Country Vet “Doc” Holbrook named Maryland Horseman of the Year
By Ross Peddicord
(Appeared in The Equiery in February 2001)

Each year the Maryland Horse Council recognizes a professional who has had an outstanding career in the Maryland Horse Industry. Presented at the Maryland Horseman’s Party (a fundraiser for the Maryland 4-H Foundation and MHC), the recognition is designed to inspire young people to wed their love of horses with their career. The 2001 Maryland Horseman’s Party will be held March 3 at Pimlico Race Course. See MHC Newsletter in this issue for more information. 

When LuAnne Levins, Vice President of the Maryland Horse Council, was asked what she remembers best about her friendship with Dr. Harold Holbrook, she made a true confession: “It was all of those nights we spent together.”

Then LuAnne, owner of Periwinkle Farm in Spencerville, added: “But it always involved a colicky horse!”

For nearly 40 years, Harold Holbrook spent many a night taking care of both his clients and their animal friends, working on everything from ducks to donkeys, Holsteins to Holsteiners. He came to be known as the “James Herriott of Montgomery County”, a veterinarian, who like his British counterpart, not only cured the animals’ ills, but also gave out healthy doses of good humor and common sense to their owners.

His career has followed the evolution of veterinary medicine in Maryland, from a time when there was just one veterinarian to a county and “I could name every one of them,” Dr. Holbrook said.

Now the state has thousands of veterinarians and science has evolved to where there are nearly as many specialists as there are ailments.

But it’s always been the animals, and their owners, not the science, that Dr. Holbrook as liked most about his job. “I have treated an awful lot of animals and met a lot of nice people,” he said. “I liked them all””

Now at age 73, he is being named the Maryland Horse Council’s “Horseman of the Year,” for a lifetime of work devoted to the state’s vast horse industry.

I’ve worked with a lot of veterinarians over the years and he was one of the best general practitioners I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Wendy Walker, who took over Dr. Holbrook’s “Town and Country” small animal practice in Olney in 1990. Two other veterinarians, Rory Carolan and Will Engle, assumed his large animal practice. “Literally he’d tackle anything we could get through the door, small animals as well as horses. I remember we even flew an expensive sheep, hooked to an IV, by plane to the University of Pennsylvania. He’d tackle any project, and if it involved research, he was always ingenious in trying to find a solution. He was loved by his clients, because he was always there when he was needed, night or day.””

These days Dr. Holbrook, retired for more than a decade, faces a new challenge: learning to live a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down after a boating accident last spring in Kent Narrows.

The irony doesn’t escape him: all those years treating animals, being run over by a bull or kicked by a horse, and it took the Chesapeake Bay to really whack him. But as always, his indomitable spirit and incredible physical strength, that pulled thousands of calves or foals out of their downed mothers, is helping him overcome another ordeal.

From the time he was a child and visited his aunt’s dairy farm in Ohio, Harold Holbrook knew he had an affinity for animals. Even though he was raised in the Washington suburbs of College Park, he could walk from his house to any barn on the University of Maryland campus, which, as the first land grant agricultural university in the United States, has a large agricultural science department (the animals are now largely housed in Howard County).

After Holbrook studied dairy husbandry at Maryland, his brother, Bill, a medical doctor, persuaded him to become a veterinarian. He graduated from the University of Georgia vet school in 1953 and a week after graduating from college, began his practice in Rockville.

“The plan was to deal mostly in dairy cattle. But the second call I got was to treat a pair of ponies for Hansen Watkins (Ex-MFH of Goshen Hunt),””Dr, Holbrook recalled.

Eventually he worked for all the major farms in Montgomery County, treating beef cattle for Gordon Keys, dairy cows for Lawson King and horses for Harold Herman’s Red Oak Farm, then one of the state’s largest Thoroughbred breeding farms.

He handled large horse operations like Pegasus Stables, Meadowbrook Stables, Avenel Farms, Al-Marah Arabians, Marshwood Farm, the Potomac Horse Center, and Susan Hansen’s Potomac Riding School. He had so many customers that were geographically continuous that he would often just walk from one farm to the next.

“I could write a book and it could be called ‘’The Backyards of Potomac’, Dr. Holbrook quipped.

During the Potomac Fever crisis in the early 1980’s, he remembers loading his truck daily with bags of fluids and running up and down River Road “all night long, trying to save horses’ lives. At first, we didn’t know what we were dealing with. That was probably the roughest time of my career, he said.

He originally named his practice “Town & Country”, because “we were on the edge of Rockville, which was at that time a small town. Since then, I’ve been continuously followed by a bulldozer.”

