Preparing Horse Owners for Unexpected Health Expenses

Being upfront with costs for equine health care reduces money anxieties for owners and is a service to your clients.
Clients can overestimate their ability to afford an unexpected equine health expense. | Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Do these all-too-common scenarios sound familiar? It’s late at night, and you are on the way to a colic case. The horse is in distress and your examination reveals a severe colon displacement that with timely surgical intervention should have a very good outcome. Your client asks for a quote and as soon as the word “thousand” crosses your lips, you see her face crumble and you just know she cannot afford to do what is best for her horse. As you pull up the euthanasia solution, you are filled with mixed feelings—I know I can’t judge people for what they can or cannot pay for, but if only they were financially prepared this horse would have a chance! 

The second scenario occurs after a lameness workup. You have localized the lameness to the left front foot region, but radiographs and ultrasound are non-conclusive. You recommend an MRI to truly help identify the cause of the lameness. But rather than spend the money needed for that, the client asks if you can just treat it somehow and see what happens. You can, but you know this could be the start of a series of “that didn’t work, so let’s try this” exchanges. The end result is that the horse hasn’t improved, and the owner has needlessly paid a lot of money. If he could have found a way to pay for an MRI, you would know the cause of the lameness and could treat it appropriately.  

Both of these scenarios are common, frustrating, and emotionally draining. Rarely, yet significantly, we can be the victimized by a client making us feel guilty by accusing us of lacking compassion or being a veterinarian “just in it for the money.” The latter situation casts a shadow over us for days or even weeks. Then, instead of appreciating the cases that went well, we keep going back and wondering what we could have done differently. 

After reading the Synchrony Equine Lifetime of Care Study, a resource offered by the same company behind CareCredit, we shouldn’t be surprised that we are trapped in these situations. Consider these statistics: 

  • 83% of horse owners feel that they are prepared for the expenses of owning a horse. 
  • 52% have had an unexpected health care expense.  
  • 53% were not financially prepared for the unexpected expense. 

These findings tell us a couple of things. First is that horse owners overestimate their ability to pay for an inevitable random and costly health care expense. Second, they don’t have an accurate grasp of the cost of medical care beyond the usual annual preventative care expenses. What’s more, horse owners often aren’t prepared even for expected care, and “expensive” can mean different things to different people—$500 can induce stress for some clients. 

What can a veterinary practice do about this?  

The solutions are simple; it is getting there that is challenging. The easiest option for horse owners is ensuring they know about the CareCredit health and animal care credit card or some other financial credit option that can help them finance a larger-than-expected expense. The other is that horse owners should have their own equine health care savings account that they can draw upon when needed. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? 

Actually, it is. The answer is to develop a two-pronged approach based upon being proactive in client education and being prepared across your clinic or hospital for when these situations inevitably occur. 

Preparing for Health Care 

Veterinarians don’t want to offer inadequate health care, so helping clients prepare for care is important. | Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Proactivity is based upon educating horse owners about the need to plan and prepare for unexpected health care expenses, as well as the expected ones. The Synchrony Equine Lifetime of Care Study is a great resource as the foundation of any client education initiatives. You have data and your own stories that can be shared with clients. Just like we send out email blasts or post on social media because we know the value of educating horse owners about the need for dental exams, vaccines, and deworming, it is equally important to educate them about being financially prepared for medical expenses. 

The best time to do this is when you have a new client. Whether you offer a new client welcome package or require a signed veterinary services agreement, you have a captive and receptive audience to provide with information about the need to prepare for unforeseen events using the data from the study and real-life examples. In fact, according to the AVMA Language of Veterinary Care Initiative, clients actually appreciate when their veterinarians demonstrate understanding about cost of care and voice a desire to help make veterinary care more affordable. 

For established clients, you can add a section to your website, regularly post on your social media accounts, send out email blasts or have brochures that explain the subject. This sets the stage for horse owners to realize and appreciate the need to prepare to manage the cost of unexpected or planned care. We all know it is not if medical emergencies happen, it is when.  

