2018-08-24 / Top News

Rotating Veterinarians Keep Horses Happy and Healthy

By Stephanie Fortino


Carl “Shaker” Hites is one of the three veterinarians who will care for Mackinac’s horses, including Ice (left) and Gunner, Katie Jones’s team for the UPS dray. When not working, Dr. Hites can often be seen sporting a hat and driving a carriage with his wife, Lisa. Carl “Shaker” Hites is one of the three veterinarians who will care for Mackinac’s horses, including Ice (left) and Gunner, Katie Jones’s team for the UPS dray. When not working, Dr. Hites can often be seen sporting a hat and driving a carriage with his wife, Lisa. In five years as a veterinarian on Mackinac Island, Joe Roehl has developed close relationships with Island people and horses. Dr. Roehl, whose work here is coming to and end, has implemented new strategies aimed at improving the quality of life for the horses of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours.

Taking the reins from him and overseeing the care of 500 or so horses here are Carl “Shaker” Hites, Alyssa Connolly, and Joe Powers, all seasoned veterinarians. They will take turns living here and looking after the horses during the summer season. All but a few teams spend the winter in pastures on the mainland.


Veterinarians Joe Roehl and Kathy Simons flank horses Cindy (left) and Clarence and taxi driver Bob Storey. Dr. Roehl is retiring as a veterinarian for Carriage Tours. During his stays here, he tended horses while his wife, Dr. Simons, would often look after small animals like cats and dogs. Veterinarians Joe Roehl and Kathy Simons flank horses Cindy (left) and Clarence and taxi driver Bob Storey. Dr. Roehl is retiring as a veterinarian for Carriage Tours. During his stays here, he tended horses while his wife, Dr. Simons, would often look after small animals like cats and dogs. Common among the veterinarians is a deep love and respect for animals, especially horses. All three knew at an early age they wanted to help animals and reduce their suffering. They find the work here rewarding.

Dr. Roehl grew up on a St. Clair County farm, where he and his wife, Kathy Simons, still live when not on Mackinac, although they also spend time in Tennessee. They met while studying veterinary medicine at Michigan State University and opened a practice together after graduation in 1973. Dr. Roehl primarily treats large animals like horses, while Dr. Simons sees small animals and pets such as cats and dogs.


Veterinarian Carl “Shaker” Hites with Ice (left) and Gunner. Veterinarian Carl “Shaker” Hites with Ice (left) and Gunner. Dr. Roehl remembers on his father’s farm seeing newborn calves die from complications.

“I just felt so bad for them,” he said. “I thought, I’m going to do something to help them.”

The desire to ease animal suffering turned into a lifelong profession.

Dr. Roehl said he received a phone call in 2014 from Carriage Tours President Bill Chambers who needed a veterinarian following the sudden retirement of Al Sibinic. He and Dr. Simons had just sold their practice, so he agreed to move to the Island that summer to help.

Among the improvements Dr. Roehl has implemented is a horse ambulance, kept at the Coal Dock. The blue trailer is equipped with a rubber mat and winch to draw in a horse unable to stand.

“It’s like riding on a magic carpet,” he quipped.


At left: This is the second season tending to Carriage Tours horses for veterinarian Alyssa Connolly and her dog, Peabo. Dr. Connolly also has a practice in Pinckney. At left: This is the second season tending to Carriage Tours horses for veterinarian Alyssa Connolly and her dog, Peabo. Dr. Connolly also has a practice in Pinckney. The trailer can be hitched to a dray and taken where needed. It has been used a few times and has proven helpful, he said. Similar horse ambulances are available at venues such as Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Carriage Tours also has invested in a barricade system to shield a horse that has fallen ill or is injured. Sometimes, a horse doesn’t want to, or can’t, get up when a veterinarian needs to evaluate it and administer medical care, he explained. The barricade gives the doctor a private area in which to work, which can be useful to prevent spectators from crowding around the scene and taking photographs or videos.

Horses might lie down for several reasons, said Dr. Roehl. The most common reason is colic, a gastrological problem caused by backed up gas or blockages in the intestines or stomach. Horses have sensitive digestive systems and are prone to colic, which can be painful. To relieve the pain in their bellies, horses tend to lie down. This sometimes happens when they’re hitched to a carriage filled with tourists, creating a startling scenario, Dr. Roehl said. The troubled horses usually are fine once the pain is relieved and their digestive function returns to normal.


