Not many people look forward to sitting in the dentist’s chair. So it’s hardly surprising that your horse doesn’t much like seeing the dentist either. He’s not used to having someone groping around inside his mouth on a regular basis, so it makes sense that he may become confused, uncertain and uncomfortable during the checkup. Luckily, there are many steps you can take toward dentist preparation – and they work even better than a twitch, restraints or sedation. It just takes a little time and patience to help this necessary task go much more smoothly for everyone.
A little time goes a long way
First, don’t wait until the week of your appointment to begin with dentist preparation. Give your horse time to gain a high level of confidence and trust by doing a little bit (five to 15 minutes) every day for several days, then three or four sessions the next week and once or twice before your appointment. Even if you can’t keep to that schedule, any time spent with this approach will help – the more, the better!
The approach to dental preparation is simple. Get your horse used to being handled around the lips, mouth and nostrils with hands, ropes, cordless massagers, soft plastic/rubber items and anything else you can think of that would simulate what a horse might encounter during his dental visit.
Important: Before you begin handling your horse’s mouth, first study the anatomy of his teeth. Equine teeth can snap a big carrot in half. Fingers are just another carrot to some horses, so be very careful.
Start with the nose
Start your dentist preparation by rubbing both hands around the outside of the muzzle and nostrils. Make sure you offer a pleasant feel, going with the direction of the hair and whiskers. If/when the horse lifts his head, do your best to keep your hands in position, even if you can’t reach at first. Eventually the horse will lower his head – even a little bit – and that’s the time to take your hands away and let him “sit” a minute to realize that your handling wasn’t so bad after all. Then do it again.
By removing your hands, you are creating a “cue” for your horse to relax when he lowers his head. Be aware that this can be overdone; it gets difficult for the dentist to work inside the mouth when the horse’s whiskers are brushing the ground.
Handling the inside of the mouth
When the horse gets the idea that your hands are something relaxing and enjoyable, open the side of his mouth and look inside at the tongue and teeth. The incisors are in front, molars in the back, and the gap between is called the “bars” – this is where you want to approach from in order to keep your fingers from getting caught between sets of teeth. There may be canine or wolf teeth in this gap, but though they’re usually not a problem, keep your fingers away from them as well.
This is where dentist preparation gets fun! Being very careful to avoid the teeth, see if you can rub up under the horse’s lips and along the bars. You can maybe even teach him to let you hold and “pet” his tongue by gently holding it out to the side and releasing it the instant he stops trying to pull it away. It doesn’t take long for most horses to become so relaxed that they leave their tongues hanging out.
Note: These dentist preparation techniques are appropriate for a horse that is already familiar with general handling. If he is especially mouthy (a stallion or unhandled horse), it is a good idea to commit time to general handling, leading and ground interactions before focusing on his mouth and teeth. If you don’t believe you currently have the skills to do this yourself, please seek assistance from a reputable equine behaviorist. Your safety is most important!
When the horse becomes more familiar with having his mouth handled, take your dentist preparation to the next step and start introducing soft objects such as big ropes, plastic objects with no sharp edges, sections from heavy tarps – basically anything different from your hands so he can feel the bulk inside his mouth without it being painful.
When this becomes no big deal, introduce a cordless electric massager (commonly found at most drugstores) that has a button that must be pushed for it to run; this way, it easily turns off when the horse lowers his head or relaxes. This simulates the feel and sound of a grinder for when the dentist may need to use one to remove points, hooks or waves.
When you prepare your horse for having his mouth handled, his ability to relax during dental sessions goes way up and the need for restraints or sedation goes way down! Dental work will be less stressful and the equine dentist can get their job done with greater safety and more attention to detail. And the best part of dentist preparation? Never having to dread the dentist again!