After graduating with a biology degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1975, Ann E. Dwyer went to work in a lab, doing immunology research. She soon discovered two problems: The work wasn’t her calling, and she wasn’t very good at it. It was really for the best, she recalls, when her boss gently let her go after a year.
So Dwyer, who’d been a horse-crazy kid, went to work at a racetrack while she figured out what to do next. She stayed three years, discovering what she should have been doing all along.
“It was the classic story that there’s always opportunity in failure,” Dwyer says now, cheerfully.
Inspired by what she was learning by working with horses all day, every day, Dwyer decided to pursue veterinary medicine, and graduated from Cornell University’s veterinary school in 1983. Since then, she has practiced at Genesee Valley Equine Clinic in Scottsville, N.Y., and became the majority owner in 1995.
This month, Dr. Dwyer will be sworn in as vice president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners at its convention in Baltimore. The position puts her on the path to become the AAEP’s president in 2013, which would make her the second woman in the association’s 56-year history to serve in that office.
As vice president, she’ll help create and carry out a three-year strategic plan that she expects will include a strong commitment to education and mentoring, and new tools to help veterinarians improve their practice management, especially in succession planning.
Getting Her Boots Dirty
Though she never worked as a racetrack veterinarian, Dwyer credits her work at several East Coast racetracks with giving her a good career foundation.
“The racetrack is a place where you learn your job by doing it,” says Dwyer, 57, who started out hot-walking horses, then moved up to groom and finally exercise rider. “It was the foundation of everything I’ve done. I worked for some excellent trainers, I got familiar with the industry and I learned how to really handle horses, all kinds of horses. It’s one thing to have a pet horse and do some showing when you’re a kid, but it’s a whole other thing to work in the industry.”
Working at the tracks, she realized her passion was ambulatory care, so she joined the Genesee Valley practice immediately after graduation. She liked the style of owner Robert Pierson, DVM, who founded the clinic in the late ’60s as a family-style operation run out of his house.
“He was a good teacher and a person of fine character, and I thought it would be a good place to learn the ropes,” she says.
Owning the practice was not her original plan, but when Dr. Pierson was ready to retire, Dwyer bought the clinic in 1995. She took on a business partner, Amy Leibeck, DVM, in 2001. The clinic has grown dramatically and now has seven veterinarians, an eight-stall barn, a surgical suite and an array of equipment that allows the staff to perform dentistry, some surgeries and diagnostic work.
Maintaining the practice’s personality was important to Dwyer.
“Our service mentality has not changed, and that was one of the things I always liked, that we knew our clients as families and people as well as the owners of the horses,” Dwyer says.
Keeping her eye on the bottom line, she modernized the practice by improving accounting, moving to digital records and adding more structure to practice management. To help attract and keep good staffers, she created more flexible schedules. Some veterinarians work part time because they are raising children or pursuing other interests.
By growing the practice, Dwyer carved out time to specialize in ophthalmology, an interest that developed after family and friends chipped in to buy her an ophthalmoscope as a graduation present. She found a mentor who helped her refine her research interests, which now include equine recurrent uveitis and immune mediated ocular inflammation.
And for 20 years, she has been attending grand rounds at a human eye institute, which has helped her glean ideas that can be applied to horses and further her research.
Training the Next Generation
Perhaps because she benefitted from mentors, Dwyer’s practice has a strong internship program. Ten years ago, the practice joined the AAEP Avenues Internship/Externship program, which helps train new graduates to become equine practitioners. Dwyer and her team run a structured internship program, complete with a syllabus, a tight schedule that includes regular weekends off, and training with every staff veterinarian.
“If they’re coming here for a training year, they’re getting formal instruction,” Dwyer says. “Of course, we’re grateful that we’ve got that intern who can do a treatment at 3 in the morning, but we don’t look at them as just cheap labor. It has to be a fair program where they get as much value out of it as we do.”
Maggie Turner, DVM, says her year at Genesee Valley, in suburban Rochester, gave her both real-world medical skills and a solid understanding of how to run a practice. Now at McKee-Pownall Equine Services outside Toronto, she sees just how much work mentoring is.
“It can be very difficult to have someone with you all day,” Dr. Turner says, referring to the need to continually educate and explain procedures to a new associate or intern. “It’s harder than just going out and doing your calls yourself. But Dr. Dwyer never showed any sort of impatience.”
Dwyer says the whole practice is invested in the mentoring program.
“I think we all have the attitude of paying it forward,” she says. “We all love passing on our knowledge, and we know this is an important way to assure the future of this profession that we all love.”