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Equine dentist does more than just fix teeth

The horse was an offspring of one of the most famous speed sires in the United States, yet it ended up as a 4-H project for a beginning barrel racer in Nebraska. It failed on the racetrack. It failed as a barrel horse. In fact, the horse that started out worth thousands of dollars and held so much promise, was sold to a 4-H member for a few hundred dollars.

It was during a routine check floating its teeth that Cory Heath noticed something peculiar in the horse's mouth. "There was a wolf tooth fragment in there," Heath said. "It probably happened when the wolf teeth were knocked out when the horse was gelded. I pulled it out, and that same horse became the one to beat in barrel racing in Nebraska for many years. The horse that was virtually worthless became a gold mine."

Heath is a licensed veterinarian, and a graduate of the American School of Equine Dentistry in Virginia. For the last eight years, Heath has made a career of floating teeth and performing equine dental services for at least 100 horses a month. She is licensed in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and Texas, and travels to clients in those states.

"After being a large animal veterinarian for 15 years, I was tired of working with emergencies, and horse teeth are rarely an emergency," Heath explained. "Equine dentistry gives me a chance to do scheduled work," she continued. "The other thing I noticed, is not enough people know what is really going on in a horse's mouth. When I was in vet school, I asked one of my professors to show me how to float teeth. He went through several drawers and finally found a single rasp, rattled it around in the horse's mouth a little bit, and told me that's how you float teeth. I felt sure there was more to it than that, so I investigated it a little more. About the time I was tired of doing emergencies, I spent a month going to an equine dentistry program. There has been a lot of continuing education since then."

LONG IN THE TOOTH

Many people don't realize that unlike most animals, horses teeth continue to grow throughout their life. In fact, their teeth are coming in at 3 mm a year both top and bottom, most of the time. "If they are not eating coarse enough feed or things are not lining up so they wear away at the same rate they are coming in, what you end up with is some extra tooth that will continue growing until it gets into the jaw. It can wear away the jaw, and when the horse is out of teeth, it will die," she explained.

Heath outlined the importance of regular checkups, especially for horses between 3 and 4 years old, before training starts. "Three- and 4-year-olds are shedding their teeth," she explained. "They definitely need dental checkups to pull off any caps on the baby teeth, but also to make sure the teeth are the same height. Floating at 3 or 4 will make things normal at 7, because most malocclusions that kill them at 15 started at 3 or 4."

"Most people start colts with a snaffle, and because it bends in the middle, you get metal contact against the tooth with only the lip in between," Heath explained. "If things are sharp, concentrating every time you pick up the reins becomes difficult for the horse because it's in pain."

Everything needs to be kept straight and balanced. "Horses teeth will slow down growing at about 15, so to make a horse last longer, you need to make sure everything is straight, level and normal by the time it is 15," she said. "If you want your horse to last until it's 30, don't wait till it's 18 to float them for the first time. It is important to have dental care when they are young, while their teeth are still growing and everything can be fixed."

As Heath talked about the importance of dental check-ups for horses, she emphasized that not all performance issues are the result of problems in the mouth. "The purpose of a bit is to allow you to communicate with your horse," she explained. "If the bit is not working, you need to find out why."

Heath says she frequently gets calls from girls who have been away at college four years, and when they come back and ride their horse for the first time, it bucks them off. "It is because the teeth haven't been wearing down while they were gone, so hooks develop," she explained. "When they ask their horse to collect, it stabs the horse in the soft palette, so it responds by bucking them off. The horse that was in shape, in tune and fun to ride four years ago is now a disaster, and needs dental care."

Heath explained how a horse's teeth work and how important it is for them to touch so they can eat correctly. "There are three incisors in each quadrant that are used by horses to pick grass," she said. "If the grass is soft, if they eat a lot of grain, or if the grass or dirt has low silicone, they will need dental work because their cheek teeth won't touch each other."

"It is important for the incisors to line up when the horse is grazing," she continued. "You need to check the horse in that position to see if they are lining up. But, remember the incisors will change how they meet by the position of the head." The incisors also need to line-up correctly when the horse is being ridden. "The angles will change with the position of the head. The incisors need to move freely for lateral movement," she said.

BUCKING BRONCO

The cheek teeth, which are located from the halter nose band to the eye, serve as the grinding surface for the horse. "If the horse doesn't have something to grind against, the teeth will continue to grow and the horse will develop hooks in his teeth," she explained. "The problem with hooks is they prevent a horse from moving its jaw back and forth. If you want collection, (a horse with hooks) won't be able to because they can't move one jaw past the other," she explained. "It hurts them, and they will eventually try to buck you off."

"Sometimes, the problems can be way in the back of the mouth," Heath continued. She recalled a horse that she worked with that could only collect on the right side. After examining the horse, she found it had a large hook in the back of its mouth, preventing the jaw from moving freely. "When a horse has points and hooks, they can cut the tongue and cheeks causing ulcerations," she explained.

In addition to floating, Heath can extract teeth — especially molars because of their 3-inch roots. She can also do root canals and fix broken teeth. "If a horse has a broken tooth, it can be painful every time they breathe because they have an exposed pulp cavity," she said. "If I can fill that pulp cavity, not only are they no longer in pain, but it may save the tooth so it can continue to erupt. If a horse's tooth dies, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear it down, so it can create permanent dental issues."

"There is nothing magical about equine dentistry," Heath said. "People think it can be because I've seen lameness disappear, and horses that could never take a left lead on cue now can. When I balance their mouth, it balances the neck, the shoulder and the back," she explained. "I have seen horses with chronic back pain, and after I fixed their teeth the chiropractic adjustments work. Good dental care doesn't just affect their mouth. It affects the balance and the whole body," she stated.

For more information about Cory Heath, see her website: precisiondentalservices.com. Heath can be reached at (308) 325-0290.❖