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First-year veterinary students reach inside the digestive system of the WCVM's new simulated horse. Photos: Christina Weese.

Gift of high-tech horse adds value to WCVM’s teaching program

A group of first-year veterinary students gather around a life-sized black plastic horse, holding up what looks like a large piece of intestine.

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The simulated horse is one of several high-tech tools at the BJ Hughes Centre for Clinical Learning. Students have 24-hour access to the new simulation centre.

“Wow! Cool!” exclaim several students as Dr. Julia Montgomery demonstrates the digestive system inside the equine model. This isn’t just any horse. It’s an advanced equine simulator, made possible by a $50,000 donation from the Equine Foundation of Canada (EFC).

Montgomery is an assistant professor of large animal medicine and a board-certified specialist of large animal internal medicine at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). The students pepper her with questions as they feel inside the model to understand how the internal organs fit together.

The students are clearly having fun while learning, as they continue to discuss how the model translates information from their lectures and textbooks into a three-dimensional space.

This is the first time that Nicole Sheedy has seen the horse. The first-year student is impressed by how quickly it helped her make sense of the information that she learned in class.

“I feel like I understand everything better,” she says. “In order to do anatomy, you need to see it in 3D. Because I saw it in 3D, I automatically get the concept.”

The model is an important bridge between lecture and live patient, and the potential for its use will only increase as more faculty members incorporate the equine simulator into their teaching.

Montgomery is enthusiastic about the myriad of possibilities the model presents.

“I think she’s really amazing,” says Montgomery. “It’s not exactly the real thing, but it opens up invasive techniques to larger numbers of students. That adds really great value.”

Her first-year class is using the model horse to better grasp anatomy concepts. Montgomery has also used it for third-year students as they work through colic scenarios. She anticipates fourth-year students, interns and residents could use the model to simulate working up a complex problem in a real-life case at the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre.

Students from Saskatchewan Polytechnic will also use the model as part of their registered veterinary technologist (RVT) training. It could even serve as a refresher for staff and faculty as well as a tool to provide public outreach and education. Throughout the year, the model will receive visits from members of 4-H clubs, horse clubs, Sci-Fi camps and equine groups.

“I think the fact that people are generous enough to give us these donations — that they care about horses and equine health — is what enables us to have the kind of equipment and infrastructure that we have. And without that part of it, there would be a lot of things we wouldn’t have. I’m eternally grateful, and I think it’s fabulous,” says Montgomery.

The decision to assist the WCVM in the purchase of the gift was an easy one, says Bob Watson, the President of the EFC.

“It’s our mandate,” he says. The organization, which bears the slogan “people helping people helping horses” has made many donations to the five Canadian veterinary colleges since it was founded nearly 40 years ago.

“We thought it was a really good thing to invest in, that we could help a whole lot of people with that. Every student that comes through is going to work on that animal sometime in their program, even if they’re not going into equine medicine,” says Watson. “The equine people in particular are going to spend a lot of time with it, and they’re going to find it fabulous because they’re [models are] just so lifelike.”

The horse joins a growing stable of high-tech tools at the BJ Hughes Centre for Clinical Learning, which opened its doors in September 2016. This includes model dogs that can help simulate surgical techniques, as well as Agnes, a life-sized cow and her calf that are used to familiarize students with different calving scenarios. The Canadian Western Agribition, in partnership with the WCVM and Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Awareness Initiative program, helped to purchase the pair. 

The cow-calf and horse models all came from Calgary-based Veterinary Simulator Industries that got its start in part through support from EFC. The company builds a variety of simulation tools that can help augment the use of live animals in teaching situations.

“They’re just a really marvelous learning tool,” says Watson.

The list of uses for the equine model is extensive. Students can use it to practise everything from very basic halter and handling skills, to administering eye medications, catheter placement, intramuscular injections and rectal exams. The horse comes with three sets of ovaries modelling different reproductive stages so users can understand what each phase of equine ovulation feels like during a vaginal exam.

The horses’ right front limb is an X-ray model that students can use to practise taking radiographic images. They learn how to hold the instrument at the proper angle and where to aim the X-ray beam.

“We’re covering all the bases, from first year to the advanced study,” says Carolyn Cartwright, manager of the BJ Hughes Centre for Clinical Learning. She’s also an RVT and veterinary technician specialist in anesthesia.   

She says that using the models takes away some of the pressure of working with a live animal. Students have 24-hour access to the facility, which allows them to hone their skills until they feel confident.

“They’re great students and they’ve excelled, that’s why they’re in vet school – sometimes if they struggle a bit with a technique, or taking that thought process and being able to put it onto a skill, sometimes it’s hard to say in front of the group ‘I’m struggling with this,’” says Cartwright.

Third-year student Christine Reinhart says she wishes the simulation facility had been available during the earlier years of her veterinary education. She recently used the equine model in a third-year equine surgery class.

“We used it for the colic situation, which is an emergency situation for horses. Even if we see a colic in the college, it is an emergency. We might not get a chance to actually feel what it feels like. When they can set up a situation and it’s very low stress, you can get a really good learning experience from it,” she says.

The students who have used the equine model so far are grateful for the EFC’s donation to enhance the simulation centre.

“I think this gift shows that WCVM has a really strong relationship with the community and that they think our initiatives are important and worth investing in,” says Reinhart.

Sheedy echoes this statement.

“I feel happy that there are organizations that are willing to support us. That they’re standing behind us and they value our education and they’re willing to put forth that kind of money in order to help us with our education,” says Sheedy. “I want to say thank you.”

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