How does one teach aspiring veterinary students about the complexities of the equine body while helping them develop hands-on skills? Traditionally, textbooks, lectures and limited practice on livestock have been the teaching tools of choice. Now though, thanks to equine veterinary simulators, the brainchild of Dr. Emma Read, BSc, DVM, MVSc, DACVS, senior instructor and chair of Clinical Skills at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, students can learn to hone their craft prior to rehearsing with live horses.

“It all started when I shared a crazy idea with [Dean] Alastair Cribb,” said Dr. Read. “I suggested we hollow out tack store horses [the kind used to display halters and blankets], and place a pad in the bottom to teach the students how to do belly-taps [a procedure that involves inserting a needle into the underbelly to draw fluids]. I also thought we could place a bucket inside and suspend a real gastro-intestinal tract. Predictably, the smell of decaying cadaver specimens didn’t motivate students to learn. That’s when it occurred to me that a latex GI tract would be ideal.”

Thanks to funding from the Equine Foundation of Canada, Pfizer Inc. and the university itself, Dr. Read’s idea turned into the first model created by Veterinary Simulator Industries (VSI) of Calgary, Alberta.

The veterinary simulators contain latex reproductions of the spleen, kidney, pelvis, rectum, large and small intestines and ovaries as well as a soft area in the belly to practice drawing fluids from.

“When I was in school, we had to feel around inside a live horse without the certainty of knowing what we were looking for,” said Dr. Read. “Now, I can look in and show students the exact arm and hand position they need to find whatever they are looking for.”

The veterinary simulators also allows instructors to assess a student’s diagnostic reasoning. “For example, a bloody belly-tap and the ability to reach in and feel a distended colon that’s twisted should prompt a student to tell me that the horse is in dire trouble and requires immediate surgery,” explained Dr. Read.

Available at all times, day or night, students are afforded ample opportunity to practice the long list of clinical skills taught to them during the four year program. Even the basics such as haltering and safe positioning around horses are learned using the model.

“The simulator makes a great teaching horse because it just stands there for hours and the students can practice each skill over and over again,” said Dr. Read. As a result of her department’s research and feedback on the project, VSI now builds versions for other learning institutions.

A variety of other teaching models have also been added to the faculty’s toolbox: a rubberized horse head with a jugular vein teaches students how to draw blood and insert catheters; a leg model helps students learn about joint injections, wounds and how to hold a leg during flexion tests; a skeletal model of the leg teaches the placement of bone and soft tissues and a calving model recreates the birthing process.

Next on Dr. Read’s wish list is a horse head simulator, lifelike on one side with a detailed look into the head’s inner architecture on the other. “Students would stand on the outside of the model while passing a stomach tube,” she explained. “If they’re having trouble, they could pop around to the other side and clearly see where the tube is and where they’re going wrong in their technique. It’s just one more important skill that would best be taught on a simulator.”