One of the great benefits enjoyed by horse owners is access to a number of mobile equine veterinarians who will come directly to the owner’s farm and care for the horses. In order to do farm visits, it takes a bit of planning and investment on the part of an equine practitioner to get set up with good transportation and to have all the necessary supplies and equipment on hand.
It is no secret that a mobile practitioner spends a lot of the day with windshield time, driving between farm calls. This necessitates working out of a reliable vehicle that is comfortable, safe and roadworthy. When planning on the kind of vehicle to purchase, these features are important to keep in mind. Sure, good gas mileage is high on the list of desirable characteristics—because why spend more on fuel than necessary?
But if good fuel mileage is achieved at the expense of comfort, then you might find that driving fatigue lessens the efficiency of your work output sufficiently to impact income generation. And a veterinarian who is uncomfortable for many hours a day driving will not be as pleasant to clients.
What Kind of Vehicle Do You Want?
Where do you start when trying to decide what type of vehicle you will spend your day in? First figure out what size and kind of vehicle suits your practice needs. Do you want a big fourwheel- drive pickup truck that carries a slide-in or chassis-mounted fiberglass veterinary box and won’t get stuck on any type of farm road? Or would you be satisfied using a van or SUV with a vet unit that fits into the rear of the vehicle?
Having driven both a pickup truck and an SUV as practice vehicles, as well as variations on “not fancy” versus luxury over the past 30 years, some proand- con observations might help you make a choice.
Keep in mind that in a busy practice, you should easily be able to earn back the purchase cost of the vehicle within a short time—two to three years. So skimping on comfort is not necessarily a critical financial strategy. It pays to consult with your tax accountant and bank to outline your financing and/or payment options.
The difference between a vehicle that has only the bare basics and one with many options might not be enough to matter when amortized over several years of depreciation.
How Well Equipped Should the Vehicle Be?
The bare bones of a basic vehicle will get you where you want to go, so how many nifty options do you need to run around the region on farm calls? Spending six to 10 hours each day in a practice vehicle can be wearing on you if the seats aren’t comfortable and adjustable, if the vehicle is difficult to drive, if you can’t see out of or maneuver it or if you don’t have ample heat and/or air conditioning.
When starting out solo in my own mobile practice, out of necessity I used our old 1970 Chevy pickup with a slide-in Bowie box. Although the truck was in great shape considering its age, it wasn’t until a year later, when I bought a brand new Ford F-250 diesel loaded with optional features, that I realized how exhausting it had been being bounced around by the old Chevy suspension and cramped in the small cab with minimal leg room and a nonadjustable bench seat. I liked the new pickup so much that I replaced it eight years later with another new one, again with all the bells and whistles. A few years ago I decided to try an SUV, so I traded in the big Bowie box for a small SUV vet unit, and I couldn’t be happier.
When looking for the right vehicle, here’s some general food for thought:
• Driving a vehicle equipped with creature comforts makes it easier on the body, especially when getting back into the vehicle after working outside in difficult weather conditions. When comparing what to buy, consider the “ride,” meaning the suspension, interior comfort and capacity.
• How do you feel about a gas engine versus a diesel engine? Do you need the extra power of a diesel or even a large V8? Do you have an opinion about the noise of a diesel? Are there plugs available to keep the engine block heated in cold weather? It pays for you to drive a diesel before you go that route, just to be sure.
Pickup Truck vs. SUV or Van
You might know in advance which direction you want to go—pickup, SUV or van—but if you just aren’t sure, here are a few features that might steer you toward an SUV or van:
• How much driving in traffic do you need to do? Are you comfortable maneuvering a big pickup truck or would you prefer a more nimble, smaller rig?
• What about negotiating the vehicle in situations like backing into narrow barn aisles or going to the bank drive-up, underground parking or airport parking? For some, it might be a challenge to drive a large vehicle that doesn’t readily fit into small spaces; others may be undaunted by this challenge.
• For many vets, getting in and out to open and close gates all day long is often part of the daily routine to access farms. Consider how much of a chore it is to climb in and out of a pickup cab compared to an SUV or van. Running boards might be a smart option to include on your truck or SUV.
