In getting to know Katie Merkes, it takes nearly no time at all to connect the dots as to where her pride and joy lies.
“We have three dogs; two cats; three mini donkeys, with two of the mares pregnant again; and three horses,” the 33-year-old said, with a laugh. “Like most people who work with animals, we have a menagerie.”
But it was the latter collection of equestrians among the mix that pointed Merkes toward the direction of her passion and eventual profession.
Today, she balances her quality time as the owner of two local veterinary businesses, a wife and a new mom with her time on horseback.
“(Riding a horse) is a great stress relief,” Merkes said. “It’s something you can enjoy by yourself, and it’s something you can enjoy together, with friends. It’s a community and a passion.”
A budding interest
The Dubuque native’s enthusiasm for throwing her leg over the saddle of a horse is something she traces back to her early years, from leisurely rides to competitions.
“My dad raised horses, so we always had them in my family when I was growing up,” Merkes said. “My first was a pony that I got from Santa Claus.”
From then on, her wonderment and respect for the animals became apparent.
“They’re just amazing creatures,” Merkes said. “For one thing, they are these 1,000-plus-pound animals. They don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do, and they could be very dangerous. But people are able to bond with them. If you are a rider, you and your horse become a team. There is a partnership and a communication. As a rider, you are always striving to get better and to overcome obstacles.”
Among her three horses, Merkes has one for riding, an American Quarter Horse named Magic Mike, whom she came to own in his prime. Mike is now in his late 20s.
“I’ve had him for a long time,” Merkes said. “He came with his name. I didn’t love it, but as many people know, it is considered bad luck to change a horse’s name.”
Merkes said that the enthusiasm for equestrians might stem from a business aspect for some — raising, breeding and selling the animals for profit.
For others, it’s the recreational activity that owning a horse provides. And for others, it can be both, including showing horses in competition — something she also has experience in.
“It’s a great animal to develop a relationship with,” Merkes said. “And people who share that passion tend to bond as well.”
From a passion to a career
From her early days riding, Merkes said there was no question as to how she hoped to spend her days and craft her favorite pastime into her career.
“Growing up around horses, I became one of those people who always knew I’d want to be a veterinarian, from the get-go,” she said. “I always thought it would be a cool thing to be able to have a job that was the same as my passion. One thing led to another. I’ve very lucky to get to hang out with animals all day.”
Merkes pursued her studies at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 2013. Following that, she completed an equine internship in California and later returned home to Dubuque. Then, she launched a mobile small animal and equine practice, GoodLife Integrative Veterinary Care, which opened earlier this year.
With the business, Merkes specializes in appointment-based house calls for both large and small animals, providing everything from routine checkups to vaccinations, as well as integrative health options such as preventative care, holistic care, acupuncture, chiropractic care, rehabilitation, laser therapy, end-of-life services and in-home euthanasia.
She believes the familiarity of home provides a comfort to pets when being treated or checked up on.
Merkes also believes that her offerings equip animal owners with the ability to make
well-rounded choices about the health and well-being of their pets, based on knowing what alternative options might be available.
“I really hate putting clients in the position of having to decide whether or not to euthanize their animal if another form of medication isn’t working the way we thought it would,” she said. “I like for pet owners to be aware of the non-traditional options that are available to them. Sometimes, those options might not always work. Other times, I’ve seen it be able to do some power things. But either way, it can be worth trying and making sure that we’re checking all of those boxes. Pets are like family. Many people would do anything for them.”
Additionally, Merkes owns River Valley Veterinary Services in Dubuque, an established business she purchased in 2014 from its owner who was preparing to retire.
While it can be a lot to juggle, depending on the time of year, Merkes said she enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss and adapting to her growing family, which includes her husband, Doug, and their 18-month-old son, Bennett.
The family live just outside of Dubuque on what Merkes’ calls “a little slice of heaven.”
“My husband is not a natural horse person, but my dad still has horses and rides, and everyone knows how obsessed with them I am,” Merkes said, smiling. “I am happy that my hobby is also the way I make my living and that everything overlaps.”
Megan Gloss is the Features Editor for the Telegraph Herald.