Jeff Powers is in his first season working as a veterinarian for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horses, including Boomer (left) and Jack, who are driven by dray driver Jacob Hudson. Dr. Powers also spends time at his practice in East Jordan and working at a clinic on Beaver Island. Jeff Powers is in his first season working as a veterinarian for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horses, including Boomer (left) and Jack, who are driven by dray driver Jacob Hudson. Dr. Powers also spends time at his practice in East Jordan and working at a clinic on Beaver Island. Another unique characteristic of horses is their ability to doze while standing up. Sometimes, older horses working for Carriage Tours relax too much while standing around waiting, fall asleep, and fall over, he said. When they do, they usually wake right back up and get up, a little dazed but unscathed.

Dr. Roehl recalled a time when an old horse fell asleep while waiting on Bogan Lane. After he checked the animal, Dr. Roehl gave it some medication to relieve any pain from the fall while in harness. To guard against another incident, the horse was switched to a more-active assignment.

Lameness, another common affliction for horses, can come from sore muscles, joint aches, poorly fitting shoes, or anything that affects how they move. Dr. Roehl said he noticed when he started working on Mackinac that many horses were suffering from sore necks that required them to take breaks from work. Reviewing professional literature, he discovered there is a spring that could be added to wagon tongues to lessen the load on horse collars. As a test, a spring was installed on a carriage pulled by a horse that often suffered from a sore neck and it relieved the pain.

“We got some springs and I’ll be darned if it didn’t start to help,” Dr. Roehl said.

The springs now have been installed on every dray and there are plans to have them installed on every other carriage. The company also invested in larger pads to help spread the weight carried on their necks over a larger area.

Much of veterinary medicine, especially for the horses of Mackinac, relies on a veterinarian’s ability to observe potential problems by sight, smell, touch, or hearing. Veterinarians watch the horses closely, looking at how they move, and when they examine them, they watch for reactions to pain.

Dr. Roehl also noticed sores caused by the pads under horse collars. On closer examination, he discovered the pads had two metal rivets where they were snapped to the collars, the cause of irritation and sores. To correct the issue, he worked with the Carriage Tours to obtain new collars that are sewn together instead of riveted.

He made it a practice to file each tooth at least once a year. Because of the way horses chew, their teeth wear unevenly, Dr. Roehl explained. Points that develop as a result must be removed so they don’t injure the mouth.

While the horses work hard on the Island, they receive good care, he said, and the established crew of veterinarians looks after their health.

“When I die and come back, I want to be a Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horse,” he said.

Working as a veterinarian on Mackinac is a prestigious post, added Dr. Simons, who accepts small animal patients when on the Island with her husband.

The couple also notes that the community is very welcoming and grateful to have access to care for its animals.

“This is the most appreciated I’ve been in my entire career,” Dr. Roehl said.

When he agreed to come to the Island, he only committed to it just long enough for the company to find some replacements. He’s now confident the team he has cultivated will work diligently to provide aroundthe clock care for the Island’s horses.

Carl “Shaker” Hites

Dr. Carl Hites, the first veterinarian Dr. Roehl recruited, has worked here for several seasons. He was born near Shaker Heights, Ohio, the source of his nickname. He has practiced veterinary medicine for 45 years, starting in rural Indiana and working in several small towns. After 39 years of caring for large and small animals, Dr. Hites retired from private practice in 2011.

“By the time I was in the fourth grade,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be a vet. After 45 years, I can’t think of anything more I’d want to do. I get up in the morning and I’m happy to get to work. You can’t get much better than that.”

He grew up on a family farm where his father raised horses. He received his first pony while in first grade and, at about seven years old, he took his four-year-old brother on little carriage rides.

“I was raised with horses,” he said. “For our family, it wasn’t a love type of thing, it was a business.”

Dr. Hites remembers visiting the Island as a child shortly after the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957 and he continued visiting as an adult. He and his wife, Lisa, owned driving and carriage horses in Ohio. They had 20 to 30 horses at the height of the operation. The couple visited the Island through their involvement with the American Driving Society. When they return for his month-long residency as the Island’s veterinarian, the couple brings two teams of horses and a carriage to enjoy during leisure time.

Dr. Hites learned the Island needed veterinarians through acquaintances on Beaver Island, where he got to know Dr. Powers, who connected him with the Chambers family. As an admirer of the carriage driving tradition, Dr. Hites said, he values the Island’s reliance on horses.

