*BA, DVM, CertES(Orth), Dipl ECVS, MRCVS
As Jessica is presenting an online seminar for us on Saturday 7th October 2023 we thought it would be great for you to get to know her a little more. Many of you will have heard Jessica present before as she spoke at the Horses Inside Out Conference in February this year but in this article you will get the opportunity to know more about the person behind all her knowledge and experience.
We are so pleased that Intelligent Horsemanship allowed us to share this article here. It was orginally published in Intelligent Horse magazine in Summer 2021. Learn more about Intelligent Horse Magazine and the amazing work they do here: www.intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk
The online seminar with Jessica is a must see for therapists, coaches and riders in fact anyone working to help maintain and improve their horse's musculoskeletal health and prevent problems from arising through appropriate training and therapy.
Zoë Smith talks to veterinarian surgeon Dr. Jessica Kidd about mentors, motorbikes, and mental health… oh, and horses too!
“I think I had this extremely ill-conceived notion of what being a vet was like, thinking it was all very Beatrix Potter!” Dr. Jessica Kidd confesses, laughing, when I ask what drew her to a career as a veterinarian. “I always loved animals and I was one of those kids who never had a single doll growing up but I had so many stuffed animals that I couldn’t get into my bed!”
Aside from her affinity for soft toy animals, Jessica wasn’t an obvious shoo-in for becoming an equine vet. “My father grew up in northern Wyoming in the rocky mountains so horses were basically their transport and much beloved members of the family. But I didn’t grow up with horses at all.”
Born in Bristol, but raised in the states, she grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC to a linguist mother and research physicist father, a life far-removed from that of galloping across mountain plains or mucking out stalls.
“I suppose in a way I’m sort of an odd equine vet!” she admits, although she’s quick to point out that a horsey background isn’t a pre-requisite. “I remember being very intimidated in vet school by people who talked the talk, but with time I realised that not knowing 20 different types of a snaffle bit probably doesn’t impact on whether I can do decent surgery on horses or not!”
However atypical her route to becoming a vet, she credits her parents’ open-mindedness and unconditional support as guiding her. “My parents were instrumental in the whole thing because they always said to my sister and I that we could do whatever we wanted, we just had to try and do it well. And they supported us in every way they could.”
The hard work to become a veterinarian, however, was all her own. A four-year undergraduate degree, followed by four years of vet school at Purdue University, were just the beginning. Next up was a two-year stint working in mixed practice in New England, followed by an internship at a referral racehorse hospital in Ocala, Florida.
Returning to the UK had always been on Jessica’s radar though and being as her American vet degree was not recognised in Europe, this meant having to sit the RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) exam. “It was like taking your final exams all over again!” she admitted, but on reflection, she sees the positives of having undertaken her studies in the US. “In the US system, I didn’t get out of vet school until 26 and that’s still really young to go into what is quite a demanding profession. In the UK it’s more like 21 or 22. And because of this, we tend to have a lot more clinical training in the US. My final year at vet school included 50 weeks of clinical rotations functioning as a baby vet under supervision before we went out into the real world, and I think that did help enormously.”
After making the move back to the UK, her career as a veterinarian surgeon went from strength to strength. Now an RCVS and European Recognised Specialist in Equine Surgery, the many highlights of her resume include an equine surgery residency at the University of Bristol, a position as University Equine Surgeon at the University of Cambridge, and seven years in private practice as the surgeon at the Valley Equine Hospital in Lambourn. Today, she works as an external surgical consultant to multiple practices, which not only gives her greater flexibility over her schedule, but means she sees huge variety in her work. Her main areas of interest include soft tissue and orthopaedic surgery, diagnostic imaging and investigation of lameness cases.
“I do mostly orthopaedic surgery and keyhole surgery, so arthroscopy (keyhole surgery on a joint) or tendoscopy (keyhole surgery on a tendon sheath), but also soft tissue surgery. I see lots of stifles, tendon sheaths, fetlocks, hocks… I also have these slightly odd side-lines in melanoma surgery and caring for sick foals.”
The latter is a job most surgeons steer clear of, she confesses: “Looking after sick foals goes one of two ways: either you love them or they drive you absolutely bananas!”.
Jessica’s passion for her job is evident: “I really love what I do. I love the weekends with the kids, but I love Monday mornings and not many people can say that! I love doing surgery, especially the technical aspects to it. I like being presented with X problem and being able to say: ‘in my experience, Y is the best solution, let’s make it happen’. It takes a long time to learn to do and you’re always learning. I learn something new every time I do one, just little tweaks. So you never stagnate unless you choose to do so.”
