Q&A with Mariella Savage, the British Horse Society’s first Veterinary Student Champion

Mariella Savage lives in West Sussex with her parents, two sisters and brother. She is in her second year of studying Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey. In February 2016 she was appointed as the British Horse Society’s first Student Champion.

What experience do you have with horses?

I have been really fortunate to have been surrounded by horses from a young age, and have been hooked since my first riding lesson aged three!

I started competing more seriously when I was 14, in a mixture of disciplines including School Teams (NSEA), showjumping and indoor eventing. However, my main focus has been on the Plaited and M&M Working Hunter Pony classes in recent years. I still love competing, especially at County Shows, and will try to continue this season when I have time!

Do you have your own horse?

I currently have a gorgeous dun 14hh Connemara called Archie, who I’ve had since I was 15. He has taught me so much about the world of competing. Although I became too old and therefore was out of class for the 143cm Plaited WHP two years ago, I have been competing him successfully in M&M WHP classes – when my little sister isn’t stealing him!

I also have an eight-year-old Chestnut Irish Sports Horse mare called Autumn. I competed her in 153cm WHP last season, and hopefully will continue to this year.

What made you want to be a vet?

Having grown up around animals, I was always naturally interested in their physiology and behaviours. Vets have always been huge role models for me. I loved biology at school and wanted a career that would combine this, my love of animals and interacting with people – so veterinary was the obvious choice!

How have you found the course so far?

I am loving the course at Surrey! There is a big emphasis on practical work, which means we are already very hands on with a range of species – learning how to safely handle them, recognise behaviours and how to carry out a full physical examination.

The course is very up-to-date, which is a huge advantage especially as the world of Veterinary Medicine is evolving so rapidly. The facilities really cater for this – they are very modern with lots of great technology.

The best bits so far would have to be our weekly practical days, especially external visits to venues such as Marwell Zoo and RSPCA Shelters. I also find the weekly dissections really interesting and beneficial.

I really can’t think of any worst bits so far, although we have just had a two-week exam period, which was pretty stressful!

Has the course been what you expected?

Yes, to some extent. Our days are always very busy and there is a lot to learn and take in all the time.

The enthusiasm and warmth we as first year students felt when we joined Surrey really exceeded my expectations. I got the impression this would be the case on my interview and application days and we, as a year group, have been so welcomed by staff and older students – it has definitely helped with settling into the Vet school and the University.

What is the most interesting thing you have learnt so far?

As a horse owner myself, I never really understood or appreciated the importance of nutrition and the misconceptions that often surround it, especially in the equine world.

Learning to score body condition and fat using a 0-5 Body Condition Score scale was a particular eye opener to me, identifying differences in areas such as the crest where large fat deposits can often be mistaken as a muscular ’topline’, as well as how to identify fat deposits around the backbone by measuring the angle your palm makes when you rest it over this area.

What made you want to apply to be the Veterinary Student Champion?

I really wanted to apply for the role, as I was interested to find out more about the BHS’ work and the links that could be made between the BHS and Surrey Vet School.

When I started to research the BHS, I was really impressed at the amount of information and support that it gave to the equine world. I was keen to help create a bridge between the University and the BHS – as I felt it could really benefit us as Veterinary Students, as well as further enhance the profile of the BHS. I was excited at the prospect of becoming part of this new venture.

What do you think is the biggest veterinary issue facing horses?

I think obesity is a major veterinary and welfare problem facing horses, stemming from a misunderstanding of nutrition and feeding requirements, as well as misinterpretation as to what is classified as fat and what is muscle. This not only affects the performance of horses, but also has been linked to serious health issues such as laminitis and insulin resistance.

What do you think is the biggest veterinary issue facing horses?

I think Obesity is a major veterinary and welfare problem facing horses, particularly those in lighter/medium work. It often stems from misinterpretation as to what is classified as fat and what is muscle on the horse.

This major problem not only affects performance of horses, but also has been linked to serious health issues such as laminitis and insulin resistance.

However, on a positive note, I think there is now an increasing awareness and acceptance that obesity in horses is a major issue. It is now encouraged for equine owners to have a weigh tape and to understand the Body Conditioning Score system, which can easily be done at home.

What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting vets at the moment?

I think antibiotic resistance is the biggest challenge facing vets as well as doctors at the moment. Although we do not begin to cover pathogens and bacteria properly until our second year, it is definitely something we are being made aware of already.

What safety considerations are there for vets?

It is well acknowledged that anyone working with animals is at risk from injury, with a vet being absolutely no exception! This definitely applies to the equine side of veterinary medicine due to the size of horses and their behaviour when they are distressed or in pain.

The MRCVS recently stated that, “equine vets receive more injuries during their working life than any other civilian profession”. I think that the ‘Think a Head Campaign’, encouraging more equine vets to wear a hard hat when examining horses, is a really good idea – although many vets may be reluctant to follow this due to fear of appearing unprofessional or nervous around their equine patients and clients.