Dr. Liz Steele was born to be a vet. She said she had the best inspiration, her father, Dr. John Yelvington, with whom she works at Ridge Large Animal Clinic in Highlands County.
"I knew from as far back as I can remember that I was going to be a veterinarian," said Steele. "I wanted to follow in (my dad's) footsteps. He's an amazing man and an incredible mentor," she praised.
Steele and Yelvington's practice focuses on cattle and horses, but Steele had a dream of her own that she was finally able to realize back in 2008. She had always had a passion for advanced equine reproductive services, and with land donated by close friend and Christian mentor Carol Sanders, Steele opened the Three Oaks Equine Reproductive Facility in Zolfo Springs. It is the only facility in Central Florida offering services like advanced ultrasound, frozen semen and embryo transfer. They also provide 24-hour surveillance monitoring of mares during birth.
"We have a foal alert system," Steele explained. A device attached to the back of a mare sets off an alarm at Steele's home when the horse is ready to deliver. That's usually between midnight and two in the morning, Steele said.
"Every single delivery is just as exciting as the very first I saw," said the University of Florida veterinary school graduate. "The unpredictability of what it's going to be like, what it looks like, hearing it take its first breath. You are so excited and hyped up, there is no way to go back to sleep," she said.
Newborn foals will stand within an hour on wobbly legs and nurse within two hours. Steele said 90 percent of the time there is no need to intervene. In rare cases, malpresentation requires the vet to get involved because a compressed umbilical cord can cause brain damage within five minutes, and a mare in trouble has about two hours before she'll likely die.
"Luckily that doesn't happen much," said Steele.
What Steele does see on a regular basis are first-time mothers who are too fatigued after the birth to stand up, pulling the amniotic sac off the newborn's face so that it can breathe. In those cases, Steele intervenes to remove the sac.
The first foal ever born using Steele's reproductive services was named Rock Star. The little colt's picture holds a place of distinction on the wall of the barn at Three Oaks.
Reproductive services like these are for clients who are breeding performance horses, specific bloodlines, or for clients who are very attached to a particular horse. "I help a lot of (local ranchers) manage their stallions and mares and bring in outside stallion semen to help cultivate the ideal ranch horse at a reasonable price," said Steele.
In addition to reproductive services, Steele is also focused on cattle veterinary services and the care of performance horses, including diagnosing and treating lameness and other factors that affect a horse's ability to perform in a rodeo setting. As a former rodeo athlete herself, Steele understands the importance.
Steele also serves as a sort of associate professor for the University of Florida since veterinary students can learn valuable skills and earn credits for their practice-based equine clerkship by working two week rotations at Three Oaks and Ridge. She supervises about 12 students a year, including Carley Trcalek, who helped Steele perform an ultrasound on a mare and examine Steele's two-year-old stud colt (born through embryo transfer) that morning.
"I love teaching the students," said Steele, "That's a pretty big part of what I do."
Between Steele and her husband, T.J., who is a farrier and equine dentist, they pretty much cover the gamut of equine care.
"He says he works on the teeth and feet and I work on everything in between," Steele joked.
The Steeles have two "colts" of their own, which has literally kept them out of the arena, but the horse-loving couple have made a pact to add "horseplay" to their horse work. I'll probably run barrels again and he ropes, Steele stated.
Steele said her biggest challenge is striking a balance between motherhood and work, and her definition of success has become more faith-based since she became a Christian four years ago.
Steele stated, "I think success can be measured in so many different ways. I find it rewarding to be able to offer the gifts that God has given me to our community."