One surgery she particularly enjoys is OCD (osteochondritis dissecans) surgeries. “It’s a developmental defect within joints and I find it a very satisfying surgery because there is a very discreet problem to address and as long as you do a good and thorough job, you know that you’ve turned the outlook for that case from a horse who would probably never do anything athletic to, in some cases, the sky’s the limit.”
Those of us who have never been in an operating room probably have an image of surgical procedures being quite dramatic, but Jessica assures me that real-life surgeries are not half as nail-biting as we see on TV. “Surgery shouldn’t be stressful,” she tells me, “It’s very calm and methodical and we’re typically listening to music. In fact, I often say, ‘right, I need a break, I’m going into surgery to calm down!’”
The most taxing part of her job, she admits, is often not the surgeries themselves. “It can be challenging dealing with the owners and not through any fault of their own. I feel frequently that I just overwhelm owners with information, because I’m trying to give them an overview of what is wrong with their horse and I want them to be able to make an informed decision, but sometimes I feel like I lose them after the first sentence.”
“I have two little kids and I think a lot about what I would want with one of my kids if they were to have surgery. I realise that horses and children are not the same, but a lot of horses are like members of the family. So, I always call them just before going into the surgery just to see if there are any final questions.”
She admits that while owners can sometimes have unreasonable expectations for their horse’s return to work post-surgery, there are occasions when this overly optimistic view can be detrimental. “One of the luxuries – and it is a luxury – that we have as vets is that we have the power to end suffering and there are times when that is so clearly the right thing to do in a situation. It’s very difficult when an owner just can’t let go. It’s a horrible situation to be in, because you know it’s not the right thing for the horse. I don’t come across it very often but when I do it’s emotionally difficult to deal with.”
She’s quick to note, however, that her experiences with owners are very rarely negative. “Far and away the majority of owners I deal with just love their horses and they just want to do what’s right for them.”
In an age where anyone can type their queries into Google or ask the self-proclaimed yard expert for advice, I wonder if there is such a thing as an owner being too informed. Does this ever get in the way of her doing her job?
“An educated and interested owner is a great thing in my book. After all, the reason I see the horse in the first place is the owner. You’re never going to diagnose something if you don’t have it on your radar and if owners have it on their radar that something might be amiss, that is a good thing.”
There is a downside to this age of information, though. “It is very much a double-edged sword,” she admits. “Google can be a nightmare, because you have access to huge amounts of information, but it isn’t necessarily verifiable and it doesn’t have to be examined by someone in the field. So there’s a lot of scaremongering”
“What I would say to an owner is if you are looking for information on a subject, don’t just go on Google and type in ‘suspensory injuries’ because you’ll never wade through the quagmire of information and most of it will be incorrect. I try to direct owners to accurate sources of information, such as the Royal Veterinarian College or other vet schools.”
This applies equally in real-life as it does to the internet, as Jessica cautions: “One thing I find really difficult is people who canvas opinion from those who frankly have no knowledge on the subject and no experience in it. If you want to talk to another professional, that’s absolutely fine, but if you ask six people on your livery yard what their opinion is, often all it does is confound the situation. I spent years in vet school and umpteen years doing surgery, and I still don’t know everything about equine surgery, but I actually do know a bit more than so-and-so at your yard!
“Unfortunately, if someone says something with lots of confidence, people will think ‘she really sounds like she knows what she’s talking about’ and they will believe it. Sometimes this can upset owners enormously,” she laments. “If I have recommended a particular surgery, then someone tells them ‘oh my god, don’t do that because I know someone who had a horse who had that and they died…’ The likelihood is that the two situations have no similarities whatsoever and all you’ve done is scared the life out of that owner.”
While she encourages owners to trust the experts, Jessica also insists that the best veterinarians are those who remain open-minded and adaptable.
“There is infrequently only one way to do something,” she tells me. “During my two years in mixed practice, one of my bosses was an ex-US army vet. He had a big handlebar moustache and drove a big pick-up truck, and if you saw us together you’d wonder how on earth we knew each other! But he was a gem! He taught me so much, but the overriding thing was practicality.
“He would say: ‘you need to know how to do something the best way, but you still need to know how to anesthetise something with ether and make a splint out of a peach basket’! I’ve always remembered that”.
And while Jessica probably isn’t making too many splints out of peach baskets in her daily practice, she still believes that the best solution is the one that works best for the individual horse and owner. “That practicality is crucial because we have to function in the real world, we don’t function in an ivory tower. So even though I work in hospitals and I know the best way to do things, if someone says: ‘I have £100 to spend’, I can usually think of something to do.”
This pragmatism wasn’t the only skill bestowed upon her by mentors throughout her career; Jessica credits many of her former colleagues and superiors for her accomplishments. “I’ve been helped by so many different people who totally pushed the boat out for me and were so supportive of me. And I’ve done things that I didn’t even think I had a chance of doing thanks to them.”