Our experiences are so important with horse owners. A colic or confounding lameness is common to us, but very rare for the average horse owner. So, we are doing them a great service by preparing them for the inevitable. 

We can prepare for these events by training our employees on how to manage these situations. This can include ensuring you have brochures on the subject in vet trucks and in the waiting room of your facility. It is critical that staff training includes scripts for these discussions as part of the preparation plan. 

Here are some helpful client talking points to inform them about CareCredit financing or other third-party payment plans: 

  • “All of us want the best for your horse. The cost of the diagnostics and procedures for your horse’s condition would challenge anyone. We have a convenient solution for just these situations. Let’s review how financing with the CareCredit credit card can help.” 
  • “You can apply quicky and get an immediate decision. If you’re approved, we can start the diagnostic or treatment plan for your horse ASAP.” 
  • “Our practice is not set up to offer extended terms or payment plans, which is why we have partnered with CareCredit.” 
  • “Paying over time for large expenses is very common—think about all the places financing is now available.”  

This last point is very helpful for younger horse owners, since they are the largest cohort using financing for large purchases. 

When Clients Say ‘No’ 

But what if the customer says “no”? We have to be prepared for that, too.  

First of all, you can’t force the issue. The last thing we want to do is make the client feel guilty. Nothing destroys a relationship between a horse owner and a veterinarian more quickly than the horse owner being made to feel they don’t care about that horse.  

Give the owner a day to do research and reconsider the offer. Obviously, this is better with non-urgent medical cases. You can also give personal examples, if you have them, of how other clients have benefitted from financing.  

The key to these difficult conversations about price is to not give the client too many choices. People don’t want a lot of choices; they just want confidence in the choice they make. I recommend giving two to three choices at the most. When we are presented with numerous options, we become confused, end up doubting our choice and worrying that we picked the wrong one.  

Communicating Options 

When communicating with clients about expensive diagnostic or treatment options, we veterinarians will commonly begin negotiating with ourselves. For example, you tell a client that a treatment will be $2,500. The client goes silent. We immediately assume that it is too much, so we will then say something like, “I’m sure I can talk to my boss and see if we can do it for a lower price.” 

Meanwhile, the client has simply been doing some mental calculations on how they are going to pay for the treatment. Will she shorten the family vacation or give a less-expensive birthday gift to a spouse?  

Give the client time to think and wait for him/her to respond before we act on our often-faulty assumptions. If the client comes back and asks if there is a cheaper way to do the treatment, then you can present the less-expensive options that still provide medical benefit.  

Take-Home Message 

Not only does having money conversations open the door to better care, it offers some other benefits. Your administrative support people will love you because they are not having these conversations after the fact. Also, the business will have better cash flow because people are able to pay their bills on time. Nobody likes chasing after customers to get paid.  

The biggest bonus of being proactive and prepared about cost-of-care discussions is that it helps remove a significant obstacle to professional and personal satisfaction for veterinarians. As we discussed earlier, less anxiety and concern related to offering inadequate health care—as well as the reduced burden of aggressive clients who consider you “only in it for the money”—will greatly reduce the risk of burnout in the profession.  

This is a tough enough profession as it is. The better we smooth the path to offer better veterinary care and maintain appreciative clients, the greater the likelihood we can keep more equine veterinarians in the profession.  

Having open conversations about the cost of care can be uncomfortable if all you focus on is it being a money conversation. Instead, consider it an educational discussion much as you would have when discussing preventative health care.  

Being upfront with costs helps reduce money anxieties and is a service to your clients by helping them better prepare for providing the best care for their horses. It’s a win for you, the client and especially the horses.

This article originally appeared in the 2024 Special Issue: Help Horse Owners Prepare for Care, brought to you by CareCreditYou can download and read the entire issue here.

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