In 1979, the land for his first clinic was claimed by the state’s right of eminent domain and used as part of the site for the Shady Grove Metro Station, That’s when he packed up and moved to the clinic’s current site in Olney, which has also become a suburban metropolis. He still lives in a neat brick house next to the clinic. At its peak, Dr. Holbrook said he had 6,000 to 7,000 large and small animal clients, a staff of between two and four veterinarians working with him, five full-time technicians and assistants plus other part-timers. “It was quite an operation. I’ve also mentored a number of vets who have come in the area over the years. Among these are Drs. Roger Scullin, Pete Radue, Chet Anderson, Rory Corolan, Walker and Will Engle.

Helping him through his whole career has been his wife, Joanne. They have been married 48-1/2 years and have three children—Kathryn Garrity of Olney, Ann Covell of Frederick, and Harold Jr., who lives in Woodbine. There are eight grandchildren.

Daughters Kathryn and Ann rode extensively and were members of the Potomac Pony Club, and Harold Jr. showed dairy cattle. A grandson, Jeff Covell, is currently a junior at Kansas State University and is showing an interest in pre-veterinary studies.

At one time, the Holbrook’s owned 18 of their own horses and had a small Thoroughbred racing operation, If Only Stables, headquartered at Bowie Race Course. Their trainer, Jerry Woolery, was a former vet clinic employee. The Holbrook’s raced many winners, the best of which was a gelding named Captain Cutter.

Flat trainer Nancy Heil has been a longtime client and friend. “Doc was most famous for his stitch jobs,” she said. “He was fabulous with a needle.” Heil recalls one horse’s particularly nasty puncture wound, where the horse tore up most of his muscles after rearing and being caught on metal post. “”But Doc sewed him up and the horse recovered without a scar.”

Levins said she owned one particular horse who had been treated by other veterinarians and was constantly getting colic. After the second trip to New Bolten, she called in Dr. Holbrook. “He thought the horse’s stomach had gotten out of sync with all the medication he had been on, so he suggested I simply treat him with vanilla yogurt.”

After six weeks of digesting Dannon yogurt injections, Levins said the horse never had another gastronomic problem.

“That’s one of the things I loved most about Doc Holbrook,” she said. “His common sense approach to many problems. That, and he has a heart as big as Texas, a great sense of humor and he never gave up or faded out on a sick horse. He always persisted.”

Despite his “country vet” reputation, Dr. Walker said Holbrook has always been well-respected by his peers.

He is a past president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, and a founder of the Maryland Association of Equine Practitioners and for many years was chairman of the state veterinary board’s Ethics and Grievance Committee.

“That’s a whole other aspect of his career,” Dr. Walker said. “He had a real appreciation for these professional organizations and a dedication to seeing them succeed. He was willing to give up time from his own practice to give back to the profession. That’s something you don’t see a whole lot of these days.”

But it’s the emotional part of Dr. Holbrook’s commitment to veterinary medicine that particularly moves Susan Hansen, owner of the Potomac Riding School.

“I attribute the ancient lives that a lot of horses lived to Dr. Holbrook,” she said. “I have always dealt in large herds of horses, horses that need to be useful because all of my riders are children who can’t afford to have their own horses. He put these horses on a schedule—worming, shots, the whole rhythm of healthy life. And it is a routine I’ve never changed.”

When Holbrook treated an emergency at her farm, “it was not just the vet coming in and he’d take care of the situation. You were his assistant. You were in that stall with the horse, holding flaps of skin and turning green. I can recall him saying, ‘Just don’t faint.’”

“It was an education you couldn’t buy and could never repay. The horses knew it, too. They just felt somebody special was coming in that barn to take care of them.””

Hansen said that when she first started using Dr. Holbrook in 1973, it was a time when there were no cell phones, no internet, not even a close-by veterinary hospital to ship a horse, and if their were a need to go to the one at New Bolten in Pennsylvania, you had to be very wealthy to afford it.

If there was a crisis, Hansen said, “Dr. Holbrook never left you alone. And if things didn’t work out, well, he always had lots of Kleenex.””

To this day, Hansen said she can visualize the times Dr, Holbrook’s truck drove down her lane.

“And when I saw that truck, I thought it was the next best thing to a miracle.””

What more can anyone say about Dr. Holbrook’s dedication to his job, professional expertise and love for his fellow man and animal life, than these sentiments expressed by Hansen.

“I felt like the good father was coming home,”” Hansen said. “You just knew when you saw him that everything was going to be OK.””