“Arlene Grey Bear took Lucky and Rue and Kennedy to the rodeo grounds in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Reservation — Lucky and Rue, her ponies, for a checkup, Kennedy, her 16-year-old granddaughter, to help. And to learn…Ms. Grey Bear is a Lakota teacher at an elementary school nearby… if a lot of our kids don’t know our language, it gets lost. That concern about heritage, and what might get lost, extends to teaching the children about horses. In our culture horses are well respected…We’re supposed to take care of our horses the right way. We teach our kids: You take care of your horse first. The horse’s needs before yours.”V. J. Blue, The New York Times
But how do you take care of the horses if there isn’t a vet nearby? There are no full-time veterinarians on the Standing Rock Reservation, let alone specialists in equine health.
Enter Dr. Eric Davis, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, and the director of Rural Veterinary Experience Teaching and Service, a program that has since 2011 sent veterinary students to clinics at farms, rodeo grounds and homes to provide free or reduced-cost care for horses. ‘We seek out places where other people don’t go,’ Dr. Davis said. ‘I think that you have the opportunity to do the most good if you go to a place that has the least resources.’
The care the volunteer vets provide is essential: treating wounds, fixing teeth and trimming hooves — key to keeping the horses healthy on the Plains. Dr. Davis and his students also geld stallions, which can become uncontrollable without the procedure. For the students, Dr. Davis said, it is ‘hands on, get blood on your gloves’ training.’
The goal is bigger than just providing care, though. Dr. Davis wants young people in Standing Rock to get involved and perhaps even see veterinary medicine as a career.’I would love it if I can help get students, reservation youth, more interested in doing things with horses,’ he said. But he added that doing that when ‘you are the old white guy on the reservation,’ can be difficult: ‘I don’t know what to say or what to do or how to act. And I’d be faking it if I tried to, and I can’t fake stuff.’ He hopes that will change next year, as the first Lakota recruit will join the program from the Cheyenne River Reservation. He also wants his students, many of them from urban areas, to see what rural practice is like.
On a Friday evening after a day of work earlier this year, the students headed to a powwow at Porcupine, on the Standing Rock Reservation. They bought fry bread and tacos and sat in the stands, taking in the traditional Lakota dances. ‘We have very few students that come from a background of farming, where people have to work and struggle,’ Dr. Davis said.
‘I can give students the chance to look,” Dr. Davis said. “Whether they see or not is kind of up to them.”