Dream Jobs: Equine Veterinarian Crystal DeWitt
Helping horses (and their owners!) feel better is Dr. Crystal DeWitt’s equine career.
by Karen Braschayko
When your horse gets sick or looks lame, you put your faith in the person you call for help, hoping that veterinarian is competent, knowledgeable, and understands devotion to horses as much as you do. Crystal DeWitt, DVM, is one of these dedicated equine vets, with horses of her own and an equestrian passion that goes back to childhood.
DeWitt was a cutting horse trainer and accomplished competitive rider before leaping into a new horse-related career. A lifelong rider, her affection for horses led her to devote years of her life to studying how to help horses at their worst. Working in Michigan’s Metamora horse country and beyond, DeWitt’s passion for helping animals carries her through the cold, heat, rain, snow, mud, dust and mess that’s involved with practicing equine medicine.
Here she shares how she balances veterinary practice with maintaining her competitive riding pursuits.
Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: What is your background with horses?
Crystal DeWitt: Growing up my family had a backyard horse and pony. I got started in a local 4-H group showing horses, and I was also on the horse judging team. In high school I helped to get an equestrian team established.
I attended the University of Findlay in Ohio and completed a Bachelor of Science in equestrian studies with a Western emphasis and also an associate degree in equine business management. During my four years at the University of Findlay, I showed on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) team. In June of 2000, I became an assistant trainer on a cutting horse farm. I worked there for five years until deciding to pursue veterinary medicine.
I currently still compete in National Cutting Horse Association events and serve as president of the Great Lakes Cutting Horse Association. My husband and I live on a small farm and have several horses, cattle, dogs and cats to keep us busy.
Equitrekking: What was your path to becoming a veterinarian? What inspired you to take that step?
Crystal DeWitt: I took a less traditional route than many students take. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my job on the cutting horse farm, I still had a desire to do something more. Being a veterinarian was always on the radar for me, but I was deterred by the years of school. As part of my job on the farm, I often assisted the attending veterinarian while caring for the horses and cattle, and this reminded me of my underlying desire to become a veterinarian myself. A friend of mine in the cutting horse world was a strong supporter, and he was really the push I needed to go back to school and go for it.
Dr. DeWitt competes in cutting horse competitions and serves as president of the Great Lakes Cutting Horse Association. Photo courtesy Rance Rogers, 3rd Shutter From the Sun Photography.
So, I began taking classes to fulfill the prerequisites and also got a part-time job in a small animal emergency hospital to broaden my scope as an applicant. As a married student, my options were limited. I applied to only one school, Michigan State University, which fortunately accepted me on the first try. I commuted daily to East Lansing, a one hour and 15 minute drive for the entire four years, with the exceptions of emergency obligations or busy periods when I crashed on a friend’s couch.
Equitrekking: What is a typical workday like for you?
Crystal DeWitt: A “typical” day consists of prescheduled appointments between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., usually involving vaccinations, routine dentistry, Coggins testing, lameness exams or prepurchase evaluations.
However, most of our days are anything but typical. We are prepared to juggle our schedules to accommodate emergencies or other urgent matters such as colic, traumatic wounds, foaling, and sudden illness or lameness. I also cover approximately 50 percent of the on-call duties, meaning that two to three weeknights and every other weekend I field phone calls and see emergencies as needed.
Dr. DeWitt performs a cow palpation, a not-so-glamorous duty of veterinary medicine.
Equine veterinary medicine in Michigan tends to be very seasonal as well. We expect to work long hours and see far more horses in the spring and early summer than any other time of year. Conversely, we expect to have significantly more down time in the winter months.
Equitrekking: How do you prepare for the varied working conditions an equine vet faces?
Crystal DeWitt: There is no great way to prepare. I fortunately have a laidback, go-with-the-flow attitude that helps keep me going when things get a little crazy. As for weather, I try to dress in layers and keep spare clothes and boots in my truck or at the office. Being on the road for a majority of appointments, we often face challenges such as weather, mud, manure, lack of electricity or water, inadequate lighting, and things of that nature. Having a well-stocked truck that carries heated water is imperative most of the time.
Equitrekking: What have been your most rewarding moments as a vet?
Crystal DeWitt: The best part of my job is working with horses every day. They are unique, majestic animals that have become a part of me.
Some of my most rewarding moments so far have been the most challenging. Often times I encounter the decision to humanely euthanize a horse, and in these moments I try to be a comfort for the horse and their owner.
Of course the small accomplishments are also quite rewarding for me as well: rechecking and removing sutures from a wound that has healed beautifully, bringing a horse through a painful colic, or removing a cancerous tumor from an eyelid.
Equitrekking: What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?
Crystal DeWitt: Right now one of the biggest challenges is the economy. It is leading owners to have to make tough decisions regarding their horses’ care due to expenses. It’s also emotionally challenging to lose horses to age or disease after I have developed a connection with them and their owners.
Equitrekking: What advice would you give someone who’d like to become a vet or vet assistant? What is the best way to prepare?
Crystal DeWitt: Go for it! Keep in mind that although you are working with animals, you have to have good communication skills, since you will also be working for their people. You have to be able to communicate with the owners, riders, trainers and caretakers effectively.
Dr. DeWitt balances veterinary practice with her passion for competitive riding. Photo courtesy Rance Rogers, 3rd Shutter From the Sun Photography.
In preparing for vet school, get experience in multiple facets of veterinary medicine. I already had horse experience, so I made an extra effort to get a job in a small animal hospital. I started in reception, moved to kennel assistant, then became a veterinary assistant, and ended working as a technician. The experience was invaluable and a huge advantage while going through vet school clinics. Volunteer to help at clinics, ride along with large animal vets, work at shelters, etc.
And don’t forget the obvious: Be the best student you can be, and keep your grades up. Getting into vet school is very competitive, and grades and test scores are the black and white things that get admissions officers to consider you. Don’t give up. If you’re not accepted on your first try, apply again the next year. Then use the time to gain further experience at a job or by volunteering.
Contact Dr. Crystal DeWitt of Don Ryker, DVM and Associates at (248) 627-2815 or Email Dr. Crystal DeWitt. Learn more at www.drryker.com.
Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.