By Raiza Giorgi
Doug Herthel made an impact on horses and equine veterinarians around the world, but he was also the kind of man you wanted to share a fence line with, according to his friend and neighbor Larry Saarloos.
“We lost a great American. Doug was humble, unselfish and a guardian of our little town and valley,” Saarloos said.
The news Herthel’s death on July 11 spread around the world within a day. His son Mark said that he has had calls and texts from people as far as Australia.
“Since my father’s passing we have received messages from veterinarians around the world whom my father had an impact on. Some of them spent years working with him, some days or weeks, and some never even met him in person, however he influenced them in some way,” Mark Herthel said.
Doug Herthel and his wife Sue decided to open what became an internationally famous equine veterinary clinic in Los Olivos almost as soon as they discovered the Santa Ynez Valley in 1969 as they were traveling back to UC Davis from visiting family in Southern California. His brother had recommended that they Highway 154 and when they crested San Marcos Pass and looked down upon the rolling hills, the Herthels knew they wanted to be in the valley.
“One of the thousands of amazing things about the town of Los Olivos is how we honor our citizens when they pass on by lowering the flag in the center of town in remembrance and recognition. As devastatingly sad as this sight is for me and my family, it represents so much about what made my dad the man he was,” his son Troy Herthel wrote.
Doug and Sue Herthel started the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center on their property along Alamo Pintado Road in Los Olivos. Some friends remember that even before they opened the clinic Herthel would practice at his residence, even doing surgery in the front yard, in downtown Los Olivos across from St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church.
“When my parents were building their clinic we lived in the little apartment above it, and he would spend days treating clients and then at night do surgeries for colic,” Mark Herthel said.
Along with being a pioneer in colic surgeries, Herthel’s work in the field of regenerative medicine is the foundation upon which all other veterinary stem cell programs were built. His form of stem cells were not taken from embryos but from the horse’s chest bone marrow. He helped found the North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association, and he inspired the work of veterinarians and Ph.D. scientists alike, according to UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
The veterinary school also honored Herthel in 1996 with its Alumni Achievement Award in recognition of his development of innovative techniques in equine orthopedic and colic surgery and anesthesia recovery, and his development of a humane ambulance system for injured horses.
His son recalled a time when a donkey that had been paralyzed after being shaken by his stable mate was brought to Herthel’s clinic. After three rounds of stem therapy treatments from racehorses, the donkey not only stood up but was running around several weeks later as if nothing had happened.
“My dad thought about problems differently, and he was always up for the challenge to find solutions,” Mark Herthel said.
When Herthel spoke for the American Association of Equine Practitioners on his work with stem cell therapy, he ended up befriending Bill Casner, owner of WinStar Farm in Kentucky. Casner’s horse Well Armed had arthritis and had broken his hip, likely to never run again. But with Herthel’s help of regenerative therapy and supplements he healed and won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in 2009.
Herthel also treated President Ronald Reagan’s horses at Rancho del Cielo, his “Western Whitehouse” at the top of Refugio Pass.
Local veterinarian Joanie Palmero said that she worked for Herthel for five years and she was devastated by his passing.
“Enumerating the many lessons that I learned, professionally and personally, from Dr. Herthel is as impossible as selecting among which of all of these things are the most valuable. His legacy will live on through the many of us whom he inspired,” Palmero said.
Palmero now works for the Vet’s Here! local mobile veterinary service. She said the veterinary community owes a great deal to Herthel, “whose passion for veterinary medicine and the Santa Ynez Valley put a small but vibrant community on the map, and through example challenged us all to elevate our standards of practice.”
Mark Herthel said his father was also instrumental in changing equine orthopedic surgery. For many years stainless steel was used to repair broken bones, but Herthel led the change to titanium. He would even fabricate the parts needed after measuring the horse and fitting them to the animal.
“I watched him work late into the night when he would measure the horse, then go work on making the part to fix the horse’s bone,” his son said.
In addition to the surgeries, Herthel was concerned for the horses’ health afterward, always trying to ensure it healed properly. From that concern he came up with a nutrition formula to speed the process. That formula gave birth to the Platinum Performance line of products that are now used not only in equine health, but also in domestic animals and humans. Mark Herthel leads that company.
Many local people who felt the weight of Herthel’s passing expressed thoughts and memories of his impact on their lives.
“Doug Herthel was a symbol of all that is best in our valley. A modest, friendly, unassuming family man who gained national recognition for his innovative and effective veterinary treatment of horses. He founded a stellar family, built a very successful practice, and became a leader in the preservation of the landscape and spirit of our community. His leadership and amiable presence will be greatly missed in our valley,” said former 3rd District County Supervisor Brooks Firestone.
Herthel was a founding member of Los Olivos Business Organization. When developers wanted to subdivide the historic Montanaro Farm, he bought it and now rents it out to nonprofit groups for fundraisers. He also purchased the downtown Los Olivos building that now houses Sides Hardware and Shoes Restaurant when another developer wanted to tear the building down and rebuild.
“Los Olivos wouldn’t look the way it is if Doug hadn’t stepped in. He wasn’t loud about what he did. He did it to keep Los Olivos as a small, charming town. He was also responsible for purchasing Lavinia Campbell Park (in downtown Los Olivos) and keeping it as a place where our children and grandchildren could run around,” Saarloos said.
Herthel died after suffering quietly with Lewy body disease, an incurable illness in which abnormal structures called Lewy bodies build up in the brain and cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
The family will hold a celebration of his life at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Santa Ynez Valley Presbyterian Church in Ballard with a reception to follow at 5 p.m. at Montanaro Farm at 2531 Grand Ave. in Los Olivos.
The family encourages anyone who would like to celebrate his life to attend, but asks people to first RSVP at www.Alamopintado.com.