“The tradition here is almost like nowhere else,” he said.

One challenges here is the way he gets to his patients and administers medical treatment.

“For 38 years, I had a pickup truck full of medication and instruments,” he said. “Now, I have a bicycle.”

That “hospital on wheels,” he once used now must be distilled to the few medications and supplies he can carry in a bag on bicycle. Horses on the Island experience many of the same problems as horses on the mainland, he said, noting there are hardly any injuries. The veterinarians aren’t always as efficient as they would be on the mainland, he continued, sometimes requiring multiple trips from their apartment downtown to the horse that needs care.

The people of Mackinac Island also make working here different, Dr. Hites said.

“Up here, I am surrounded by real horsemen,” he said, “like Dr. Chambers and others who have vast knowledge, experience, and dedication to horses. You don’t find that anywhere else,” he said, noting he has learned much from the knowledge these people have learned over generations.

He is also impressed with how hard the horses and employees work here.

“I don’t work very hard,” he said. “It’s just amazing how hard the people and horses work.”

Mackinac’s horses are “real athletes,” selected for their stamina and work, he said. Island horses are generally healthy, have a nutritious diet, and are not prone to diseases or infections.

Working on the Island has provided each veterinarian the opportunity to get to know its people, as well.

“I’ve kind of grown into the community,” Dr. Hites said, noting he has enjoyed playing guitar at square dances at Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church.

When not on the Island, Dr. Hites and his wife live in northwest Indiana. In the winter, they take their dog, Maggie, and horses to Florida.

Alyssa Connolly

Dr. Alyssa Connolly has had four residences during her two seasons working on the Island. She jokingly refers to working here as a “vacation” from her private practice in Pinckney, where she must arrange emergency coverage while she’s away.

Working on Mackinac provides her an exciting change of pace from her day-to-day work. Most of her work at home is focused on horses, but she also works on goats and sheep - but never pigs.

Just like some of her fellow veterinarians, Dr. Connolly grew up on a farm. She had a children’s horse camp with her sister, Amy Carlson. The camp started with 10 horses and grew to 40 horses, serving hundreds of children. While that business has ended, her sister continues to operate the Brighton Riding Stable for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“I just always knew I would be a vet,” she said, describing herself as a horse person. “I do think horses are born into you,” she said, and notes that some people are just drawn to the barn from an early age.

She has a deep appreciation and respect for the animals. She recalled one visit to a Carriage Tours barn when she couldn’t resist snapping a photo of a horse after injecting it with penicillin. She wanted to capture her horse’s ears, which had beautiful black hair inside that contrasted with his grey coat.

Dr. Connolly is attracted to the lifestyle of a traveling farm veterinarian, being outside and working with animals. Around Pinckney, she makes house calls and develops relationships with patients and their owners.

“It’s still kind of old-school, which is neat,” she said, “even though we’ve made huge leaps in what we can do with diagnostic medicine on the farm.”

Learning how to pare down her medical supplies for a bicycle has been challenging. At her own practice, her vet truck carries X-ray and ultrasound equipment not available to veterinarians on the Island. Thinking ahead for each patient visit is essential, she said, and a learning experience for veterinarians new to the Island.

Dr. Roehl recruited Dr. Connolly through a mutual veterinarian friend who works near Pinckney. She was interested to learn the behind-the-scenes functioning of Carriage Tours.

“It’s quite the coordinated effort to get this place to run,” she said.

Watching horses do nearly everything, from delivering freight and food to transporting hay up to the barns, is impressive, she said.

“It’s phenomenal that it all works,” Dr. Connolly said, especially when the streets are crowded with bicycles, pedestrians, and privately owned horses.

Lameness and respiratory problems are the issues she most often sees here. Her job is mainly to figure out what’s going on when they can get back to work.

“We want them to feel as good as they can,” she said.

Each day, the barn managers have a list of horses for the veterinarians to see. The doctors also work closely with farriers to ensure their shoes fit properly. Besides lameness and colic, drooling a lot and coughing are concerns, she said. Respiratory system inflammation, Dr. Connolly said, can be soothed with steroids or other bronchodilator medications, much like inhalers for humans with asthma.

“Everybody is all over every little thing with the horses,” from barn managers and drivers and other folks who work for the company, she said.

