June 11, 2024

UCalgary students and horse people experience two weeks together learning trust, reconciliation and mutual respect

Annual equine rotation deepens bond between Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Tsuut’ina and Siksika Nations
A man wearing a cowboy hat stands in front of a horse
Marvin Dodginghorse, manager of the Harry Dodginghorse Memorial Agriplex, explains the history of horses and relationship to animals on the Nation. Nikki Knopp, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

The soft fragrance of bannock mingles with the earthy scent of horse and nature, creating a unique sensory experience at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s (UCVM) annual equine rotation. This isn't a stressful day for the five horses tethered to the arena boards. Instead, it's a day of learning, partnership and community. 

Since its inception in 2018, the equine initiatives led by Dr. Jean-Yin Tan, DVM, DACVIM, MBA (associate professor at UCVM) has provided over $200,000 worth of veterinary care to more than 120 horses annually between the Tsuut’ina and Siksika Nations. In exchange, the local horse owners entrust their cherished animals to the university veterinarians and the students they mentor.

Surveys and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) have found that getting hands-on experience before graduation from veterinary school is a challenge in equine veterinary medicine, in part due to client attitudes toward novice care. 

However, through conversations and mutual understanding, the UCVM students are not just allowed, but encouraged, to take a hands-on approach, performing over half of their equine clinical skills expected for graduation during these two weeks of community clinics. Community members even act as 'Uber drivers' for the horses, transporting them to and from the clinic and bringing more in when needed. 

This symbiotic relationship is rooted in trust and respect. Understanding the profound significance of this partnership requires a glimpse into the history. 

"Horses are a significant part of our culture. They helped us," says Tsuut’ina Minor Chief Tyson Heavenfire. He highlights that the foundation of reconciliation is relationships. 

"No matter what happens, we’re going to live together for two hundred, three hundred years, so we gotta start building those relationships and maintaining them." 

A group of people stand together

Tsuut’ina equine rotation team, from left: Dez Standingread,; Marvin Dodginghorse, Jean-Yin Tan, Brent Dodginghorse, Tyson Heavenfire, Norma Jeremick’ca Gresl.

Nikki Knopp, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Echoing Heavenfire's sentiment, Tan says, "The most rewarding thing I’ve done in the last 20 years is building this relationship, where we can be around horse people who love their horses, care about them as family members, and really welcome us." 

The partnership is a two-way street. While the community and horses benefit from the veterinary services and expertise, the university and its students receive an invaluable gift of education and experience. Through the trust of these communities, UCVM students gain hands-on experience that's hard to come by, learning to care for horses in a real-world environment. 

This unique blend of community engagement, education and mutual understanding exemplifies the University of Calgary's vision for entrepreneurial thinking beyond creating businesses. It is truly a place where learning and community engagement start something extraordinary.

In a profound display of cultural unity, the bond between UCVM and the Indigenous community was significantly deepened. A ceremonial highlight of the special event was when Heavenfire performed the revered Cowboy Song, a sacred anthem that pays tribute to the spirit of the horse. The enchanting melody captivated not only the UCVM students, faculty, and staff in attendance but also resonated with the horses in the corral, who seemed to sway rhythmically, as if dancing to the song's beat.

In a poignant conclusion to the event, the UCVM team were bestowed with eagle feathers by a community member upon wrap-up of the rotation. This highly esteemed gift carries a symbolic representation of respect, strength, and courage. Among Indigenous communities, the offering of eagle feathers is a rare honour that underlines the depth of connection and mutual regard.

"This is true reconciliation, based around partnerships," says Brent Dodginghorse, a horseperson and former Tsuut’ina council member who first worked with Tan to start the initiative.

The equine rotation is supported by goods donated to the project by Zoetis and Boehringer Ingelheim.