Faces at the Races: Equine Surgeon Dr. Orlaith Cleary
Dr. Orlaith Cleary, an Irish-born equine surgeon, has travelled the world and landed at the Ontario Equine Hospital, working with racehorses at Woodbine.
In many ways, Dr. Orlaith Cleary has been working as a veterinarian for a long as she can remember. Growing-up in County Laois, Ireland, Cleary was four years old when she began accompanying her veterinarian father on his local rounds. A dedicated assistant, the pre-schooler would carry cattle medicine, man the gates of livestock pens and once, even resuscitated a lamb that had been born without vital signs.
“I just took it upon myself to help that lamb,” said Cleary. “I performed CPR because I had watched my dad do it with other deliveries and the lamb lived. That was my claim to fame for a long time.”
During her first day of school, Cleary told her classmates she was going to become a veterinarian when she grew-up, so it surprised no one when, 14 years later, she began her studies in veterinary medicine 96 kilometers from home at University College in Dublin.
As an undergraduate, Cleary took the opportunity to travel and experience veterinary care in countries like Morocco, Botswana, South Africa, Australia and the United States. It was during a working trip to Mexico that Cleary got her first, hands-on medical experience with horses.
“These were feral horses,” Cleary said. “I always thought horses were beautiful, but I was semi-afraid of them. I always thought they were less predictable than cows. I figured that if I could work with feral horses I can work with horses.”
Two days after receiving her undergraduate degree, in 2003, Cleary left Ireland and did two Large Animal Medicine and Surgery internships in Georgia and Florida. Then she did a four year surgical residence at the University of Florida. In 2010, with all her credentials, Cleary (MVB, Dipl.ACVS, MRCVS) joined the team at the Milton Equine Hospital.
For Cleary, the decision to come to Ontario was influenced by the availability of surgical and veterinary work in private practice and Woodbine Racetrack.
Between the two locations, Cleary would often clock 16 to 20-hour workdays. In fact, Cleary still maintains a heavy work schedule as an on-call emergency surgeon with the OVC, her work at the Ontario Equine Hospital (previously called Toronto Equine), and her duties at Woodbine.
She is also the mother of two young daughters, Amelia age three and seven-month-old Isabella, but said thanks to her husband, one of Woodbine’s leading jockeys, Eurico Da Silva, she now has a healthy work/life balance.
“My dad taught more how to work hard but my husband taught me how to work,” Cleary said of Da Silva, named Canada’s Outstanding Jockey for 2018.
It was due to her veterinary work that Cleary met Da Silva. Cleary performed surgery on a racehorse named Hawk’s a Blur after Da Silva said he’d cover the cost of surgery. The gelding’s connections had mulled euthanasia due to injury and a lacklustre racing career. Cleary didn’t meet Da Silva at the time, but she was so impressed by the jockey’s charity that she decided to thank him in person when she had an opportunity at the 2015 Sovereign Awards.
“I had never met a jockey that had paid a charitable bill for surgery,” Cleary said. “I guess he liked me because he asked me out and now we’re married. I didn’t see that coming when I shook his hand.”
Beyond the personal and the obviously professional, Cleary continues to be involved in horse racing behind the scenes and believes the new Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s (AGCO) race-day medication bans are a step in the right direction to improve equine welfare.
“Veterinarians have been instrumental in helping AGCO review their new policy in allowing vets access to the horses.”
Cleary also supports the use of Furosemide in racehorses.
“I think Lasix in a controlled and supervised program as an permissible medication is important. You don’t want people resorting to other measures that would be contrary to animal welfare to produce the same results. That would include the use of intravenous formaldehyde and withholding food and water for longer periods of time.
“Racetracks have programs in place to supervise Lasix which is beneficial for horses, but the use of these other techniques is not in the best interests of horse welfare. Animal welfare is key because it, and the love of the animals, is what keeps the people on the ground in the industry and keeps everyone – including vets – going.
“Without it, there is no industry.”