It’s a debt she’s keen to pay forward and as such she often finds herself taking on the role of mentor for young vets. “I have the opportunity to because I go to so many different practices and I regularly interact with a gaggle of young vets. I like that they are comfortable enough to call me up and ask my suggestions or advice, and I’m very happy to do it for them because someone did it for me.”
Her concerns for other veterinarians goes far beyond just being a shoulder to cry on. “Mental health issues are enormous in vets,” she admits, “and I understand why on many levels. As medical professionals we are taught that we have to have it all together and you can’t show any weakness. I was discussing it with a colleague the other day and he was saying “it’s just me, and I’m expected to have all the answers. And I’m in charge of this whole group and I can’t show it if I don’t have the answers, and people are looking to me and I can’t just say ‘I’ll get back to you’. It’s a lot of pressure”.
She explains how an increase in suicides of large and small animal vets have led to the NOMV (Not One More Vet) campaign being set up in the US and it’s one of the reasons she’s also lending her support to UK charity Vetlife (https://www.vetlife.org.uk), who offer support to anyone in the UK veterinary community who has emotional, health or financial problems.
Charity work has been a key part of Jessica’s life since 2010, when she became one of the founding member of Vets with Horsepower. The brainchild of Professor Derek Knottenbelt and now a UK registered charity, the oddball concept brought together a group equine vets and lecturers with a passion for motorbikes and a desire to give back to the veterinary community.
“The beginning was very inauspicious, ill-planned and uninformed!” Jessica reveals with a grin, “In 2009, Derek won a Harley Davidson in a raffle. He was already in his early 60s and he had never ridden a motorbike. Most people would just sell it and put the money in the bank, but encouraged by one of his grandkids he learnt to ride it! So then, of course, being Derek – he just has philanthropy running through his veins – he came up with this idea to rustle up some other vets that ride motorcycles, do a lecture tour and raise money for charity!
“That first year in 2010, it was Derek, me, equine neurologist Caroline Hahn, equine surgeon and John Burford, medicine professor Josh Slater. We rode 1500 miles, giving lectures at English and Scottish vet schools along the way.
In the early days, it was far from a well-oiled machine. “Literally, it was like someone had written the plan on the back of an envelope and we set off. It was 1500 miles and we did lecture stops at each place. When we set off on that first trip, most of us had been riding for years. Derek had ridden a sum total of 500 miles, and a week later he’d done 1500 more! Then it just got bigger and bigger.”
Vets with Horsepower now encompasses 22 veterinary professionals and they have travelled all over Europe, including a 4000-mile trip to the Arctic Circle. They’ve raised more than £780,000 for children and animal charities all around the world. After having to cancel their 2020 trip, they even decided to take the 2021 event online – undertaking an incredible 25-hour continuous series of online lectures with the goal of both setting a world record and raising £100,000 for charity.
“It’s exhausting!” Jessica admits, both in terms of the organisation and the trips themselves, but she vows that it’s all worth it in the end. “What these charities do with the money is absolutely amazing. There’s a video from the Gambia Horse and Donkey charity on our Facebook page that they made to show us and I challenge you to watch it and not end up in tears!”
Between motorbiking adventures, equine surgeries, and other professional pursuits – she’s even found time to edit the “Atlas of Equine Ultrasonography” – what else does Jessica have left on her bucket list?
“Professionally, I foresee doing this for at least another 20 years and I want to feel that every 5 years when I look back that I’ve learnt to do new things. In a larger sense, my boys will be 9 in the summer and I know they see their mother is often doing six things at once, but I hope that they see that I have a job that I love, and I hope they find professions that do the same for them, whatever that may be.
“I mean I’d love to fly in a helicopter and I’d rather like some time to tidy up the garden, but in broader brushstrokes I think it’s simpler than that! I want to enjoy what I do and I want my kids to grow up happy and healthy and find a profession that they like to do as much as I like mine. Full stop.”
Find out more about Dr Jessica Kidd at her website https://www.kiddvet.com/ and about Vets With Horsepower on their website and Facebook page.
Quick Qs: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Everything I could think to say I could think of a counter-reason! I could say “don’t be so hard on yourself”, but then actually maybe being hard on myself means that I think I make fewer mistakes. Because I am always second guessing myself. I never show it and I never say it to anybody, but I’m always checking and double checking myself and thinking am I making the right decision, is this the right thing to do? And that’s exhausting, but I think it probably does keep you from going on autopilot.
The online seminar with Jessica is a must see for therapists, coaches and riders in fact anyone working to help maintain and improve their horse's musculoskeletal health and prevent problems from arising through appropriate training and therapy. We do hope to see you there!