With Hearst Castle looming over the Santa Lucia Range to the east, the Pacific Ocean a steely blue force brooding on the western horizon—and a fog-free baby blue sky above— the horse doctor entered the large corral, vaccines in hand.
With the assistance of ranch cowboy Miles Switzer, Dr. John Bigley proceeded to vaccinate three pregnant mares.
Bigley’s mission on a recent Friday afternoon at the sprawling 80,000-acre Piedra Blanca Rancho at San Simeon: shield expectant mares from the highly contagious Rhinovirus, which can cause abortions and “… weak, sick babies,” according to Bigley.
All pregnant mares on the ranch receive vaccinations at 3, 5, 7 and 9 months. The carefully crafted breeding program produces horses pivotal to the ranch work. With 1,475 head of cattle, horses are a big part of the effort that goes into raising the iconic grass-fed, free-range Hearst beef on one of the largest free-range ranches in California.
Indeed, the equine veterinarian’s long-term assignment is to “bring a stronger line” of quarter horses to Piedra Blanca.
Bigley endeavors to take the bloodstock of the Hearst working horses to a higher genetic level by utilizing “chilled semen transport” services. Rather than shipping the mares out for breeding, specially selected semen is express delivered to San Simeon for insemination.
The Hearst herd represents but a small number of the horses Bigley serves. He doctors Appaloosa horses at Three Creeks in Creston, thoroughbreds at Eagle Oaks Ranch in Paso Robles and his biggest account is the Rolling A Ranch on Templeton Road in Atascadero, home to about 500 quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
“On an average day at Rolling A I’ll look at 50 to 75 horses; on a busy day I’ll look at a 100 to a 125 horses,” the 6-foot, 4-inch vet explains. During those visits Bigley conducts a variety of services: reproductive procedures, administering medications, taking blood samples, worming, tending injuries, and just checking up on his equine patients the way physicians keep tabs on humans.
Since the reproductive procedures involving quarter horses at Rolling A— checking the maturation / ovulation of ovarian follicles, i.e., pregnancy checking— require Bigley to work in back of the horse, an inherent danger is always present.
“I have been kicked,” Bigley explained. “A horse is like a cat. It happens so quickly. You always try to plan your escape (and often) you have someone holding that horse who knows what’s going on.”
While his hand is inside the horse he can feel “something change,” an palpable tension unleashed, “in a tenth of a second before the horse kicks,” Bigley continues. He has classmates from Colorado
State University (CSU)— where he received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree—who “can’t practice veterinary medicine anymore. They were kicked so severely their careers are over.”
Meanwhile, what motivated Bigley, who grew up “in mining towns,” the grandson of a career mining professional and son of a geologist-metallurgist, to deviate from his family’s work culture? Why did Bigley—born in Montana to an Anaconda Mining company family—eschew a career linked to copper, silver, nickel and gold?
The answer is simple: Bigley discovered a diamond in the rough, a career as an equine veterinarian. When he entered the pre-med program as a freshman at CSU, he knew he wanted to become a doctor, serving either humans or animals.
“I just happened to start working with the CSU equine research program —embryo transfer techniques — and to be honest, I just kind of fell in love with it.” Although he had rarely ridden horses and previously showed only passing interest in equine issues, “Horses just clicked with me,” he said, smiling.
Horses may have clicked for Bigley, but throughout his career, injured mountain lions, grizzly bears, ostriches, emus, dogs, cats and cows have also needed his skills.
Meanwhile, the flow of Bigley’s future was forever altered while he was working in Idaho—and events were set in motion that led him to Cambria.
His wife of 15 years passed away suddenly; that motivated him to move on to new pastures, and California eventually beckoned the horse doctor. Two years to the month after his wife died, Bigley received a phone call “out of the blue” from a woman he had dated prior to his marriage— Tamar Pearl, a massage therapist.
In time, the two dated, fell in love, and were married. “It was one of those great things,” Bigley said with his patented broad smile. “Now, living in Cambria the couple feels blessed to be here together and to be sharing a home near Camp Ocean Pines, about as close to a perfect life as either of them had ever imagined.
And for Bigley, he is only a few minutes’ drive from the Hearst ranch, and half an hour or so from his north county equine assignments. “I’ve never enjoyed practice this much,” he enthused. “I had forgotten how much I enjoy this kind of work.
“And for Tamar and me, Cambria is a great place to be,” he concluded. Having accompanied the good doctor to the Piedra Blanca Rancho to witness his comfort level around equines, one can see that anywhere a horse needs care is a good place for him to be.