Few people truly understand how tough it is to be an equine reproductive vet. The job is physically and mentally relentless and there is a distinct physical risk to safety. Dr Kate Murray is based in Four Mile House, Co Roscommon and reveals a brutal schedule during the breeding season: “The physical act of scanning or inseminating the mare is the easiest part.
The morning jobs to be done before breakfast alone are extensive; scanning mares for frozen semen at 6am (around 10 mares every six hours) followed by scanning mares for chilled imports, collecting semen for shipping, plus the yard has to be fed and cleaned. It’s so much, and we’ve no staff. It’s just my husband Keith and our daughter Eva in the summer.”
After breakfast, Kate needs the herd of 50-60 resident mares to be brought in from the field and scanned before any outpatient mares arrive. “That’s why we don’t want any outside mares in the yard until 11 am. By noon I need to scan frozen cycle mares again and grab some lunch. I then continue the resident mares and collect fresh semen from the stallions for resident mares and do whatever jobs transpired since morning. By then, it’s time for evening outpatient scanning and frozen cycles again at 6pm, and outpatients continue.”
For most professionals, the day would be winding up by 6pm. However, for Kate, the evening yards have to happen somewhere in the meantime, but by midnight she is back in the clinic to scan frozen cycle mares again to see where they are in their ovulation cycle.
“That’s seven days a week, March to September,” she admits. “It’s really straining, nerves get frayed, but things must run smoothly; otherwise, it can get overwhelming. I get to eat two meals and get to sleep a bit, but not nearly enough. I rarely get a few minutes to relax and do something else for a while.”
With a schedule as relentless as Kate’s, self-care becomes a survival technique as opposed to a luxury, and she says of that survival: “Structure is essential for my wellbeing, not doing everything at once, and knowing that I’ll get finished in time to eat and sleep. That’s why we try to do outpatient mares at designated times, as otherwise, it throws a spanner in the works. Even if I don’t get time off, it’s essential to have a peaceful time to eat and have a time when clients can’t reach me on the phone – so calls at 11pm or 6pm are not answered.
“A regular sleep pattern is fundamental to me because I don’t get enough sleep for months on end. This regularity, despite its brevity, allows me to function. I try to ride my horse as long into the season as possible too to relax but generally don’t manage it past the middle of May. And I try to find 10 minutes to go into the garden occasionally.”
As with many equestrian professions, often it is the people, not the horses, that prove the most testing, and for Kate, that is no different: “I have to say that I have no tolerance for people who upset me during the height of the season, I cannot allow anyone to push me past the breaking point. I need to finish the season on the best note possible and still live and work once it’s over. It can mean that I fall out with some people and some people need to go elsewhere. But there’s no other way; I have limits of endurance. I want to enjoy my work, and if I have to choose who I will work with, I will.”
Kate never consciously chose to go into equine reproduction; it was more something that she gravitated towards. She has ridden horses since she was 11 and, as a vet, had an interest in both veterinary imaging and equine reproduction. She began her career as a small animal vet, thinking it was the most realistic path; however, building on doing what she enjoyed most, she ended up as exclusively a repro vet.
Kate says of the difficult job: “The pros and cons are the same! I do what I love, and that’s a pro. But my hobby is my work, so I almost always work, which is a con. I’m too busy in the summer to do anything else, but I’m at a loose end in the winter, finding work in riding young horses. Having too much time off is not an agreeable state of affairs for my constitution, so while I enjoy being more flexible, I need to find a routine to stick to. Honestly, despite my job’s challenges, the only thing that I regret is that I don’t get time off in the summer.”
It’s hard to believe Kate has time for ambition, but she is currently working on perfecting the vitrification of in-vivo embryos. As a long-term project, she would like to build a semen export and embryo collection centre. In terms of inspiration to progress, Kate has her fellow vets on her mind: “Equine reproduction vets are such a colourful bunch; there’s a bit of madness in most of us. But in particular, women in equine reproduction, not necessarily vets, are my heroes. It’s hard going, requires determination, dedication, ingenuity, it’s physically tough. But, so often, women have to prove that they know what they are talking about in the first place! Especially if their methods are contradictory to what older males say or do! It might sound cliché, but it’s the truth. And raising a family on top of that is quite amazing. I have met several women who achieved greatness through sheer dedication, and I really admire them.”
You may think that when you work so deeply in breeding that it wouldn’t be a choice of hobby, but along with some family help, Kate has a hand in her own breeding projects, and her own career was initially fuelled by a Connemara. “My first Connemara stallion, Killaloe Buachaill Mor, was a catalyst to my equine reproduction journey. I started all my repro-specific training and purchased all the equipment for scanning and artificial insemination just to facilitate the mares he was getting! Gradually that became my sole focus. No other case can compare to the input that stallion had on me!
“In our team, I am not the one who makes breeding decisions and truthfully, I don’t follow bloodlines as breeders do. I like the Connemara/Warmblood cross, and I’ve ridden one for years. I currently have my own Cornet Obolensky/Cruising mare in foal to our eventing stallion Lough Fadda Rudi! Both are gorgeous and fabulous movers, both have very placid temperaments, and I just can’t wait for the resulting foal. It will be the best horse in the world. The best for me, of course!”