Disease Du Jour: Equitarian Service Opportunities

In this episode, Dr. Julia Wilson discusses the Equitarian Initiative, a 501(c)(3) organization that helps at-risk horses and their owners at home and abroad.
Dr. Julia Wilson, co-founder of the Equitarian Initiative, on a trip to help horses and their owners.

Equitarian is a word coined to described those who help equines as humanitarians. It was created by Dr. Jay Merriam, of the Merriam-Webster dictionary family, according to Julia Wilson, DVM, DACVIM, our guest on this podcast. Wilson was among the initial group to become involved with the Equitarian Initiative.

“An equitarian is one who serves equids with compassion, and whose only reward is [those equids’] improved health and welfare,” stated Wilson.

Equitarian Beginnings

Wilson is the Executive Director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine. A graduate of Cornell University, Wilson has served the majority of her career as a university faculty member. She first served at the University of Florida, then was on staff at the University of Minnesota.

She said the Equitarian Initiative first began as a meeting over coffee at the 2008 AAEP Convention. Wilson said there was enough interest in getting professionals together to help at-risk horses and their owners at home and abroad that the AAEP put a session on the next year’s program.

At that point, Wilson had just finished two terms on the board of directors of Heifer International. “So I was very much in the mindset of teaching people to look after their animals,” she said.

She spoke of the first workshop that the equitarians conducted in Mexico. The first couple of years the equitarians operated under the auspices of the AAEP. In 2012 they became a stand-alone organization, then in 2013 they became their own 501(c)(3).

Who Can Be an Equitarian?

“We have a super group of veterinarians and supporters that really believe in this mission and dedicate countless hours and energy to making it all happen,” said Wilson.

Even though the equitarian group is “vet-centric,” according to Wilson, they welcome anyone that has skills that will further the mission.

“We’ve had a variety of people come on various programs,” she said. “Veterinary technicians are always invited. Animal scientists can contribute their horse skills and further our knowledge in areas where we don’t have training as veterinarians. We’ve had people with horse skills come and play roles that are supporting roles—helping with the records and stocking.”

For those who don’t travel with the group to a foreign country or on a domestic trip, fundraising is always needed.

“We now have programs in the U.S., Mexico, Central America in several countries, two programs in South America, and we just started supporting a program in Nepal,” stated Wilson. “Most programs have a budget of around $10,000 that doesn’t include the veterinarians’ time or travel.

“We’ve been strongly supported by The Foundation for the Horse, but that doesn’t cover all of the programs,” said Wilson. “We certainly want to grow our donor base.”

The equitarian group has a structured program for volunteering for the projects that is relatively new to the equitarian group. There is online curriculum and application process. It can help “fit” the person to the initiative or trip.


A lot of veterinarians who have participated in an Equitarian Initiative trip will create a memorial program at their practices. They donate a certain amount in the memory of a horse that was part of the veterinarian’s practice. They also distribute funraising materials to their clients.

There is a group—predominately women—who have become tremendous supporters of this cause.

Donations in kind can include products from pharmaceutical and other companies for products that are hard to find in that country. That can be halters, lead ropes or even vaccines.

Equitarian Bright Points

Each volunteer receives something different in the way of fulfillment when they particpate in these equitarian trips.

“Mine is teaching,” said Wilson. “My project mainly has been in Honduras with some visits to other countries. The vet students in Honduras are so eager to learn. It’s delightful to see their skills develop and their confidence grow. For me that is priceless!”

Wilson pointed out that the Equitarian Initiaitive has a very active Facebook page. She said they have been putting on equitarian-themed presentations very casually as a “coffee club” sort of presentations.

“If anyone is interested about learning more about specific aspects of equitarian work, that’s a great place to start,” she noted.

About Dr. Julia Wilson

Julia Wilson, DVM, DACVIM, is the Executive Director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine. A graduate of Cornell University, Dr. Wilson has served the majority of her career as a university faculty member. She first served at the University of Florida, then was on staff at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Wilson is active in the World Equine Veterinary Association (WEVA) and co-founded the group known as the Equitarian Initiative and has served as a past president and remains on the board of directors. She also serves on the board of the Brooke USA Foundation.

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