TANIA SUNDRA AND THE JOYS OF EQUINE VET WORK
Plenty of young girls around the world are obsessed with horses and pester their parents to buy them one every single day – generally speaking to no avail. Mums and dads probably spend hours, if not days, repeatedly explaining they do not have the space, time, money or inclination to purchase their child such a large four legged friend. Sometimes they suggest caring for a much smaller animal in place of a horse, and other times they shut down the conversation altogether. For equine veterinarian Tania Sundra, however, the fairy tale of owning her own horse came true at the age of twelve, when her parents bought her a horse she named Sparkle.
Sparkle, quite simply, changed Sundra’s life.
“My parents mistakenly thought buying me a horse would be cheaper than horse riding lessons,” Sundra explained. “They had no clue about horses, so I was left in charge of her daily care. It was challenging, but Sparkle taught me so much, and I was pretty much hooked from then on.” So began Sundra’s journey towards becoming an equine veterinarian, which has ultimately resulted in her founding Avon Ridge Equine Veterinary Services, a fully mobile equine practice delivering veterinary services to horses and their owners throughout Western Australia.
Born in Singapore, Sundra and her family immigrated to Australia and settled in the Swan Valley (Noongar country) in Western Australia when she was eight years old. She has always had a connection with animals, with some of her earliest memories dating back to her years in Singapore, playing with two German Shepherds who seemed like “giant dogs” to her at the time. “I grew up around animals and I’ve always been more comfortable around furry four legged creatures than humans, to be honest,” Sundra admitted. “I was always that kid (and now adult) who could be found playing with the dog at a party.”
When Sparkle became part of her life four years after arriving in Australia, Sundra’s interest in animals – and specifically in horses – became a passion. Upon finishing high school, she opted to study a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery at Murdoch University, graduating in 2009. “I’ve always been drawn to science and have a naturally inquisitive nature, so couple those two things together and you’ve got my career path,” Sundra said.
Keen to further develop her equine veterinary skills, Sundra completed an internship at an elite performance horse hospital in New Jersey, USA the year after she completed her degree. “I visited some practices in the USA during my time as a vet student and really learned a lot from the high level of veterinary medicine that was practiced,” she said. “I thought it would give me a great foundation as a new graduate to work at one of these practices.” During her internship, in addition to recognising the many similarities in how the veterinary profession is practiced in America and in Australia, Sundra also learned lessons valuable to a recent graduate. “I learnt a lot from my first boss about work ethic and patient care: the patient always came first and we didn’t compromise our standard of care based on what was convenient,” she said. “If things needed to get done, well, we just got it done!”
Armed with her new knowledge and experience, Sundra returned to Western Australia in 2011 and worked at a race track practice south of Perth, which gave her exposure to plenty of lameness examinations, equine surgery and diagnostic imaging. In 2013 she moved further north to an equine reproduction clinic in Bullsbrook, where she was taught advanced reproduction techniques. “I’ve had great experiences at all the practices I have worked at,” Sundra said. “My bosses have been very supportive in teaching me new skills, and for that I will always be grateful.”
In 2015, Sundra founded Avon Ridge Equine Veterinary Services, choosing to make her practice mobile rather than settling in one place. “I’ve always really enjoyed ambulatory work,” she said. “I love spending time outdoors, driving around with my dogs and making my own hours.” Avon Ridge Equine Veterinary Services operates all over Perth and also ventures out into regional areas, including the Wheat Belt. “My practice focuses predominantly on pleasure horses, but also includes some performance horse work,” Sundra explained. “The practice has been operating for six years now, and I have a really nice client base, a lot of whom I have also become friends with. I really enjoy getting up and going to work every day, and I find it very rewarding.”
Sundra concedes that equine veterinary work challenges her “every day,” but explains this is part of what makes her love her job. “This profession has a way of keeping you humble. A very good mentor once told me: You’re never as good as you think you are, you’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never far from either,” she said. Sundra credits the relationships she has built with patients, clients and mentors with helping her grow through some of the more difficult periods in her career, and also believes the variety of her case load broadens the appeal of her chosen field. “With equine veterinary work, no two cases are the same and no two clients are the same, so it keeps things interesting.”
2019 saw Sundra sit her membership exams for the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists Equine Medicine Chapter. She was not only successful in gaining her membership, but was also awarded the Scone Equine Group Prize for her oral and written examinations. “I’m one of those people who just can’t sit still. If I’m not working towards something or adding some degree of discomfort to my life then I get pretty bored!” she said. “The membership exams were an excellent way to challenge me and give me a deeper understanding of medicine topics. I would encourage any vet in private practice to do them – you won’t regret it.”
Ever passionate about equine veterinary work, Sundra is also keen to encourage more vets and vet nurses to explore large animal treatment and care. “It can be extremely challenging at times, but also really rewarding. If I can offer any advice to new graduates or those thinking of entering the profession it would be this: don’t be deterred by the challenges and don’t be overwhelmed by your accomplishments – just focus on trying to get a little better or learn a new skill every day,” she suggested. “Regardless of how prepared you think you are, you’re not going to save every patient and you’re going to make mistakes. The key is to learn from your mistakes, surround yourself with good mentors, and don’t let what happens today affect how you approach tomorrow.”
In addition to keeping Avon Ridge Equine Veterinary Services up and running, Sundra wants to pursue several avenues that interest her in the future, particularly in relation to equine gastric disease and endocrinology. “I’m hoping to pursue more continuing education in the field of equine medicine but I’m still unsure what form this will take at the moment,” she said. “I’m excited to see where it might lead.”
Meanwhile, Sundra is still as obsessed with horses as she was as a twelve year old girl, and remains grateful to her parents for making her childhood dream come true. Horse riding lessons might have been a cheaper option than buying a horse but owning and caring for Sparkle set Sundra on a path that shows no signs of ending any time soon.