The pool of equine veterinarians is a small one. Within that pool, the number of clinicians who do research is even smaller. Most of those who do the research are at universities, and there are only about 20 veterinary colleges that have research programs. Among those researchers, few also maintain a practice with equine clients. However, that’s exactly what Dr. Ashlee Watts does.
In her youth, Ashlee never considered doing anything other than working with horses as an equine veterinarian. Originally from Utah, she attended Colorado State University where she also earned her DVM in 2003 and went on to complete her surgical residency and earn her Ph.D. from Cornell University, where her focus was improving cartilage repair.
Today she’s a board certified orthopedic surgeon in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University, and director of the Comparative Orthopedics and Regenerative Medicine Laboratory.
Ashlee The Rider
Over the years, Ashlee has ridden and competed in a variety of disciplines, from equitation and jumpers to a summer of endurance riding, western performance events, all-around Quarter Horse breed shows and even exercising a professional barrel racing horse. Then, in 2011, she took a dressage lesson on her off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) and after a few more lessons, a lightbulb went off in her head on how her riding was making the horse better.
“After only a few lessons, I’d found a job that took a nervous OTTB and made him more confident. Through classical riding, I became a better leader and the horse became a better listener — he was on the aids and a happier and better-balanced athlete. Now I have a deeper understanding of how classical riding can make the horse literally proud of himself, which I find addictive,” she said.
Ashlee is a successfully rising Second Level dressage competitor with her horse, Hampton, and she hopes to continue through the national dressage levels and maybe even FEI level. “I really found my niche as an amateur rider in dressage — it’s all about the horse and education — which is a mirror of my professional life and I love it. We raise Warmbloods and I ride in the evening after work — usually two horses a day. My coach comes to my house a couple times a week and my husband takes care of everything or I’d never be able to do it all.”
Ashlee The Equine Researcher
Ashlee’s passion for improving her horses through classical riding carries over into her professional life, as veterinary medicine and research allow her to make horses better from the inside out.
“All my life, I wanted to work on performance horses and lameness, but during an internship at Pioneer Equine in California, I discovered I loved surgery. When I went to Cornell for my surgical residency, I was required to do research. It was really hard and time consuming, but once I got my results and statistics and had answered my research question about something that was meaningful to the horse and equine practitioners, I thought it was really cool,” she explained.
Ashlee’s recent research was published in the September Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and she’ll present the details to veterinarians at the annual conference of the American Association of Equine Practitioners in December. The study, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Resveratrol Administration in Performance Horses with Lameness Localized to the Distal Tarsal Joints,” provides proof that Equithrive® Joint is effective therapy for equine hock lameness.
“This was a two-year research project and it’s very exciting to me because blinded, randomized and controlled clinical trials aren’t commonly performed in equine veterinary medicine,” Ashlee said. “This type of study is especially rare in the equine supplement industry due to time and cost involved, and I was very pleased that Equithrive raised the standard for the industry.” It’s her hope that the results may also encourage future scientific research and proof behind equine therapies.
“Career-wise, my goal is to continue improving the lives of horses through better understanding of pathophysiology, prevention, therapy and treatments for musculoskeletal injury in the horse. If something I learn in the horse is useful for human athletes, that would be icing on the cake,” Ashlee said.
All photos by Patrick Lawless