The Beginning

Welcome to the first of many, many blogs from me on the new McKee-Pownall Equine Service website. There are several reason why I wanted to write this blog. The first is to give those who are interested a “behind the scenes” look at MPES. Why we do the things we do, what motivates us, and what are we hoping to do in the future? I also want to share the story behind MPES. For example, why did Dr. McKee and I start the practice, why do we have so many locations, and the question I get from so many people; why are all of our vets and staff female? Finally, I hope that this forum will open up a new avenue of communication for our clients and friends. What do we do that you like or dislike about our vet practice? What services should we offer? We have been at the forefront of social media in veterinary medicine for a while now and we look forward to the interactions and transparency we can have with you.

Lets start at the beginning. Not only was I lucky to meet my future partner and wife, Dr. Melissa McKee, in vet school it was also a pivotal time in veterinary education that would impact our future. At that time in the mid 90s, most equine veterinarians were working 24/7 in single vet practices. At the same time, women had become the overwhelming majority of students in veterinary colleges in North America. Melissa’s class had around 70% female students while mine was 75%. Currently, the numbers are loser to 80/20 and 90/10.  The one thing all vet students, including the men, wanted then, as well as now, was a work-life balance. In other words they didn’t want to work 80 hours a week and be constantly on-call. The other obvious factor is that if the majority of new vets were female, it was safe to assume that they would need to take breaks from being in practice (especially large animal) to start a family. It’s hard to have a work-life balance and take time away from practice for pregnancy in a single person practice. It was obvious to Melissa and I that equine veterinary practices were going to change, and if we were going to have our own business we would need to embrace this change.

Both Melissa and I spent our first year out of vet school doing internships. She graduated a year earlier than I and went to a large surgical practice in New Jersey. It may surprise some people that, in spite of my grey hair, Melissa is the senior vet in our practice when it comes to years as a veterinarian. I interned in Alberta when I graduated and Melissa came along and was able to work in the same practice for the year. We felt then, as we do now, that vet school does not adequately prepare students for the realities of equine practice. There is too much to learn across all species and little opportunity to get specific hands-on experience, so an internship to develop more in-depth equine related skills is essential. This is not unique to OVC but is an issue facing vet schools worldwide. I will get into this in the future. While we were interns, we realized that an increasing number of  horse owners had a close emotional relationship with their horses much like they did with their dogs and cats. Horses were pets to some people and as such their owners wanted their veterinarians to treat them, and their horses, accordingly. They wanted personal service and education about equine care. They wanted to be part of the decision process. Some of our older veterinary colleagues at the time were from an agriculture background and didn’t have a suitable bedside manner for this new type of client. Another thing we noticed, was that technicians and receptionists in equine vet practices barely made enough money to live on. Unless they were married to someone with a “real” job with a “real” salary,  they were destined to live at or below the poverty line. Not much of an enticement for someone to spend 2 years in tech college and stay working in an equine vet practice for their career.

At this time Melissa and I were hoping to return to Ontario to open our own practice. I have always had an interest in owning my own business and we couldn’t find any practices that could hire the two of us. Ultimately though, our decision to go out on our own was that we wanted to create an equine practice that focused on client education and the human-animal bond. The more horse owners knew about equine care, the better the decisions they could make about the health of their horses. We also recognized the changing shift in demographics and the need to offer a healthy work/life balance to the new generation of vets with the flexibility to start a family or pursue outside interests. Finally, we wanted to offer a dynamic work environment where a non-vet could prosper and grow as a person while making a realistic wage.

Now that we had a plan, we prepared to open our practice out of our house in March on 2002. Both Melissa and I had spent time as students with Dr. Dan McMaster at Mohawk Raceway as students. He agreed to hire one of us part time to give us a helping hand. Initially, I was going to work with him in the morning and as a vet/farrier in the afternoon since I was a farrier for 7 years before getting into vet school. With Melissa’s background as an Advanced 3 Day Eventer she was going to see if she could develop a show horse clientele. Thankfully, our plans were flexible since Melissa got along better with racehorses than I did and I was able to attract some show horse clients. Many of the lameness issue I saw were hoof related, which was right up my alley.. Melissa, on the other hand, was exposed to so much racehorse work in her internship that she was able to prosper in the demanding environment of racetrack lameness.  We decided early on to have focus our small practice on lameness. We felt that if we were having to breed mares with a specific schedule it would limit our availability to treat lame horses in a timely manner and the busy seasons for both specialties tended to coincide, making it difficult to provide god service to both areas.

I can remember as if it was yesterday Melissa and I unpacking our first order of medications and supplies, preparing to be inspected by the College of Veterinarians of Ontario. We needed them to make sure our vehicles were up to standard in that we could offer adequate medical care from them. As we were surrounded by empty boxes and packing paper you could say the stress level was a little high. We had committed a lot money without one client. Luckily, we had each other and our belief that the two of us could make it work.

That was March 2002. Next week I will fill you in on what allowed us to grow our practice so quickly when there were so many other well established and excellent vets in the area.


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