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50 Years Of Collegiality On And Off Slopes

Celebrate 50 years of “Natural Horsemanship.”

A collage made for Robert M. Miller, DVM, at bottom, displays group photos from Sierra Veterinary Medical Association trips.

Photo by Dr. Alice Villalobos

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Do you have a group of friends in the profession who mentor you and whom you enjoy being with?

Ever since joining one special professional group, I have not missed one winter meeting. In fact, I have scheduled my life to spend time with this group as much as possible, with perfect attendance at the winter meetings for the past 38 years.

Fifty years ago, Robert M. Miller, our profession’s famous veterinary cartoonist RMM and the author of “Mind Over Miller,” organized an association for veterinarians who love to ski and learn. The first four winter meetings were held at Mammoth Lakes, Calif. The founders were Dr. Miller and the late Drs. Mil Custer, John Puckett and Robert Stansbury. The group grew every year and evolved into the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association.

The SVMA has forged a colorful history of collegiality, friendship, recreation, travel and professional enrichment. Dr. Miller retired more than 20 years ago from his Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Since then, Bob and his wife, Debby, have traveled the globe, working hard with the mission to liberate horses from slavery through “Natural Horsemanship.” Go to his website, RobertMMiller.com, for details.

The Wise Philosopher

Bob Miller is our profession’s wise philosopher, a celebrity. For the past 40 years he has joyfully shared his life experiences, his wisdom and philosophy with us in his articles.

Bob is in his 80s now. He is sporting a new hip, a new knee and recently had arthrodesis of an ankle, all on the same side. The Millers have missed only one SVMA winter meeting in 50 years and that was because Debby was giving birth to their daughter, Laurel, 41 years ago. Debby is known for her enthusiasm on skis and she has not missed a day on the slopes with the SVMA since Laurel was born.

Bob skied for years using his famous leather shoulder hobbles that kept him from hyper-extending his shoulders. Bob attended three SVMA meetings when he could not ski due to fracture repair, hip replacement, knee replacement and, most recently, ankle surgery. When Bob is unable to ski, he spends his days cartooning and writing. He is working on his 13th book at the moment.

The SVMA met in Austria in 1971 and in Switzerland in 1973. Since then, the SVMA has met in Europe every five to seven years. The SVMA developed an ambience and a unique personality as it adopted several traditions from Europe for all its meetings.

Beer Break

One tradition is the daily “Stube,” which is a German word for a place to drink beer and talk about your day. The SVMA Stube starts at 3:30 p.m. as an après-ski party and breaks up as the doctors depart for the afternoon seminars.

Another tradition is Karnival. The Karnival is a German mardi gras costume ball commemorating the Fashing celebration at Munich, which SVMA attended in 1971 on the way to its meeting in Austria.

Fashing costume parties are held all over Europe before Lent. SVMA members attended the world-famous Fashing party at San Marcos Square in 2002, before skiing in the Italian Alps, when Dr. Mike Kelly, Dipl. ACVIM, was president.

Another tradition is the ski race. Beginners, children, spouses and veterinarians of all skill levels race, sometimes in costumes and other times against the clock in the official gates of the NASTAR setting.

Our walls are filled with memorable pictures. The SVMA also has the tradition of nominating those who have taken clumsy or humorous falls for its “Tail Ender” Award. This year, it was unfairly awarded to yours truly. I messed up my team’s relay race by skiing to the wrong chair lift line. Ugh!

Let It Snow!

The most mystical tradition of the SVMA is its power to bring snow. Everywhere we go, the snow falls for us. Snow fell miraculously in Banff for President Matt Jenkins in 1977 and in Val d’Isere and Meribel, when yours truly took the SVMA to the French Alps during my tenure as president in 1995. 

Another tradition is for SMVA’ers to meet at conventions, ski areas and travel destinations. Bob Miller and Fred Soifer held Seminars in the Sun for many years on islands. Bob asked me to continue this tradition. We expanded Seminars in the Sun to meet at the 10 top places in the world. Last October, we went to South Africa and in June we go to Machu Pichu and the Galapagos.

I’m writing this column at the Stanford Alpine Chalet in Tahoe City, Calif., where about 30 SVMA’ers meet yearly as the Vet Practice Tippers. Of course we are getting big snow; five feet of fresh powder is predicted. It’s tradition!

This year, SVMA President Reilly Glore took the SVMA to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Andorra, in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France.

Dr. Glore also volunteered as SVMA historian. He spent two years interviewing SVMA’ers such as Bill Noble, John Shirley, Sue Cotter, Suann Hosie, Bob Munger, Matt Jenkins, Warren and Woody Walker, Nino Garolini, Dave Moser, Tom Watson, Phil Weida, Pat Donaghey and me. 

He spent hundreds of hours preparing and editing film for an 84-minute 50th anniversary DVD that captured the essence of the SVMA. It was a joy to see old colleagues onscreen, laughing and frolicking on the slopes again.

Tears welled in our eyes as we remembered those who have skied their last runs, including Drs. Bob Pensinger, Ian Coster, Max Graehl, Chuck Childs and Gary Corsgaard, or those who are departed, including Drs. Dick Fink, Bill Zontine, Art Hurvitz, Foster Lasdon, Gerry Sanbulte, Toby Armer, Herm Rossoll, Carl Berquist, Fred Soifer and others. 

At the 50th anniversary dinner in Andorra, the SVMA honored Bob Miller for his amazing legacy with the SVMA. He believes that no one will ever beat his attendance record. We made a collage for Bob and Debby containing SVMA group pictures and a commemora-tive plaque.

The plaque reads, “To RMM, Founding Father of SVMA, with Congratulations & Appreciation for 50 Years of Friendship, Guidance, Seminars & Cartoons … SVMA Loves You!”

To join the SVMA, go to SkiSVMA.org. To join Seminars in the Sun or Tippers, e-mail me at dralicev@aol.com.

Alice Villalobos is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president-elect of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.

This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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