Breaking Social Norms
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs
Healing Horses, Helping Humans
Equine Veterinarian Volunteers to Change Lives
He was only eight years old when a traumatic event inspired the course of his future.
Growing up on a cattle farm in rural Puerto Rico, Alberto Rullan’s horses were an important part of daily life. His father trained horses, and, on this particular day in 1988, he was training Alberto’s favorite horse. While riding along the road, a driver, in the midst of an asthma attack, swerved, and the car struck them. Man and horse fell to the pavement.
On that same road, Alberto was on the school bus headed home and watched in horror as the accident unfolded. “My dad was taken to the hospital with a broken back. The horse was still alive and had a broken leg; he was dragged into a truck and brought home,” Alberto remembers. “There were no veterinarians in our town. Finally, a country vet came from about an hour away. The only thing he could do was euthanize the horse. At that moment, I decided I was going to be a veterinarian and help horses with leg injuries. It was something that affected my life forever.”
Galloping Toward the Future
Ten years later, the 18-year-old who dreamed of becoming an equine veterinarian enrolled in Penn State University. From a country school of only 50 kids, he was now one of 50,000 students. Alberto earned his Bachelor of Science from Pennsylvania State University in 2002 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. Alberto Rullan, VMD then spent a year completing his in-house internship at the Louisiana State University Veterinary Equine Teaching Hospital and Clinic.
“If you’re in Puerto Rico, there are three places you think of, if you want to work with horses: Ocala, Lexington, and Texas,” says Alberto. “We had many friends who had moved to Ocala, and when I finished my internship, I moved to Ocala in 2007.”
In 2009, Alberto and his brother William, who was already in Ocala, founded Performance Equine Veterinary Services: Alberto as the veterinarian, William as the technician. He was now working with horses who needed his unique skills. Many of these were horses people were ready to give up on because of serious issues.
A Near Miss
Amazingly, the practice also helped save his brother’s life. “William had a cold for about a month. Doctors kept prescribing meds, but he didn’t get better,” recalls Alberto. “One day, when we were working on a horse, he got kicked. The bruise didn’t go away. Instead, it got bigger until his whole leg turned bruised. That, combined with the long-lasting cold, prompted his doctor to do blood work. They found out he was anemic and required an immediate transfusion. That blood work led to a leukemia diagnosis.”
Aware of how stem cells had helped horses in their practice, the brothers starting researching. William was able to participate in a stem cell study at the University of Florida. “That kick saved his life, and William is still with us today,” says a grateful Alberto.
Grabbing a Non-profit by the Reins
Helping others has been ingrained in Alberto’s life. While still in school, he participated in the non-profit Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), providing veterinary services to animals on U.S. Indian reservations.
After vet school, Alberto began volunteering with Equitarian Initiative, a non-profit international organization that provides veterinary care to horses in less fortunate communities and teaches basic veterinary care to the people there. “We would go to Guatemala and Peru and teach vet students how to do procedures. We weren’t just helping horses and students, but also the people who live there, teaching them how to take care of their horses, donkeys, and mules,” he explains. “The people were so appreciative; some of them have stayed in touch over the years.”
With a mother who was a university professor, Alberto grew up with a great appreciation for education. This, combined with his experiences with Equitarian Initiative, inspired him to develop his own program to help people learn to be veterinary technicians. “There wasn’t a lot of education, even in the U.S., for people who work with horses to assist the veterinarians,” says Alberto. He created Rullan University, a program that offers both online and hands-on learning at his practice in Ocala.
He also volunteers with at-risk youth, alongside of his client, Velvette Saulsberry, who was a juvenile corrections officer. She was using equine therapy with troubled youth, and after seeing the impressive results, Alberto was on board. “One of my long-term goals is to prove to correctional facilities that horses will rehabilitate juveniles much more quickly than medication,” says Alberto.
In 2017, Alberto founded Equine Performance Center, a comprehensive equine rehabilitation facility in Ocala, focused on physical rehab and regenerative therapies. After he joined Phillip Hammock, DVM, a board certified surgeon, the facility was renamed Equine Performance Innovative Center (EPIC). Located in the heart of Ocala’s horse country, EPIC’s success stories include many equine athletes who have returned to pain-free performance.
Despite his impressive efforts to heal horses and help people, Alberto isn’t superhuman. He’s simply more mindful of time. “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day,” he says. “I see patients about 40 hours a week, but the week has far more hours than that! My new goal is to start timing everything I do to become more efficient. I’m always trying to see how to get more done in a day.”