The Equitation Initiative

Full disclosure:  I lead a life of privilege. And, if you are reading this, most likely you do as well. In the game of life, it is a roll of the dice where you end up, what sperm meets what egg and where your existence begins.  A Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2017 or, in my case, a middle class farm family in 1967 Canada.  Our own reality becomes, for most of us, our whole world and it is all to easy to become immersed in the day to day struggles of the modern world and forget to be grateful for all the riches bestowed upon us, simply by virtue of a lucky “roll of the dice”.


I grew up the second oldest daughter on a working farm in central Alberta, Canada.  Honesty, integrity, work ethic, family and a love of the great outdoors were instilled at an early age and for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a veterinarian (yeah, I was one of “those” kids).  I went straight from high school, to university, to veterinary school and then threw myself into my chosen profession. I have spent my entire career in private practice and have worked as both a mixed animal veterinarian and a small animal veterinarian and have cared for a diverse population of animals from horses, cows, dogs and cats, to ostriches and emu!  I have been an associate vet, a partner in a 4 doctor practice, a locum (relief vet) and a practice owner.


So why does a middle aged veterinarian, who has not done equine work for 20 years, sign on with the Equitarian Initiative for a week in a remote area of Costa Rica?  The answer, of course, is complicated.  Technology is changing the world at an alarming rate and let me tell you, it is hard to keep up when you hit a certain age.  It would be easy to stay home, keep doing what is “comfortable” and look at the world through the lens of my computer.  However I have never been one to be satisfied with what is easy.  While technology has made the world more accessible than every before, it also has the dangerous power to isolate us and prevent us from truly “engaging” in the act of living.  As a veterinarian, I am fortunate to have a skill set that is of use in many parts of the world.  In addition, I have the desire to give back in some way, however small it may be, to make this world a better place or at the very least, to make the life of one person a little bit better.  This realization, is the easy part.  What is difficult is choosing a project that fits with my personal goals and which is truly making a difference at a local level.  Voluntourism is such a “trendy” word right now and too often we fail to look beyond the sandy beach and altruistic goals of the project to critically evaluate whether our participation is creating change or simply satisfying our own narcissism.  


I discovered the Equitation Initiative (EI) by accident.  While reading my West Coast Veterinarian Magazine (A name I hate by the way.  Hello…the province of BC includes a huge group of veterinarians who do not live on the West Coast), I was intrigued by an article written by Dr. Dave Patton on his experience volunteering with the EI.  A phone call to Dave (who was most encouraging), an email to Julie Wilson (who was also very encouraging and accepting of a small animal vet), a little research on the groups objectives and goals and I was hooked.  


I have the good fortune as a vet to be an extrovert who truly enjoys all animals including the human animal!  I want to volunteer my veterinary skills with a group that is considerate of the local culture and people, who is making change that positively affects people as well as animals and who is considerate of the impact their effort has on the local community, after they leave the country.  So after spending a week with this amazing group, including EI board members and volunteers from all over North America as well as Honduras, Australia and Costa Rica, do I feel the objectives I set in my own mind, as an ethical volunteer, were met?  Yes, I do.  It has been a privilege to be part of this group of amazing and diverse veterinarians, but what I also learned is this:  it’s complicated.  With international volunteerism, every action you take is going to have an impact and create change.  Be it a shift in perspectives, an exchange of ideas or a permanent change that improves the health and welfare of both the animals and the human community.  Is this change positive for the local people and animals? Could we do more?  Could we do it better?  It takes time to answer these questions and but it encourages me that EI members are asking these questions.  It will take continued efforts and resources as well as tools to critically evaluate the groups impact and to answer these questions.  


Not everyone can hop on a plane and start treating equids as a volunteer with the EI.  Commitments at home, your personal skill set and your personal health can all factor into your ability to volunteer.  You can help in other ways.  Be a donor, sponsor a local veterinary student to join the initiative or contact the EI to see how you can make a difference. If you are a veterinarian I would encourage you to “close your eyes and jump”.  You will get dirty, you will be covered in bug bites, you may get swept away from the boat tour on a rip tide, but trust me, you will not regret a single minute of it and will come home a better person with a new perspective on the world.


My experience in Costa Rica was overwhelmingly positive. Volunteering on a project with the EI has reminded me of why I love veterinary medicine and has taken me back to the basics of what being a veterinarian is all about.  I use my knowledge and skills to help animals who then improve the lives of the humans who care for them. Period.  That’s it folks. It is the core of what we do and it is enough.  My hope is that these experiences will also make us a little more tolerant of different cultures and ideas, a perspective the western world is in desperate need of at this time. May it open our eyes to the commonalities of the human condition and encourage us to engage with each other, reach out to support each other and to speak up for what we hold most dear.  It was truly a privilege to get to know all the volunteers on the project and share our passion and lives with each other for one amazing week.  Thank you for accepting me and I truly hope we meet again.


Dr. Elaine