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Mattie Smith is a member of the WCVM's Class of 2021. Photo by Christina Weese.

Vet student goes from backcountry to books

When Mattie Smith opened her letter of acceptance from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in June, she was fencing on her boss’s farm – just another day in the office for a wrangler at Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge near Jasper, Alta.

Since she was 12 years old, Smith has been working as a horse guide and wrangler for the outfitting company operated by Kable and Sara Kongsrud.

“Over the years, my bosses and colleagues have become my family and role models,” says Smith. “I’m inspired by the way they care for and love their horses. I’ve worked for them now for eight years, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

While Smith’s summer job may seem an unusual one, it’s unexceptional for a girl who grew up in Jasper National Park with her mom working as a hiking guide and her dad being in charge of fire and vegetation management for the park. 

Smith appreciates the unique perspective of wildlife and nature that she’s learned from her parents who have always demonstrated the meaning of hard work and have truly embraced the outdoors.

She also appreciates the skills and abilities she’s acquired through her work leading five-day pack trips through mountain passes into the Tonquin Valley.

Smith is most proud of successfully learning to tie the intricate diamond hitch that holds the pack and tarp on the horse. Acquiring that skill led to her becoming a head packer – a huge responsibility that made her accountable for leading a train of six to eight horses on each ride.

“Being in the backcountry leading pack trains of horses and guests has made me more certain of myself,” Smith explains. “When you’re far away from civilization, the decisions you make need to be carefully thought out and made with confidence. I quickly learned how to make quick, important decisions while having the responsibility of keeping the people and horses safe.”

 Smith also relished the opportunity to work with the horses – her passion since she was a little girl riding the Parks Canada horses with her dad. She particularly enjoys getting to know their personalities and having them recognize her as a friend.

In addition to learning how to train her own horse Chinook — a graduation gift from the Kongsruds — Smith enrolled in an equine massage course with the goal of making the pack horses feel better after a day on the trail.

“I’ve seen numerous cases where massage has helped the horses perform better and look happier,” says Smith. “I enjoy the work because it’s instantly gratifying. The horses are usually very content and walk out much better after massage.”

Although Smith has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was little, she gained an even deeper appreciation for the profession when she learned more about animal agriculture and veterinary practices during her undergraduate years at the University of Saskatchewan. She’s excited by the many options and career paths available after graduation.

When it comes to future plans, Smith has a wish list that includes working as a locum veterinarian in various clinics as well as travelling to other countries and working with organizations such as Vets Without Borders. One Health is also an interest for her.

“At some point, I’d like to work on a public health team,” Smith explains. “I believe as veterinarians we have very important roles in keeping people, animals and the environment in good health, and I’m excited to be able to contribute to a team that shares those beliefs.”

When Smith thinks back on her life growing up, she’s grateful for the lifestyle and the experiences and the surroundings.

“I loved living in Jasper and being able to go camping and hiking with my friends. I also wouldn’t be the person I am today had it not been for working in the back country,” says Smith.

“I have a lot of people in my life that appreciate nature, and there really is nothing quite like going into the mountains and looking around to see no one else on the horizon.”

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