BOOKS: If Wishes Were Horses: The Education of a Veterinarian

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1994:

If Wishes Were Horses: The
Education of a Veterinarian, by Loretta
Gage, DVM, and Nancy Gage, St Martin’s Press
(175 Fifth Ave, New York NY 10010), 1992, 295 pages,
paperback $4.99 U.S., $5.99 in Canada.
Nearly everyone who loves animals has at some
point dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Loretta Gage was
one: this is her account of the reality behind that dream. With
relentless attention to detail, she and her sister describe the
process of becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine.
At times her dream seems more like a nightmare, an
endless boot camp of classes taught by insensitive instructors,
of animals sacrificed for knowledge of basic procedures.
Still, there are moments of friendship, human and nonhuman,
and Gage is impressively determined to succeed.

Much of the book is devoted to descriptions of class-
es and the staggering amount of information a veterinary stu-
dent is expected to absorb. Nor does Gage spare the gory
details of laboratory work. We sympathize with her mostly
futile attempts to harden herself to the suffering of unwanted
pets and livestock passing through the labs, and we share her
indignation at the behavior of the rare unfeeling student.
Though Gage mentions several classmates and pro-
fessors, her most memorable characters are animals: the grey-
hound Blacknos; the pygmy goat Milo and his bovine friend;
the abandoned cat she calls Bones. Each becomes a catalyst,
a test of her mental health amid the grinding pressure of her
studies. “When I think of the emotional beating we take in
school–-and in the real world––I wonder why more veterinari-
ans are not psychopathic murderers, rampaging through the
streets,” she writes. “The fact that, by and large, we don’t go
mad attests to how much the human heart can take.”
Gage describes all too clearly what the human heart
must survive to become a practicing veterinarian: the emo-
tional cost far outweighed the financial. Yet there are won-
derful moments too, as an unborn foal bites her examining
finger during a senior course on Equine Reproduction. And
though as she says, “It’s horrible to kill when you’re trained
to save,” there are success stories as well: “Every vet remem-
bers the ones he’s saved.”
If Wishes Were Horses isn’t an easy read, though its
descriptions of landscape and personalities are reminiscent of
James Herriot. The vividness of detail can be both numbing
(when it describes class schedules), and gruesome (in the lab-
oratories). But it’s always honest. For anyone who admires
or criticizes veterinarians, or aspires to be one, it will be an
educating experience.
––Cathy Young Czapla
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