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Ayrshire horse vet retires

MAY 2012 saw the retirement of reknown Ayrshire horse vet Dr Andy Matthews BVM&S (Dist), PhD, DipECEIM, Hon MACVO, FRCVS.

Dr Matthews joined McKenzie, Bryson and Marshall in Kilmarnock in 1983, with the aim of beginning a dedicated equine practice. After graduating from the Dick Vet School in 1976, Dr Matthews studied for a PhD in immunology of horse lung disease, at that time sharing an office with Paddy Dixon, now professor of equine surgery at the Dick Vet School.

"After lecturing at the 'Dick' for two years, I subsequently worked for two years in equine practice in Oxfordshire with Peter Thorne, who became my mentor and I freely admit my approach to veterinary practice is mirrored on his," explained Dr Matthews.

"While there I developed my interest in equine eye disease, and ran a funded research programme studying ocular immunology in the horse. Research from practice was something only one other practice, in Newmarket, had ever done. I was asked to join McKenzie, Bryson and Marshall and began to build up the equine side of the practice into the modern, multivet clinic it now is.

"I was able to continue to develop my interest in ophthalmology, forming links with veterinary ophthalmologists in Europe and America and having many of them visit the practice over the years. I also joined the veterinary team at Ayr Racecourse, serving as the senior racecourse veterinary surgeon during the last 10 years.

"I do not come from a horse background, although my grandfather was a trooper in the Ayrshire Yeomanry. I have a photograph of him taken at Dundonald Camp in 1913, mounted on a very typical 'Ayrshire horse'. I had always intended to return to Scotland to work and bring up my family, and this seemed the appropriate time."

What is the best change you have witnessed in the horse industry?

In the 35 years I have been involved with horses, probably the most significant change in the industry I have seen is the general increase in welfare standards. This is in part due to proactive educational campaigns by various bodies, culminating in the publication of the government's Equine Welfare Guidelines in 2002.

Part of this has been the introduction of the microchipping and passporting of horses, intended to allow for a better database of the overall equine population in the UK. Unfortunately the passport legislation was poorly structured, and the multiplicity of passport allocating bodies has failed in the intention to have a centralised registry of the UK horse population.

I also think that from a welfare point of view, a major change for the better has come in the improvement of farriery standards across the board. I have been involved in examining farriers at all levels over the last few years, and have been impressed by the efforts being made by the Worshipful Company of Farriers to raise the educational standards.

Proudest moment?

My proudest moment was becoming the first person to be awarded Honorary Membership of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists in 2011.

What are the best veterinary improvements you've seen over the years?

In terms of equine veterinary medicine, there has been a sea of change in clinical practice over the last 35 years. This includes the introduction of the now routine techniques of ultrasound scanning and videoendoscopy.

However from the practitioner's standpoint, I think the development and introduction of reliable methods of sedation of horses has been overwhelmingly significant. This allows for stress free clinical interventions, both for the horse and for the vet, and has virtually made physical methods of restraint almost obsolete. Also significant has been the development of increasing effective pain moderating drugs for horses. In my years as a practicing vet I have witnessed an accelerating understanding of equine disease, both in knowledge of the origin of disease and how to treat that disease. This has been most evident in problems such as colic and lameness, but also in eye diseases. However we still have way a long way to go, and some challenging problems will remain beyond solving for some time yet, most notably successful treatment of high limb fractures.

If you could change one thing in the Scottish horse industry, what would it be?

The weather! Otherwise, if the industry can maintain it's current forward momentum in educating owners and horse keepers in all aspects of equine welfare then the future remains bright. As an afterthought, perhaps owners should reflect seriously on the idea of breeding from a mare simply because they can find no other use for them.

What time of year do you look forward to and why?

Spring and summer are the best times of year. Everyone is optimistic, foals decorate paddocks and the long days ameliorate the time pressures on busy vets.

What advice would you give to anyone coming into the industry?

The same two pieces of advice my mentor Peter Thorne gave me.

1. There is nothing like a horse to make a fool of you, live with it!

2. It is a poor day (as a horse vet) if you don't learn something new.

One horse that sticks in your mind?

As a young vet in Oxfordshire we had a valuable and heavily in foal mare manage to run a fence post deep into her chest. We repaired the damage as best we could but it was impossible to stop air entering her chest through the wound, collapsing her left lung. Finally I attached the household vacuum cleaner to a chest drain I had inserted and sucked out the unwanted air. We repeated this for several days until the wound sealed. To our delight the mare produced a normal healthy foal two weeks later.

Another is my own horse Toby, a racehorse, who taught me to be much more empathetic with my clients.

Do you have any memorable stories?

At Ayr Races, Harvey Smith, who was training racehorses at this time, called me over to meet his wife Sue. I didn't know what to expect, but he introduced me as a 'right proper horse vet'. I'm not quite sure what he meant, but coming from Harvey Smith I took it as complimentary.

Being called to deal with a horse which had fallen into a very old and disused slurry pit when the railway sleepers covering (and hiding) the pit gave way. I arrived to find the fire brigade in attendance, and to see only a black and white head sticking out of the ground, surveying the scene and wearing a very surprised expression.

After some considerable effort on the part of myself and the firemen, the horse was recovered from the pit, surprisingly none the worse for wear and all the better for a good hosing down. The sole concern of the senior fire officer at the scene was the risk to his men from the contents of the now horse free slurry pit. I, like most other people in the world, had no idea what the risks from dried pre-war slurry could be, and quickly left the officer to his own devices on that one.

Retirement plans:

I will spend time getting to know my new granddaughter and build a new garden at our house in Angus. I hope to continue to see referral eye cases in Scotland, and have been asked to teach courses in horse eye disease in North America and in Europe over the coming year. In June 2012 I begin a two-year period as president of the International Equine Ophthalmology Consortium, beginning at the annual conference being held at the University of Stirling. Outside of that, I have plans to spend time in the mountains of Arctic Norway and in Tasmania.

Any tales of your funniest patients?

Comedy moments tend to fall into the 'funny peculiar' rather than the 'funny ha-ha' category. One day I twinned an orphan Clydesdale foal on to a Shetland mare who had lost her foal the same day. The twinning went well with both parties happy with the arrangement. However, there was the major issue of size difference, and how was the mare to suckle the foal. This was addressed by the pair discovering very quickly that with both parties lying down on their sides the mare was able very successfully to nurse her 'new' baby.

Some time ago an owner showed me that a difficult eye disease affecting her horse could be quickly cured using human saliva placed onto the eye. The owner had been advised to do this by a gypsy she had met in a pub. Since then I have brought this up at eye conferences across the world, and been ridiculed in a pleasant way by disbelieving colleagues, till they try it.