Stephanie Oursler has great dreams and has already taken some big steps to make sure they come true. A May 2012 graduate of Kansas State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Oursler attended the 2012 Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska, while still a student assisting Iditarod trail veterinary technicians and veterinarians.
The experience was a first step toward fulfilling that dream of hers, which is to be a trail veterinarian at future races. To do that, she first has to be out of veterinary school for five years. But she also needed some sort of sled dog experience, and last year’s Iditarod gave her that.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get any experience living in Kansas, so I sent some emails and was put in connection with the Iditarod’s chief vet,” Oursler said.
After emailing back and forth, Oursler set up a trip to Anchorage for the month before the race started in order to do pre-race and physical examinations on the competing dogs. She also worked to microchip the animals in addition to taking blood work and conducting electrocardiogram readings. These tests ensured that each of the 24 dogs each musher brought would be raceable if he or she chose to pick that particular dog for their 16-dog race team.
“When I got there, they had four feet of snow on the ground and they got a lot more after that, hitting record snow falls,” she said.
The race, a 1,049 mile, 24-hour per day adventure, on average can be completed in two weeks, according to Oursler. However, she added, “the most competitive mushers” can complete it in 8- to 10-days.
“The mushers take really good care of their dogs and do a lot to prevent problems after the pre-race exams so they don’t have issues during the race,” Oursler said.
She said the most common injuries for the dogs during the race are either dehydration or muscle and tendon injuries because of the rugged terrain and mountainous country over which they compete.
“Frostbite can be a problem, but some of the dogs wear coats and all of them wear booties that are made from cloth material to protect their pads from the snow — which is kind of sharp — not the soft fluffy kind we get in Kansas,” she said.
Throughout the race the mushers have several checkpoints where they check in with their dogs. If a dog is lame by the time the musher reaches the checkpoint, he or she can drop off the dog and go on without it. Usually a musher will start off with their biggest dogs because of the race’s layout. Oursler said there is a big mountain range at the beginning of the race that the mushers use their biggest dogs to get through, “after that they drop most of them, with the most common injury being muscle injury or fatigue” after completing that part of the course.
“The mushers start the race with 16 dogs,” Oursler said. “They have to have six dogs in harnesses by the time they end the race — most end with 10 dogs.”
Most of the dogs that race in the Iditarod are between three and eight years old and are mostly variations of the Alaskan Husky, which have been bred throughout the years to have specific traits such as thicker hair, strong endurance, high stamina, long legs and smaller size.
“Most dogs are only between 40- to 45-pounds but are light and strong for their size,” she said. “They’re elite athletes with muscular, thin builds; when you look at them you can usually see their muscles and everything.”
Oursler’s favorite part about working at the Iditarod was being able to interact with the dogs and mushers. Doing so, she got to see how the owners interacted on a personal level with their dogs.
“How they acted is similar to how I interact with my dogs; they know their names, personalities and some of the mushers let their dogs sleep in their houses,” Oursler said. “It is interesting to see how they interact.”
For Oursler, the hardest part about working at the Iditarod wasn’t anything she did while in Alaska but what she had to endure when she got home.
“After coming back I talked to a lot of people; not many think about the Iditarod or think it is cool because they think the dogs are forced to run but after seeing the dogs — they love to run — and how well they’re cared for – probably better than a lot of dogs in the USA — I want to put the word out there that it is not a terrible thing,” she said.
Now that Oursler has worked the Alaskan race once, she has every desire to do it again. But life is keeping her plans on hold, at least for now. In July she is starting a canine sports medicine internship in Maryland, hoping the new hands-on experience she will receive there will help her in five years down the road to become a trail vet.