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Where in the World is Dr. Valerie Pflughoeft?

You may know that Dr. Valerie Pflughoeft joined the Tacoma Equine team in December, but what you might not know is that she is actively involved in an organization called Equitarian Initiative, a non-profit committed to sustainable change by providing education for owners and veterinary care for working equids that otherwise would not have access to veterinary care. Dr. Valerie has worked with the Equitarian Initiative in Costa Rica, but has been most dedicated to work on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with the Horse Spirit Society.

A herd of horses in South Dakota

Where does the Equitarian Initiative go and what do they do?

E.I. travels to Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Equitarian Initiative trains veterinarians and veterinary students to be able to participate in direct aid, which involves dental care, deworming, vaccinations, wound care, castrations, and education. These people depend on their equids for survival, but do not have access to veterinarians, education, or often even books to learn how to care for their partners. The education on horse management, nutrition, and medicine the veterinarians are able to share greatly improves the welfare of the animals as well as the people through their horses or donkeys.

What does Sung Oyate and the Horse Spirit Society do in South Dakota?

The Sung Oyate (horse people) is a group of veterinarians, veterinary students, farriers, and veterinary technicians that travel each summer to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota (the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee) to provide veterinary care to the equines on the reservation. Each year hundreds of horses, donkeys, mules, and ponies are vaccinated, dewormed, and castrated. Many horses also receive dental exams, wound care, lameness consults, and hoof trimming as needed.

Dr Pflughoeft instructs a student performing a castration

Why is this service work so important in South Dakota?

The people of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation experience equal strife to those living in a third world country. As many as 20 family members may live in a one bedroom house or a trailer; food and clothing is scarce. E.I. has chosen to serve the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by caring for their horses, because horses are the cornerstone of their society. Not only are the natives culturally and spiritually connected to horses, but most families make their living by breeding, raising, training, and selling horses, and using horses to manage herds of cattle. Even if a family is able to afford veterinary care for their horses, they are often refused care due to racial prejudices that exist in the area. By helping keep the horses healthy, E.I. is able to strengthen the foundation of the natives’ community, culture, and way of life.

What is it like to work on the team in South Dakota?

Volunteers stay at the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort in Kyle. Veterinarians usually have their own cabins or share with friends, and the veterinary students pile in one room. This often means the students bring air mattresses and sleeping bags so they can split the cost of the room between themselves. The first night everyone arrives, and Dr. Judy Batker hauls most of the supplies in her utility trailer from Wisconsin. Everyone pitches in to divide up the supplies (drugs, syringes, cleaning scrubs, dewormer, etc.) between teams. Many veterinarians bring personal vehicles or their own work trucks, and the supplies are loaded for the next day.

Camaraderie - a group of volunteers in a truck

There are four work days, and each morning they start with rounds in front of Dr. Judy’s cabin. Teams of students rotate between veterinarians each day, and what work they do depends on what site they end up at. Then the students and supplies are crammed into vehicles. There are often aren’t road signs, and sometimes the veterinarians who have come for several years know their way around, but most of the time a local guide to takes them to their work site(s) for the day.

There are some sites with large corrals and chutes where horses can be run through. Other sites may only have a few horses that are handled well. Horses vary from completely wild to better handled and more tolerant than many horses at home. The teams rely on the native people to handle the horses, as they are much more experienced and talented than they are at handling wild horses. Horses that are handled enough will have dental exams and floats performed as needed. Those that are not will receive a minimum of vaccines and deworming. There are usually several castrations to be performed, and it is not uncommon to perform several dentals, castrate, and vaccinate and deworm several more horses in one day.

Skeletor! A bit of fun

The trip usually occurs in late July-early August, when South Dakota is blistering hot. The days are long and hard work, but very rewarding. Students and veterinarians bring plenty of snacks and drinks, as many sites don’t have running water, bathrooms (even porta-potties), or electricity. The ones that do seem luxurious! But don’t let that fool you, this team knows how to have fun- whether it’s pretending to be Skeletor by putting a pelvis on your head, or little girls chasing little boys with freshly removed horse testicles. The local people are incredibly grateful for the service and education the volunteers are able to provide. Often the women will work all day cooking special food for the workers, and drive it out to volunteers at the end of the day. They often serve big kettles of buffalo stew, fry bread, and wojapi (a thick berry sauce to dunk fry bread in), and nothing has ever tasted better at the end of the day!

After four days of hard work, the Sung Oyate group takes the meaning of “work hard, play hard” to heart. Percy Whiteplume, one of the organizers of the Horse Spirit Society, rounds up his horses, and his sons Zuya and Freedom lead a thank-you ride out through the Black Hills. Now, this isn’t your typical trail ride. These volunteers like to let loose and have fun, and that means riding fast, galloping along ridge lines, dodging pine trees, and racing beautiful painted horses! After an amazing ride, Percy usually gathers the volunteers together to speak about the Lakota culture and history, and thank them for dedicating their time to helping the Lakota people.

The next day volunteers reluctantly load up to go home. Several of the veterinarians and technicians will be back in the fall to teach the C.J. Clifford Memorial Horse Doctoring class, but many won’t be able to return until the next year. Especially for those that have been many times, the people become family, and the volunteers know and care for the horses as well as their patients at home. Working with Equitarian Initiative is their way of giving back, making a positive change, but it is also a way of saying thank you to horses, who have taught us all and given so much throughout our lives.

Want to learn more about Dr. Pflughoeft and her experiences with the E.I.? Feel free to email her at or check out her bio!

For more information on the Equitarian Initiative:

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