Have you ever worked with a farrier who had a fancy rig, forged all his own shoes, and made feet look perfect – but could not keep a horse sound? Or maybe you’ve worked with one who carried a handful of tools and a bag of keg shoes in the back of his beat-up pickup truck, yet the horses he shod never took a lame step. Dentistry is much the same in this respect. It is not about the tools, but how they are used. Like shoeing, when it comes to floating teeth, sometimes less is best.
Different Takes on Dentistry
When I went to vet school, I was taught very little about dentistry. When I floated teeth, my main concern was to get the sharp edges off so the horse would not be in pain when he chewed. After graduation, I met a lay dentist who helped me understand the importance of balancing the molar arcades and reducing incisors. He used hand tools to remove sharp points, and power tools for balancing. When he finished working on a horse, every sharp edge was removed and the chewing motion was smooth.
Recently, I worked with another lay dentist who had a different take on floating. His philosophy was to only remove rough areas on the teeth that were actually causing irritation or interfering with the chewing motion. This left the horse with maximum ability to grind his food. Incisors were reduced if they interfered with the free motion of the jaw, whether side to side, forward or backward. When the dentist finished working on a horse, the teeth still felt rough, but the chewing motion was smooth. The interesting thing was that most horses allowed this work to be done with no sedation. Perhaps less is best in the horse’s mind as well!
The Pros and Cons of Power Floating
The invention of power tools has made dentistry much less labor intensive. Power tools are useful when a horse has serious imbalance in his molar arcades. Waves, ramps and hooks can seriously interfere with the chewing motion and set the horse up for issues with his temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Power tools also get the job done faster and this is an advantage for seriously resistant horses. The drawbacks are that power tools tend to do too much, heavy sedation is needed, and heat generated during grinding can possibly damage teeth. Power tools in the hands of a person with training can be used well, but in the hands of someone without experience or proper knowledge, they can quickly cause damage.
Sedation should be done or supervised by a veterinarian since he/she is trained in the use of medications. Proper use of sedation drugs takes experience – you can’t depend on the dose listed on the bottle to achieve desired results. A 300-pound feral donkey may require more drugs than a 2,000-pound gentle draft horse. Giving an injection is also a skill. Drugs given outside a vein will not work as expected and can cause tissue damage. If a drug is injected into an artery rather than a vein, the results can be fatal. If a mistake is made, the veterinarian is likely to be in a better position to deal with the situation. There are now oral sedation drugs that can be used for routine dentistry. These drugs take longer to act but are safer than injections.
Which type of float?
The goal of every float should be to leave the horse with a painfree mouth, and free motion of the molars in every direction. Ramps or hooks that interfere with forward and backward motion of the jaw will cause TMJ issues. The performance horse has some additional needs if he is going to wear a bit. Wolf teeth and bit seats should be considered if a bit is used. Removing wolf teeth and rounding (not removing) the corners of the premolars is especially important if a horse has thick lips. The concern is not about the bit hitting these teeth, but the inner skin of the lips being pinched when bit pressure is applied. If a horse is working fine with wolf teeth and no bit seats, then all is good; but if a horse does not seem happy with his mouth, check to make sure no extra lip tissue is getting pinched.
With dental work, like hoof care, the value of the end result is not how it looks or how fancy the tools were, but how well the horse’s mouth functions. You want the least amount of work done that gives the horse the most comfort and optimal function.