Weatherford equine veterinarian breeds success

Betty Dillard

Growing up surrounded by a host of livestock and a father who was a veterinarian, Leea Arnold found a breeding ground for a lifelong calling caring for animals – especially horses. “I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking about it,” she said. “And I knew I didn’t want to teach but to practice.” After following her father’s footsteps and graduating with a doctorate from Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1989, Arnold embarked on her career path, working first at a general practice in Arkansas. She then moved to Weatherford in 1991, and worked seven years for Dr. M. C. Baker at Alpha Equine in Granbury.

Both practices offered Arnold on-the-job training in the breeding business and the opportunity to learn about equine reproduction. “I just like horses. Horses are my preferred species,” she says. Arnold did general equine practice for 10 years before leaving it to concentrate on equine embryo transfers for the cutting horse industry. In 1999, she opened the Arnold Reproduction Center and has become a well-recognized and highly regarded specialist in the field.

“I like internal medicine but really prefer reproduction. There was enough reproduction work in Parker County when I started so I stopped doing general practice altogether. General practice is 24/7; it’s tough,” she said. “Now, I don’t have a vet box on my truck and I don’t make calls. And I don’t get up in the middle of the night except to foal my own horses.” Located on a 72-acre ranch in Weatherford, the center is run by a small team, including Arnold’s husband of 17 years, Dudley Caraway, a retired builder who used to show horses and now serves as ranch manager, and Dr. Kate Running, who has her own veterinary practice and specializes in equine reproductive acupuncture.

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The ranch has three cutting horses in training and a herd of 10 broodmares; services at the breeding facility include standing stallions, mare management and foal out of the mare. There’s room to board 100 broodmares and room outside for a herd of 650 recipients. On average, Arnold does about 300 embryo transfers a year. Embryo transfer in the horse involves the collection and transfer of an embryo from a donor mare to a recipient. The donor mare and stallion pass their genetics to the foal, not the recipient. The technique has been growing in success rate and use over the past several years, according to Arnold. It also allows less fertile mares, mares that can produce viable embryos but are unable to carry them, and mares with other health issues to have offspring.

“It’s a way to get more quality time out of the mare,” Arnold said. Some of the benefits of using embryo transfer in mares, she said, are that multiple foals can be produced from one mare in a breeding season and it can be used to produce foals from mares that can’t take time off from racing or showing. About five years ago most of her business, almost 95 percent, was for the cutting horse industry, Arnold said. Cutting is an equestrian event where a horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a single animal away from a cattle herd and keep it away for a short period of time. Cutting horses are trained specifically for the sport. Today, cutters make up about 60 to 70 percent of her work.

“Cutters started using it [embryo transfers] before others did. Now we see more race horse people, halter and reining horse people using it,” Arnold said. “A lot of other disciplines are doing it more than they used to. Barrel horse people are really starting to get into it.” Changes in the economy have put a temporary saddle on the breeding industry, Arnold said. “The economy has affected everything. The horse industry the last few years has not been as viable or as healthy as it’s been. People don’t have as much disposable income today. Horses are selling for less,” she said. “But we’re busy, especially now promoting Sweet Lil Pepto.” Earlier this year, Arnold and her husband bought Sweet Lil Pepto, a 14-year-old red roan stallion from a long line of winners. Sweet Lil Pepto, whose lifetime earnings are $236,843, is by Peptoboonsmal and Sweet Lil Lena. His offspring earnings have surpassed $2 million. Sweet Lil Pepto is No. 18 on the Cutting Horse Chatter’s Leading Sires of 2013 list. “He’s got good lineage. He’s incredibly bred and he’s thrown good babies,” Arnold said. “He throws 75 to 80 percent red roans and people like red roans. His offspring are athletic and don’t have as many soundness issues. He’s been standing here most of his life and we’re happy to have him as a permanent part of our ARC family.”

Because Arnold’s practice is somewhat seasonal, she’s able to concentrate on vet work about seven months out of the year and spend the remainder on her other interest – art. Arnold says she thought about going to art school when she was an undergraduate. “But you hear about all those starving artists and I thought I’d rather get a paycheck,” she said. She started sculpting in 1993 with Dr. Scott Meyers of Granbury, and has studied with numerous fine Western, wildlife and figurative artists, including Mehl Lawson, Garland Weeks, Richard Loeffler, Bob Kuhn and Cammie Lundeen. Her work – she’s added jewelry making to her resume – has been exhibited in several galleries and she’s currently showing at RS Hanna Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas, as well as in her office in Weatherford. She’ll also be featured at Canvas & Clay Artists Ltd.’s ninth annual art show and sale on Nov. 22-23 in Weatherford. Arnold’s latest kick is studying charcoal figure drawing, conte and plein air painting. “I haven’t decided what kind of artist I want to be when I grow up. I like it all,” she said. “My plan is that someday when I quit doing veterinary medicine I’ll focus more on art and making a serious attempt at trying to make a living at it.”