Passion for people, horses drives AAEP president

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Dr. Cowles
Dr. R. Reynolds Cowles Jr. (Photos courtesy of AAEP)

Dr. R. Reynolds Cowles Jr. is passionate about a lot of things. When he’s not treating horses or giving talks on practice management, he can be found outdoors fox hunting, bird hunting, or even doing the occasional fly fishing. Despite selling ownership of the clinic he founded 38 years ago, he has no plans to slow down. In fact, he was recently was installed as the 2017 president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, joining the ranks of his mentors.

Dr. Cowles grew up on a dairy farm in Statesville, North Carolina. His father raised Jersey cattle and bred Percherons, as well as jacks with Army remount mares to produce mules. Together, his mother, who was the county tax supervisor, and his father fostered an appreciation of civic involvement in him.

Dr. Cowles also had a love of animals. He majored in wildlife biology at North Carolina State University. But one event changed the course of Dr. Cowles’ life: the 1956 Kentucky Derby, which he says “lit the candle” in him. By his second year of college, he was helping out at local steeplechase meets and at the racetrack. He also got to know Dr. Joe O’Day, a former AAEP president who connected him with other equine veterinarians and helped him get a summer job fitting yearlings for the Saratoga Sales for Nydrie Stud farm. Dr. Cowles gained experience in all areas of the Thoroughbred industry as well as in the polo, fox hunting, and steeplechase communities.

Because NC State didn’t have a veterinary college back then, Dr. Cowles attended Oklahoma State University, which had a contract agreement with North Carolina. Following graduation in 1967, he accepted a position at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had convinced the owner, Dr. Dan Flynn, another former AAEP president, to keep him on for six months.

2017 AAEP officers
The 2017 AAEP officers: (Back row)—Drs. Jack Easley, Shelbyville, Kentucky, treasurer; Tracy Turner, Stillwater, Minnesota, director-at-large; R. Reynolds Cowles Jr., Free Union, Virginia, president; Margo L. Macpherson, Gainesville, Florida, president-elect; and Robert P. Franklin, Lipan, Texas, director-at-large. (Front row)—Drs. Kathleen M. Anderson, Elkton, Maryland, immediate past president; Daniel P. Keenan, Crosswicks, New Jersey, director-at-large; Vivian Freer, Tryon, North Carolina, director-at-large; Jeffrey T. Berk, Lexington, Kentucky, vice president; Amy L. Grice, Virginia City, Montana, director-at-large; and Leslie Easterwood, College Station, Texas, director-at-large

“He said he didn’t have work but would keep me around, but then never said anything after six months, so I stayed around and eventually became partner,” Dr. Cowles said.

After 11 years, the practice split three ways, and Dr. Cowles established Blue Ridge Equine Clinic in 1979. The full-service clinic serves central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. The practice once consisted of as many as 12 veterinarians, including Dr. Paul Stephens, who became a partner in 1995.

Dr. Cowles became a vocal advocate for the horse industry, particularly at the state level. He first got involved with the Virginia VMA Legislative Committee and the Virginia Horse Council. To this day, he serves on the Virginia Racing Commission’s Racing Safety and Medication Committee. He also serves on the National Steeplechase Association board of directors and chairs the NSA’s Safety Committee.

Dr. Cowles is a past president of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association and served on the advisory committee for the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center at Virginia Tech as well as the Research Advisory Committee for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. This past year, Drs. Cowles and Stephens sold their ownership of Blue Ridge Equine Clinic, although Dr. Cowles still works up to 35 hours a week at the clinic, where the bulk of his practice focuses on lameness in race and performance horses.

Although he was inspired by a passion for horses, Dr. Cowles’ successful stint as an practice owner came from his business acumen. Inspired by talks with Dr. Peter Haynes, another former AAEP president, Dr. Cowles put together the AAEP’s first business session at the 1991 convention. That was the beginning of what would become annual business education programs.

Dr. Cowles in the field examining a horse
Dr. R. Reynolds Cowles Jr., 2016 AAEP president, has served as treasurer of the AAEP, a member of the board of directors, chair of the Professional Conduct & Ethics Committee, and a member of many other committees or councils, including Educational Programs, Finance & Audit, Foundation Advisory, Political Liaison, and Welfare & Public Policy Advisory.

The association’s No. 1 area of emphasis is scientific education, but he says it also has to consider other ways it can help members. The AAEP’s new Healthy Practice program offers continuing education that emphasizes wellness. Ethics also happens to be an AAEP focus and what he chose to emphasize as program chair of the 2016 convention. Dr. Cowles wanted to find a keynote speaker who was “relevant, entertaining, and would get people thinking about ethics without them leaving the room” (see story). The ethics panel discussion, too, was intended to be interactive and engaging. “The purpose, in large part, was for members to know that we all face ethical decisions every day. We all have to adhere to the codes of ethics developed by the AVMA and AAEP, but what does that mean on the ground? That’s what we’re trying to help with,” he said.

This year, the AAEP will focus on increasing its communication efforts. That means a new website that debuts early in 2017, among other things. As president, he also plans to promote the work of the Equine Disease Communication Center and the AAEP Foundation.

“The foundation is on the cusp of really taking off under a new strategic plan for more aggressive programming and funding,” Dr. Cowles said. “The foundation is an exciting and dynamic program coming into its well-deserved prominence, going forward.”

Despite taking on a number of new initiatives, the AAEP remains focused on areas where it has always been involved, particularly in promoting uniformity of regulation and testing in racing.

“There are solid pillars of ongoing efforts with several groups, and we are very active with most of the players in that arena. We want to make sure that the horse is protected and the veterinary profession is at the table,” Dr. Cowles said.