When veterinarian Gloria Harrison says she grew up with horses, she isn’t kidding.
At 6 months old, one of her family’s horses had twins, a rarity in the equine world.
Even more amazing, both survived. One was healthy and stayed in the barn with mom. The smaller, weaker one stayed in the corner of the house and was bottle fed. Harrison said her mom told her the foal was more challenging to take care of than her infant daughter.
“I can say that I had an early introduction to horses,” Harrison said.
That intro turned into a hobby and eventually a career in Ozaukee County.
Harrison learned to ride on her family farm near Oakfield. First, she had Dusty the Shetland pony. Then it was Simon, a well-trained horse, and then she had Jupiter, whom she raised from a foal and rode in 25-mile endurance races.
“He liked to trot. He liked to be in front,” Harrison said.
At high school career day, the family’s veterinarian and 4-H vet science leader Fred Born came to speak. Harrison said she initially thought veterinary school was too long.
“Eight years seems like a long time,” she said.
It turns out Harrison would attend school for 11 years instead, but she didn’t know it at the time.
Harrison first tried a two-year program in animal tech school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Time went by quickly, and Harrison stayed to get her four-year degree. By then, UW-Madison had started its own vet school, and Harrison went another four years and graduated in the inaugural class of 1987.
After one year as a mixed practice vet in southern Michigan, Harrison went back to Madison for three years of training in large animal internal medicine. She treated dairy cattle, horses, llamas, alpacas and goats.
Harrison then worked in Ohio for 17 years, where she met her husband, who is not a horse person.
“He likes to pet them,” Harrison said.
The couple moved back to Wisconsin in 2009 to be closer to family. Her mother is now 81 and still has two horses on the family farm.
Harrison worked at the Fredonia Veterinary Clinic for seven years before starting her own equine vet service out of her Town of Fredonia home this year.
“I decided it was time to be more independent and have my own practice and make my own decisions about scheduling,” she said.
“I really enjoy getting to know the clients and horses.”
It was a canine, not equine, that confirmed Harrison’s passion to become a veterinarian, a case she described in her application to vet school.
Working as a tech at a clinic, someone brought in a dog who had been shot with buckshot. All the veterinarians were out on calls, and Harrison was alone.
The dog was in shock, and Harrison wasn’t exactly in perfect condition either.
“I was young and nervous,” she said.
She called one of the vets who told her to start an IV. It was a challenge since the dog had low blood pressure, but Harrison did it, and that stabilized the dog’s condition.
“The dog got better and survived,” she said.
Harrison later saw the dog’s owner, who said, ‘“That lady saved my dog’s life.’”
“It’s nice to feel you helped the dog have a successful outcome,” she said.
Harrison didn’t know the dog or the owner before, and she said she makes a point to get to know her clients and horses. She likes to visit the farms to see the horses in their own environment.
“It’s nice to help people enjoy their animals,” she said.
While some calls result in putting an animal down, Harrison said, at least she has helped do the humane thing.
One of her favorite parts is aiding with a birth. Horses have 11-month gestation periods and most are born between midnight and 6 a.m.
“It seems like they can sense when you’re out of the barn,” she said.
Harrison said horses are smart and easier to work with once the human learns what to do.
“A lot of it is just knowing how to communicate with them and to let the horse know what you want it to do,” she said.
It’s not a one size fits all. Getting to know each horse is different.
“Horses really have unique personalities,” she said.
Calls can be just as varied. Harrison remembers one horse that got stuck in mud. Firefighters had to assist in freeing the beast.
“It was down to its belly,” she said.
Techniques for freeing horses in mud can include putting down a piece of wood for the horse to step up onto, using a tube with air pressure to push it up and pulling it up with old fire hoses, Harrison said.
Much of what Harrison does is preventive medicine such as administering vaccines, deworming or dental care.
She can tell when a horse is upset or in pain. Signs can be increased heart or breathing rates, not eating, turning to look at their belly and pawing.
“If they’re very upset, they’ll pin their ears back,” she said. “A lot of it is the horse’s body language.”
One body motion is in humans’ control. Harrison said she was taught in 4-H to put treats like sugar cubes and apples in a horse’s feed bucket. That way they don’t nip at people’s hands and pockets thinking they’re holding food, she said.
Harrison said she always found horse conditioning and nutrition — “what makes a horse tick and work” — interesting.
She likes the to see all the different things horses can do, from riding to competing, jumping, showing and racing. The animals usually live 25 to 30 years old. Some reach 40.
Harrison named her business Monarch Veterinary Services. She is a Master Gardener and member of the Fredonia Area Garden Club.
At graduation from veterinary school, grads were told to apply their knowledge but not to forget to stop and smell the roses. Harrison planted a rose garden at her first house and developed a butterfly garden. She brings caterpillars into her house and, after their metamorphosis, lets the monarch butterflies outside.
Harrison said she compares starting her own business to growing from a caterpillar into a monarch butterfly.
Like the vet that helped inspire her, Harrison serves as veterinary science leader for Ozaukee County.
“Dr. Born did that for me when I was in 4-H,” she said. “It’s exciting to see people’s interest in becoming veterinarians and techs.”
Image Information: Veterinarian Gloria Harrison said she prides herself on getting to know her patients like Junior, a Lipizzan colt. She was introduced to horses at a young age as seen in a photo of herself at 6 months old with a foal. Photo by Sam Arendt