds and the humble alike: from the Disney drafts and the horses of Medieval Times, to the backyard pets of hither and yon in Orange and Riverside counties.
The people in Orange Park Acres, a nearly 100-year-old equestrian community in central Orange County, may seem far from the crusty farm folk of Herriot’s Yorkshire. Yet they love their animals no less passionately. Moreover, their dedication to a life with animals is evinced by the great lengths they go to pursue a more rural lifestyle amid sprawling suburbia.
“Kirk Pollard is one of the most dear and caring people I know,” says Sherry Hart-Panttaja, owner of Hoofprints Equestrian Program, a training and lesson facility, and president of the Orange Park Association. “He is the vet I use because he understands the costs involved with horses and the business of promoting and educating the public. He does everything possible for my horses and I to all stay healthy.”
The good doctor grew up in these parts. Raised in Southern California, he attended Cal Poly Pomona and UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, which is the top vet school in the West and one of the best anywhere. Back in the day, Pollard recalls, “You could ride from Long Beach all the way to Whittier narrows. My family had horses and I just naturally fell into the groove.”
The only other profession Pollard ever considered was medicine for humans. “But in the end, I chose veterinary school because of my background and experience with horses and the love of the science, regardless of if it was human or animal.”
Decades of practice have given him perspective.
“What we always tell our new veterinarians, and especially kids who want to be horse veterinarians, is that it’s not 8 to 5,” explains Pollard. “And it’s not four or five days a week. It’s almost seven days a week. Look, this is not just a profession, it’s a lifestyle. You can’t separate the two. And if you’re not prepared for that, then this is not the right thing to do. You live, breathe and sleep it.”
Veterinarians need to have good bedside manner and be able to handle humans in situations that are often emotionally fraught. In this regard, large animal vets are no different from small animal vets.
“We always tell pre-veterinary students that this profession is not about working with animals/horses versus people,” says Pollard. “It has everything to do with people who happen to own horses. The horses don’t call you out, the owners do. And you have to be available!
“Working with the horses is the perk. You have to love the science of medicine and then you have the privilege to apply this knowledge to these amazing animals and be able to work outside. Well, if you can’t appreciate that, it is impossible to describe how lucky I am.”
Pollard seems to be as concerned about the people as the horses. “He is always so worried about all of us going through tragedies and illnesses with our horses,” says Hart-Panttaja. “A vet’s life is so thankless and difficult.”
Pollard has witnessed a shift in the field. “The profession has really taken a turn,” he explains. “What was once a male-dominated profession, is now female-dominated. When I got in, we had, probably out of 100, maybe 20 women. And now, it’s just the opposite; there are very few men. In fact, all our associate veterinarians, interns and staff are women.”
The other trend in equine veterinary practice is the increase in available technology.
“Technology and just the overall quality of care and what we can do – like digital radiography, portable ultrasound, shockwave therapy, gastroscopes, laser therapy. Orthopedic therapy has increased significantly too.
“The new vets come out and they’re enthralled with the technology,” he continues. “And it is exciting. But you can’t get away from the blood and guts. You still have to get inside [the cow, à la Herriot] and do those kinds of things.”
Rather than euthanize certain horses, Pollard has been known to take home terminal horses whose owners could no longer care for them. He usually has several such hospice horses at home.
“As his neighbor, I see him constantly working and helping others, no matter how much it takes away from his own personal life,” says Hart-Panttaja. “These horses he rescues and cares for until they need a safe transition over the rainbow.”
Yet, you can ask him, “What’s the best part of the job?” and he is quick to answer.
“Horses,” says Pollard, without missing a beat. “Being around them. Getting to know them. They all have different personalities, just like people. And not only the horses, but the science as well. The science is important because that is what constantly evolves and keeps the profession new and improves the quality of care you can apply.”
Without hesitation, he is equally quick to add: “The worst part is the traffic.” That “worst part” has serious ramifications for attracting veterinary talent to the region.
“The quality of care in our immediate area is very high,” he explains. “It does attract new vets to come to the area, but then comes the reality of sitting in traffic. It eats at some people. And even though they want to practice here, it just overwhelms them. It’s a special kind of tension because it’s an injured animal that you’re trying to get to, and you don’t have any special kind of emergency clearance. Traffic is by far the biggest problem.”
Along with doctors and dentists, veterinarians have among the highest rates of suicide.
“Yes, it’s really gone up in veterinary fields,” Pollard acknowledges. “You get very compassionate people who do the job. And there’s an underbelly to our job that’s not always easy. Animals die, and sometimes tragically. And you are the ultimate one who handles that.”
The tremendous stresses are compensated, at least in part, by the satisfaction of being able to help.
“Once you’re around the animal, and you see that it has a need, and you have the ability to stop that suffering or to help, the satisfaction that you get when you drive away is what keeps you going to the next one,” says Pollard. “But you have to be aware that the next one’s coming. Maybe you can fix that one, and then you get back in your vehicle, and then there’s three more waiting now. You’re never caught up.”
In the end, the life of an equine veterinarian is not an easy one.
“Family events became a private joke,” says Pollard. “The joke/bet was, will he show and then there was the over/under bet as to how long I would be able to stay. Emergency colics, lacerations, illnesses and mares foaling cannot be planned for … unless of course you try to make personal plans. It’s like that saying, ‘If you want to make God laugh, make plans.’
“I always drive separately in my work truck to any personal function because anyone that rides with me knows the reality of the uncertainty of the profession,” he continues. “I had a foal named after me, called SuitNtie, because that is how I came to deliver it that night. The mare was trying to deliver, and I was not the on-call doctor for the practice that night, but the foal’s head was directed down in the birth canal as it was being pushed out. Sometimes minutes matter and you don’t ask a lot of questions when you get calls like that. ‘Doc, I see two feet but no head.’ You just stop what you’re doing and go. I cannot count the number of uneaten dinners I’ve purchased over the years.”
But for Kirk Pollard, DVM, it is a calling.
“If you like what you do, you aren’t aware of time,” he says. “There’s a certain peace. And then you wake up one day and look in the mirror and you wonder why your dad is standing there staring back at you! It goes by in a blink.”
Source: Orange County Register