“They are very much interested in keeping them healthy,” she said. “And the horses do an amazing job. They’re made to do it and, if you look at them, their ears are forward, there’s a pep in their step, they’re spunky and ready to go.”

When coming to the Island, Dr. Connolly often travels with her husband, Jason Hill, their son, A.J. Hill, and Jack Russell terrier, Peabo.

Jeff Powers

Dr. Jeff Powers is the most recent addition to the veterinarian team here. When not working on Mackinac Island, he divides his time between practices in East Jordan and on Beaver Island, where he has worked for 30 years. He used to own a private practice downstate, but he sold it in 2009 and moved north.

Dr. Powers started in veterinary medicine in 1980 and began offering services on Beaver Island in 1988. He purchased a building with a small shop and people there quickly learned he was a veterinarian.

There was a veterinarian in

Charlevoix who would travel to the island once a year. Now Dr.

Powers visits at least once a month, seeing a mix of small animals such as pet cats and dogs, as well as horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. Many dogs and cats on Beaver Island haven’t been spayed or neutered, he said, so that’s much of the work he does while there.

Dr. Powers’ interest in veterinary medicine began young. He was interested in the medical field because his older sister was a nurse.

“I always had a love for animals,” he said, recalling a time when the family’s dog got sick and was in severe pain. Sadly, there was nothing that could be done. He then decided to become a veterinarian, “to see if I could do whatever I could to help animals.”

His first work 42 years ago was in the practice owned by Dr. Roehl and Dr. Simons. As a student, he asked to help with horses and Dr. Roehl agreed. Once he got his certification, Dr. Powers opened his own practice in Yale, about 45 miles north of Dr. Roehl’s clinic. He was in private practice from 1980 to 2009, dividing his time there with monthly visits to Beaver Island.

Dr. Powers connected with Carriage Tours about 20 years ago when he did some work at Bay Harbor, near Petoskey. Organizers of the development’s grand opening in the 1990s wanted some carriage horses for the festivities. Dr. Chambers sent two carriages and pairs of horses there for the event. In the next several years, Dr. Powers continued to visit the Island for veterinarian conferences. Now, he’s back for seven to 10 days at a time. Like his colleagues, he has gained an appreciation for the vast operation of Carriage Tours.

“I’m amazed at how well it’s run,” he said. “The barns, the drivers, the maintenance, the ticket people. It’s very interesting and rewarding to help with everything.”

While he has worked for other horse and cattle operations, “they were nothing on this level to meet the demands of the public and service to the Island,” he said.

During his most recent stay on the Island, this month, Dr. Powers worked closely with one of the horses at the Children’s Riding Academy, also called the Little Barn. The horse, Henry, had an impaction in his gut, a severe form of colic that can be life-threatening.

Word about Henry spread quickly and Dr. Powers regularly was asked for updates on his patient. Students of the Little Barn and its manager, Gretchen Coleman, kept a watchful eye on the horse, Dr. Powers said, taking him on many walks to stimulate the digestive system. After a few days of fluids and pain medication, the horse passed the blockage.

“Gretchen did a tremendous job being there for him,” he said.

Some students of the Children’s Riding Academy made him thankyou cards for taking such good care of Henry and “saving his life.”

Most of the other cases Dr. Powers sees on the Island involve lameness, minor scrapes and abrasions, less-severe cases of colic, and respiratory issues.

Dr. Powers has great respect for Drs. Roehl and Chambers, whom he considers mentors. He enjoys hearing stories from Dr. Chambers about the history of Carriage Tours, especially about bringing horses and carriages across the ice during winter. He’s grateful for the opportunity to work on Mackinac’s horses.

“Because they’re so powerful, it’s really important to remain calm,” he said. “Horses feed off their handler and your temperament. I try to be a force of calmness in the environment. It makes everyone’s job easier.”

While the veterinarians are brought to the Island by Carriage Tours, any business or private individual can ask them for help. In addition to horses, Dr. Hites and Dr. Powers are happy to see small animals. Dr. Connolly can help small animals in emergency situations.

The small animal practice on the Island is more like a “first-aid station,” Dr. Hites said, but the veterinarians can provide some relief to pets in distress before they are taken to mainland veterinarians.

Dr. Hites, Dr. Connolly, and Dr. Powers will rotate next summer. Dr. Roehl may stay on as a consultant. Residents and visitors can contact the veterinarians through the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours office, (906) 847-3307.

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