• How desirable is it to have a bit of weather protection when working out of the back of your rig? One feature of an SUV that is appealing is the way the back door lifts open to provide some shelter from rain and snow as well as a little sunshade.
• There are installation costs in mounting a slide-in or chassis unit on a pickup, including changes within the engine compartment to run hot water to the vet box. Alternatively, a slide-in unit for a van or SUV simply requires some bolts to hold it down, and it is more easily detached when it’s time to change to a new vehicle.
• Keep in mind that a veterinary rig with a vet box and with or without clinic signage might advertise that pharmaceuticals are on board, thus making it a target for theft. Blending in with an SUV or van may be a good thing depending on where you live. There are some particular aspects of driving a large rig with a slide-in vet unit in the pickup bed that make it a logical choice:
• The enclosed vet unit keeps odors (like garbage or open containers of DMSO, for example), dust or insects confined within the vet box rather than circulating around the interior of an SUV or van.
• Mileage is usually not much different between many pickups and an SUV or van, but the larger vehicle has a larger tank so doesn’t necessitate as many trips to the gas station.
• Do you need the larger, separate interior provided by a pickup truck so that it provides more equipment storage space and/or double-duties as a family vehicle?
• What are your needs with regard to hauling? A hefty pickup truck is well equipped to haul a horse trailer, although a stout SUV is also able to haul some smaller horse trailers.
How Much Gear Do You Need to Carry?
There aren’t many limitations on how much gear you can carry in a full-size, slide-in vet pack mounted on the back of a pickup truck. That said, it was interesting to find that when I off-loaded my big Bowie box into my smaller SUV vet unit, it was easy to fit everything needed to conduct an effective ambulatory practice.
One change was that I simplified the on-board inventory. This was a good thing because some supplies “stored” or remembered for a very long time. And it also became apparent that I really didn’t need to carry all that extra bandaging material, boxes of syringes, spare vaginal speculums, surgical packs, etc.—supplies that were used up could be replaced at the end of each day. The one thing that doesn’t fit quite as easily into the SUV is the radiographic equipment, but it does fit.
As for having on-board water and refrigeration, almost every barn has plenty of hot water, and using a small cooler with ice packs is practical to store vaccines during daily rounds. In winter climates, a heated garage substitutes for a vet box heater; otherwise, it is simple to store temperature-sensitive medications, such as injectables and scrub materials, in a tackle box and bring them in at night for the few winter months it matters. In hot climates, the tackle box of materials can be carried inside during the warmer months.
A few other important points to consider: Besides being your home away from home, your practice vehicle is an advertisement for the pride you take in your practice and profession. It speaks volumes to your client when you drive onto the farm. You’ll want it to look nice and be clean, tidy and hygienic. Good perceptions lead to more business, particularly from higher-end clients.
Don’t forget to research the safety features of any vehicle you purchase. With as much windshield time as mobile practitioners spend, especially at all hours of day and night, the risk of vehicular accidents increases exponentially. Make sure your vehicle is equipped with air bags and has a safe crash report.
If you are buying used, then check out the vehicle’s Car Fax for its past history of maintenance records and accident reports. Have your mechanic do a pre-purchase inspection so you are aware of potential maintenance and repair issues before making the investment. Check with a dealer to see if you can purchase an extended warranty, as many vehicles are eligible if mileage is still low enough. Also, with a busy practice, you don’t have time to be broken down by the side of the road, and changing a flat tire on a 16-20 inch wheel is a dirty, heavy-lifting chore—it helps to buy roadside assistance on your insurance policy or through companies like AAA. Having an additional clause in your vehicle insurance that provides you with a rental car might be practical, too, when your car goes in for repairs.
When considering purchase price, don’t forget to factor in the annual costs of registration, emission testing and insurance. Also keep in mind that buying a used vehicle with not-so-great gas mileage might not compare favorably to a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle.
Vehicles truly make a personal statement, and the purchase you make should be tailored to suit you. Do your homework and confer with colleagues to gather opinions as to what features are and are not important. Test drive different types of vehicles before taking the plunge into an expensive purchase. In that way, you’ll find the most practical and financially sound vehicle for your practice needs.