Consider this . . . When your teeth, gums or cheeks cause you pain from cavities, infections or cold sores, it distracts you from work, recreation or relationships. The pain may even keep you from going to work, school, or even riding. And it can cause headaches, along with pain in your neck, shoulders or back.
The same things happen to your horse, but he can’t tell you, so you probably won’t let him take the day off because you don’t see an obvious cause for his behavior. Watch for subtle signs of discomfort or pain and consider dental care as a possible solution, such as we found with Spock and Fiona.
Spock, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, worked hard to avoid contact between the bit and the right side of his mouth, but when the two met, you could be sure he’d plant his feet, veer to the left and rear. And if you managed to stay on and get him going forward again, you’d either have 100 pounds of pressure in your right hand or his head constantly would flip like a flamingo sifting water and food through his beak.
Fiona, a 5-year-old warmblood mare, had a less violent reaction when she felt bit pressure for a downward transition. She’d just slam on the brakes, as if she were a reining horse doing a sliding stop. And when she jumped, her efforts were rushed and flat, as if she were in a race to get to the other side.
The power-floating Dr. Grant Miller, of Petaluma, Calif., did on Spock’s teeth dramatically changed his attitude toward working into the bridle—really, toward cooperating with his rider at all. He had sharp points on the pre-molars and molars on the right side of his mouth, as well as rostral hooks and caudal ramps, which were inhibiting his ability to chew both his food and accept the bit. (Note: Dr. Grant Miller is now one of Horse Journal’s Contributing Veterinary Editors.) See sidebar equine dentistry has come a long way.
Fiona had never had a dental exam, and the work Miller did on her was extensive. In addition to power-floating the sharp hooks on both sides of Fiona’s jaw, Miller removed two unusually large wolf teeth from her upper jaw. Quickly, Fiona started to work into the bridle with greater confidence and she began to jump fabulously—like a deer, using her neck and back in a bascule like never before. “It’s simple: She felt a lot more comfortable. The bit contacting her wolf teeth was like you banging a metal spoon on one of your incisors,” said Miller.
Miller, a graduate of the University of California Veterinary School, practices at the Sonoma-Marin Veterinary Service in Petaluma, Calif. While at veterinary school, he studied extensively under Tony Basile, a master equine dental technician who practices and lectures around the world.
“A dental problem is no different than a lameness,” said Miller. “It’s going to limit their performance because they’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about the pain coming from their mouth and how to avoid it. And that’s the biggest reason to give your horse a dental exam annually—to keep the pain or discomfort they’re feeling from distracting them from their work.”