It's a vet's life - Veterinary Practice
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It’s a vet’s life

JOHN PERIAM talks to Robrecht Cnockaert, British Showjumping Performance Team vet, about his work in a schedule of events where he gets to collaborate and share knowledge with many practices

IT was in 2005 that Robrecht Cnockaert became the official vet to the British showjumping team. Rob’s mother’s brother was a vet and his father did one year’s vet school before deciding to become a solicitor.

Horses played an important part in his early life and given any opportunity Rob would spend as much time with trainer, George Martens, as he could.

After qualifying at Gent in Belgium, Rob had the lucky opportunity to spend a year with Dr Rudiger Brems at his clinic in Wolfesing, Germany.

“Working at Dr Brems’ clinic was a massive learning curve,” says Rob. “We are still in touch, and the main focus of his work today lies in orthopaedics, ultrasound diagnosis, arthroscopy and the treatment of tendon lesions. His continuing work on stem cell therapy has made him famous beyond Europe where he has obtained an international reputation as a sport horse veterinarian.”

Rob set up his own equine consultancy practice where he focuses on lameness and performance issues in sport horses. “I cover a broad range from children’s ponies to top-level dressage and showjumping horses,” he explains. “When I was made the British team vet, my own clients were very understanding of the extra constraints due to my work and travel schedule. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it is one I personally value and cherish.”

This is supported by British Showjumping, which when asked to give an overview on the value it places on him, when he won the Show Jumping Award at the Animal Health Equestrian Awards in 2014, said: “His empathy, passion and understanding of the equine athlete has helped to position British showjumping into the world leader that it is today. This along with his personable approach has made him a highly valued and respected member of the team.”

Describing his current role, Rob says: “My work starts prior to the competitions – not just at the show itself. Promoting education and knowledge of the FEI regulations surrounding animal welfare and antidoping issues is ongoing.

“Doing what I can to support the riders’ home team to ensure that the optimum regime is in place will allow each team horse to arrive at the competition in top form. Establishing a rapport with each rider and groom is very important to me, and takes years to develop. Ultimately I hope that every horse-rider combination will succeed; that is the focus 100% of the time.”

Rob works closely with Di Lampard, World Class Showjumping Performance manager, and other support staff. Communication with the shows’ organisers and the FEI in order to improve standards and care for the horses is also important.

“The showjumping schedule is quite a full one,” he says. “In a relatively short season, we have eight Nations Cup competitions plus the final at Barcelona. Add to this some other key competitions that may come up, plus the relevant championships – European, WEG or Olympics – that are occurring that year, and it becomes quite hectic!”

Like all vets, Rob makes sure he can take as many CPD opportunities as possible. “It is important to keep up to date with what is happening in our profession. We have the BEVA, AAEP and Arbeitsgruppe Pferd to name a few.

“These are opportunities to receive high-quality education as well as coming together with colleagues in a supportive environment.”

In the course of his work, Rob has the chance to collaborate with many vets who look after the riders’ horses when they are not actually participating in team competitions. “Coming together as colleagues can be very helpful as two heads are always better than one,” he says. “Sharing knowledge is a two-way road, and I have a tremendous respect for all the practices I come into contact with.”

Rob is constantly seeking to improve himself and the expertise he can bring to the team. Achievements include team vet at two Olympic Games, three World Equestrian Games and four European Championships, plus support for over 70 top level Nations Cup teams. He works alongside many advisory groups, including the World Class Performance Scientific Advisory Group & Veterinary Advisory Panel, and Veterinary Committee.

Keeping up-to-date

Technology changes all the time and Rob likes to keep abreast of this. He says: “The rapid development of more sophisticated diagnostic equipment such as MRI, CT and nuclear scintigraphy has been a boon to the profession and certainly is allowing us to reach new levels of diagnostic ability. The evolution in diagnostic technology has been coupled with advances in areas such as biotechnology – stem sell, PRP, IRAP – which brings a practical application into the field, allowing practices to offer better treatment options for patients.”

Rob adds, “There is a strong temptation, and even pressure, for vets to try to follow all of these advances in medical technology which can become unrealistic.

“I am a believer in ‘horses for courses’ so while I constantly try to keep aware of the advances and accommodate some of them into my practice, there are others which I would rather rely on the advice of an expert in the field, who has spent years developing their knowledge.”

What of the future? “Lack of fitness is still a key aspect for many of the competition horses I see. This can lead to a wide variety of injuries, and can be a result of over-training as well as under-training. I would love to see the development of more accurate methods of technology which can be used by the riders and trainers in the field in order to more precisely evaluate the results of their training programme.

“So often there is a contradiction of needs between training and developing the horse’s skills and the ideal amount of rest. This ratio needs to be better understood, in order to allow trainers to make more informed decisions about the ideal fitness and competition regimes.”

Rob lives with his wife Jennifer and their two children, eight-year-old daughter Morgan and seven-year-old son Connor. Both share their parents’ love of animals as evidenced by their ever-expanding menagerie which now includes two ponies.

Rob remembers a story: “Three years ago, my daughter informed me that she was going to ‘The Vets’ – our local practice – with our puppy to be microchipped.

“When I jokingly said to her, ‘Morgan, why don’t I do it, I’m a vet also?’ she innocently put her hands on her hips, looked up at me and said chidingly, “Oh no, daddy, I’m going to the ‘real’ vets’!”

At the end of the day, any vet will tell you “it’s the welfare of the animal that comes first” – rest assured the British team have no worries in that direction

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