At a youthful 55, Cliff Hanna is not a boisterous, good-ol’-boy, slap-on-the-back kinda guy. He is a quiet, watchful man and it suits his profession well. He works inside the mouths of horses. Though based in Canada’s Yukon with five Percheron/Quarterhorses, Cliff’s bags are always packed for travel. Once a professional pack trip outfitter, he now journeys to South America with Nicola (his wife) every winter to practice his profession, equine dentistry.
Where do you practice your equine dentistry?
CH: I live and work in the Yukon in northwestern Canada. We travel quite extensively, offering our services throughout northern British Columbia and Alberta. Nicola travels with me and assists. In recent years we have traveled to Belize and Ecuador, and have a growing business in Ecuador.
How did you wind up practicing in Equador?
CH: I had been interested in South America and Ecuador in particular for some years. We live in a part of the world that gets pretty wintry and decided we would like to explore the possibility of spending some winter months in warmer climates. As horses are our passion, it was natural to look into what was happening in Ecuador horse-wise. We discovered there were a lot of horses and not much horse dentistry. The horse owners we contacted in Ecuador encouraged us to bring our tools – and the work began! It was very rewarding as the people and vets we worked with were very supportive and interested in learning more. Our single biggest challenge was helping horse people understand the benefits of having their horses’ teeth cared for. This has been the same anywhere we have worked.
Where did you receive your training?
CH: I had my initial training in 1990 in Nebraska. It was the only school of its kind at that time and people from all over the world were there. Today, the school is in Idaho and is called the Academy of Equine Dentistry.
Since then, I have taken numerous upgrading courses and seminars regarding different aspects of equine dentistry. There are now several schools in the U.S. and one very good one in Canada, as well as training facilities in Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
But the real training comes from the horses. Learning what they need and trying different ways to solve their dental difficulties is an ongoing educational process. Like any profession, you never stop learning.
What is the most common problem you deal with?
CH: The most common situation is removing the sharp edges and points on the molars. The molar tables are not horizontal like ours – they sit at about a 12o slope – and a horse chews sideways, thus grinding one set of molars against the other. This grinding process slowly wears the face off the molars. This wear tends to leave a sharp edge on the high side of the molar table. In the case of the upper molars, the sharp edge develops on the outside of the tooth next to the cheeks. On the bottom molars, the sharpness develops on the inside of the molars next to the tongue.
If a horse has prominent cusps (vertical ridges on the outer edge of the molar), these will develop specific points on the sharp edge of the molar as it wears. So it is possible for a horse to have a row of sharp points all along his upper molars against the inside of his cheeks, and on the lower molars all along the inside next to his tongue.
Beyond this, there is a whole list of possible difficulties: crowding in the mouth causing upper and lower molars not to meet properly; lower molar arcades that don’t line up with upper ones causing specific hooks in the front or back of the mouth; missing or broken teeth; wolf teeth; retained baby caps; incisor alignment difficulties and tack or bit related problems.
Is there a prescribed procedure for common problems, or have you developed your own over time?
CH: Common problems usually have a procedure that best solves them. Having said that, there is often a unique situation that requires us to be innovative. Like most professionals, equine dentists develop individual techniques and methods that work best for them to get the job done. The end results, however, are likely to be fairly standard – namely a pain-free mouth that allows the horse to function with comfort and ease in his particular riding discipline.
Are any of your procedures actually pleasurable for the horse?
CH: The only true answer to this would have to come from the horses! However, we do often see horses “get into” the sound and rhythm of the floats filing on their teeth. Many times, once the horse feels the painful sharp points or edges being removed, he will literally lean into the instrument as I’m working in his mouth. It’s almost as if he is saying, “Here, get this one, too!”
There are times where a horse has quite a bit of stress on one or both of his jaw joints because of malocclusion problems in the mouth. Where the upper and lower jaws meet, the temporal mandibular joint (TMJ) can be inflamed or sore as a result. When this is the case, I will take a few minutes to rub and soften up the tissue around this area of the head when I’m done with the work. Most horses like this kind of attention very much. It probably feels good!
