Nicolas Ernst

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Nicolas Ernst

Nicolas Ernst Castro followed his dad into the veterinary field. But not into the office. His father was a veterinary epidemiologist in Chile.

“I remember going to work with my dad, just looking at him in the office with those huge books,” Ernst recalls. “He was so fascinated by stats. He really liked his job. He was really passionate about it. But I was thinking, ‘why not be outside with the animals?’”

So Ernst pursued a clinical career in veterinary medicine.

“Going into vet school, I knew I wasn’t going to be a guy who spent time in the office or doing research in a lab,” he says. “I knew very early what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a horse clinician.”

Nicolas Ernst

Today, Ernst is an equine surgeon at the Leatherdale Equine Center on the St. Paul campus. He describes himself as a utility infielder among horse surgeons.

“I don’t think there are too many of my breed,” he says. “I cover soft tissue, I cover orthopedics. I do basically the main systems—GI, upper airway, and orthopedics. Plus I do lameness,” that is, correcting deficiencies in a horse’s gait.

As a youngster, Ernst lived in Valdivia, Chile, more than 400 miles south of the capital, Santiago, in a region dominated by cropland, dairy farms—and horses. The family moved to the United States for several years as his dad attended the University of California, Davis.

“By the time I lived here for five years, the funny part is I forgot how to speak Spanish,” Ernst says. “So when I went back to Chile I didn’t know how to speak Spanish. I was like the Chilean gringo. It’s pretty tough to go to a place where you don’t know the language—and it was my own country!” 

When he returned home at about age 10, several of his friends lived on farms. He would visit and climb on horseback to round up cows for milking. He loved riding.

“It was nothing fancy,” he says. “But to me it was fascinating—to get on a horse and go get all the cattle up.”

After completing the DVM program at the University of Chile in Santiago, he returned to Davis.

“If you wanted to be the best, you had to leave Chile, because we didn’t have the means to be the best,” he says. “So as soon as I graduated, I ended up in Davis, doing their clinical rotation. I took all the horse clinical rotations—medicine, surgery, reproduction, and anesthesia. I volunteered for all the on-calls.” At a Davis internship, “that’s where I saw what a surgeon was. I was like, oh man, I want to be this!” 

He worked in private practice, earned a master of science in clinical epidemiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and completed his equine surgery residency. He was a clinical instructor at The Ohio State University when a Florida mentor moved to Minnesota and invited Ernst to follow.

“Hey, they’re looking for a young team. You want to come and play and enjoy the weather?” Ernst recalls his mentor asking. “I liked the idea of starting something new and dove into it.”

Now, nine years later, Ernst is a horse clinician.

Dr. Nicolas Ernst with animal care supervisor Sue Loly and the new standing MRI unit at the Leatherdale Equine Center.Dr. Nicolas Ernst with animal care supervisor Sue Loly and the new standing MRI unit at the Leatherdale Equine Center. Funds for the new equipment were donated by longtime Equine Center supporters Bill Dudley and Cindy Piper. The standing MRI allows a horse to stand under mild sedation while undergoing a scan. Each scan generates 300-500 images, offering unique insight into equine lameness.

“I have all the toys and a great team of technicians and faculty around me,” he says. “I have everything in this building. Horses come to me. We evaluate them and then if they require surgery, I can help them.”

When horses require surgery, they are anesthetized and hoisted onto a gigantic operating table. Depending on the surgery, they are laid on either side or on their back. Like human patients, they are disinfected and draped by a crew of up to eight, including surgeons, residents, students, and technicians. Surgery may take from 10 minutes to two hours. Ernst’s biggest patient was a Belgian mare weighing nearly 2,000 pounds. Ernst delivered her foal by C-section, an operation that required two or three attendees just to lift the newborn. 

The work was “physically demanding,” Ernst says, but “the challenging part is not the horse itself. The human interaction around the horses is what’s the most challenging, including owners, the people you work with, and being in an environment where you have students. Handling and taking care of the horses is somewhat the easy part.”

As for the horses, they vary in temperament and ease of handling not by breed, but by individuals.

“I think that’s the beauty of the horse,” says Ernst. “Each horse is its individual self.”