Describe how you work with an un-sedated horse.
CH: I prefer to handle horses without drugs if possible, but there are cases where drugs are necessary to do the best job for the horse. Drugging a horse just because you can is not a good enough reason to do so. It is one more cost for the owner and one more physical factor the horse has to deal with. Many times it is not required to get the job done.
Because a horse’s teeth (molars especially) have the nerve and pulp chamber deep in the roots, they do not have the same sensitivity as human molars do. The part of the tooth you see above the gum line is solid. This is an important factor as horses literally grind their lower molars against the upper ones to chew their food. If their teeth had the same sensitivity as ours, it would hurt them to chew this way. A side benefit of this feature is that we are able to file and shape a molar without it being painful for the horse. He will feel the vibration of the tools but not any pain. Therefore, it is possible to do general float work in a horse’s mouth without the need of drugs. The horse does need to cooperate, though! This is where horsemanship and a bag full of little tricks and techniques come into play.
I approach the horse with the idea of getting a feel for how he might be to work with, and also in a way that will give him a chance to “meet” me and get an understanding of my confidence and intent. Doing this well, with sensitivity to the horse, is the most important part. Gaining a horse’s trust in the first few minutes allows you to work in his mouth with little fear or resistance.
Depending on the horse, I will introduce the steps and tools slowly at first until I see he is able to handle having me work in his mouth. Often, if a horse has any sharp points or hooks that are uncomfortable or even painful, it is not unusual to see the “light come on” as he realizes that what I’m doing in his mouth is helping. The cooperation level often increases considerably after this awareness. Lots of horses are packing serious pain and discomfort in their mouths and are very grateful to have it solved for them.
What is the most difficult part of equine dentistry?
CH: The most challenging part is dealing with the horse owners! A lot of people are not crazy about human dentistry and often transpose this nervousness to their horses. This can complicate the horse-handling part of the work. Secondly, a lot of horse owners don’t know much about what is involved with horse dentistry and/or have misconceptions of what to expect. As a result, we spend considerable time explaining to horse owners the “whys” and “hows” of horse dentistry. This is not a bad thing! On the contrary – we encourage horse people to ask questions. In fact, I tell them it is their responsibility to ask, and to be sure they understand the answers they get. I do not consider this to be difficult, though it can be challenging sometimes!
Why did you write a book about horse dentistry?
CH: From the very beginning of my practice, I found I was spending a lot of time explaining horse dentistry to our customers. We started doing one-day dental awareness seminars to help fill this need. Eventually, we decided that using a book format and making it available over the Internet would reach more people effectively and broaden our outreach. Thus The Horse Dentistry Handbook was born. It is presently available as a downloadable e-book right off our website (thehorsedentistry handbook.com). To date we have sold copies in ten different countries and have received a lot of good feedback.
We are now in the process of launching a second book specifically about telling a horse’s age by its teeth. Aging horses is an old horseman’s skill that got lost for the most part through the last century, but is coming back. It is the root of the saying “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” – to do that would suggest you were checking the horse’s age and therefore its value, and that could be an insult to the giver.
ACCORDING TO CLIFF HANNA
1. Before any work is done on your horse, be sure you understand what is going to be done and why. No horse owner should okay a procedure if she does not understand the reason for it and what is involved. A good dentist will be happy to explain this for you.
2. Every horse having dental work done should have a detailed chart made out showing the horse owner what was found, what was done and what follow-up procedures may be needed.
3. To get good information, you need to ask good questions. Beware of a dentist who doesn’t have time to answer your questions to your satisfaction.
Dorothy Noe is a retired special education teacher who has been freelance writing for over 20 years. When not writing, traveling, kayaking, hiking or biking, she is trail riding on her horse, Mirasol. They will soon be moving to New Mexico.