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Training the Horse for the Dentist

Ready For Dentist By Bonnie J. Hilton  (Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

I m not going to spend time discussing imprint training. If you are going to have a foal, get the books, read the material, and when the foal is born, do the imprinting. Then spend the time as the foal matures, in consistent practice, keeping it in the program, so that being handled by strangers, including the mouth, will not be a foreign or traumatic experience.  Isn t it interesting that not too many years ago, doctors and dentists suggested doing the same for human children, by bringing them into their office for a fun visit, so that they would not be as fearful and traumatized when the time came to have real work done.

Now having said that, I want to discuss the old foal, who hasn t had the best of handling, wasn t imprinted and who you purchased and have had the dentist come look at and was not able to do anything about the points or the edges because your old foal was a monster. Now the dentist has to come back when the vet can come, so that the equine can be tranquilized in order to have work done in its mouth. I just spent an hour watching this procedure done with a much older equine who was being hard to handle even after being tranquilized, three times. Nothing has ever been done with this horse to make the procedure acceptable

One of the first things I want to be able to do with any horse is get them to bring their head down to my level and to keep their head down if I want them to. I have several equines that are tall and when they stick their heads up in the rafters, what are you supposed to do, get on a stepladder, as the petite groom used to do, to work with the late open jumper Big Ben? Bribe them down if you have to at first, while you apply poll pressure from the halter. Cue them down with voice, bribe and pressure and then standing on one side of the head or the other, put your hand behind the ears and see if you can keep them down with gentle pressure at the poll. Some horses with a strong poll response will fight to come back up. They don t like the pressure. They don t like being restrained and they don t trust you. You have to keep at it, daily, within the routines of grooming and tacking up, even if it is only for halter. If you don t take the time, don t expect results.

As I have written in the past, with horses that have already learned to fear a handler, I will work with a shank, unless they are already fighting that too. That is how I was taught to handle and I still use the technique to teach an equine to move their head down from the pressure and stay down. You are not being mean or using excessive force. If the training is done correctly, most horses immediately respond to a shank and don t get foolish. (The ones that fight it have been rough handled in the past and don t trust handlers at all.) Eventually you want to be able to take hold of the front of the halter nosepiece and with a gentle downward pull that places pressure on the bridge, as well as the poll, the horse should bring the head down and stay down, as long as you have the nosepiece. You work with this approach daily, or at least as often as you handle your horse or pay someone else to do it. The horse needs to be praised and rewarded for their good behavior and depending on their bad behavior, they have to learn respect for their handler.

Sorry, but I ll be my sarcastic self here. If you don t like this approach you can work with clicker training, or finger snapping, or you can try sitting in a chair and have your horse bring its head down to your lap, or you can spend hours with all kinds of massage and stretching, but please remember, at some point the dentist has to put a float in the horse s mouth and the horse will have to behave or all the organs of your horse s body will be affected by a tranquilizer. You decide on your control method and what you feel comfortable with and what is better for your equine.

Once you get the horse to bring his head down, just like in imprint training, you start exploring around his muzzle with your fingers. If he jerks his head back up to the sky, he has to come down  again, and again, and again. Why is it that many horses wear bridle and bit but you can t mess with their face? Simply, the time was never spent doing it. Now you do it. Move the lips around with one hand, while the other hand is holding the halter. Lift the front upper lip, look at the front teeth. Move the lips around from the sides. If you get that far from both sides, then try taking hold of the tongue. I hear the screams of gross coming from the peanut gallery. It is just a tongue and it is a strong tongue to say the least.

The horse will try to pull it away from you. Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised by an equine who just allows you to take the tongue out of both sides of its mouth without a problem. If you have an assistant to help you, at this point with its mouth open wide and the tongue out of the way, you can shine a flashlight up into the mouth and look at edges. If there are points that look like Count Dracula on the edges of the molars, you need the dentist quick.. If you don t see anything that looks bad, you still need to keep going, because you should have the horse s teeth checked at least every six months. Some horses, due to dental problems and the aging process, need more attention than others.

For those readers who don t know the old term quidding, it refers to an eating condition. The horse has a mouthful of food and tries to chew, but drops a lot or even a large ball of food out of its mouth. This can be caused by swallowing problems, as well as dental problems. When I give a horse a carrot treat, I like to see them keep the lips closed and the carrot disappear without too many pieces failing to the ground. If the horse is shifting the treat from one side to the other and tilting the head and food is dropping out of the mouth, I think the teeth need to be looked at.

The other fact of the matter is that if the horse is having problems grinding, the food is not getting masticated properly for the gut.  That food will pass through the system not giving proper nutrition. That is why it is always a good thing to check manure from time to time to see how much whole grain pieces are in the manure if you are feeding a whole grain mix. The other factor to consider is colic. With a youngster, especially, you need to be able to stick your hand in your horse s mouth and take hold of its tongue from both the right and left side without it pulling back or rearing. If you get this far, you have made more progress than a lot of people even try.  The vet or the dentist will want to displace the tongue to look in the mouth to see if the teeth are all coming in correctly. Sometimes before the permanent teeth are in and wearing starts, actual equipment has to be used.

Now comes the bizarre part of training for the dentist. I learned this years ago, when I was determined to help an old foal, who was four, get over his distrust and fear. He had already been tranquilized because of his behavior. I didn t have any of the dentist s tools, it will make it even easier if you can get your hands on a float just to use for imprinting. I needed something to put into the horse s mouth that was long enough to reach into the back molars. I needed something that didn t have any sharp edges and was wide, at least an inch, so that it would be somewhat uncomfortable in the horse s mouth, like a float. I needed something that was not plastic or wood, that would not break off in the mouth if the horse clamped down on it. I used the only thing I had available, an old fashioned, single piece, aluminum metal sweat scraper. (Not wood and not plastic.) Metal sweat scrapers are still made.

You don t have to hold the tongue to use the sweat scraper. You do have to keep the horse s head at good eye level and you don t want the horse jerking around, so one hand is on the lead or the front of the halter and the other hand holds the sweat scraper. You start from either the left or right side coming in from the side of the mouth. Once you get the sweat scraper in the mouth, you make believe you are a dentist and at least try to rub the molars a little. Your job is to train your horse to behave and you have to do this little ritual as often as you can during the initial stages. If the horse is really obnoxious, take lots of breaks for your patience and to let them relax.

Where you are working is as important as how you are working. The dentists I work with all prefer to have the horse in the stall, but remember, if they have a bad actor, they have it tranquilized. For me, I like more space, so I have room to manipulate the horse, unless I have a really nice big stall. If the barn alley is safe, I really prefer to be there, with doors closed. If you know the horse may rear, be sure of your overhead height. For any rearing or striking you have to reprimand. It s just dangerous and needs to be stopped. (That s the major reason I don t want to be stuck in a stall until I have the initial stages of acceptance over with, then I ll go into a stall.) The nice thing for you is that you can feed the horse all kinds of treats while you are teaching it manners. Make it a good experience!

When the dentist comes, no carrot or grain goodies. Dentists are always yelling at me because a horse they go to work on has to have its mouth washed out because the teeth are covered in fresh crushed carrot, thanks to me and my treats. I wish my dentist would give me treats before he goes to work on me. Just for laughs, I was never shank trained and I usually am gassed for major dremmel drill work! That brings up the new dremmel tool being used by some equine dentists. How do you train for that?

The horse that started this article will not accept clippers. That should be a big clue in itself. Get a set of clippers on the horse. No blades are needed. Just the vibration is what you need. No, you are not going to put them in the horse s mouth, but you are going to put them along the jaw, on the bridge, anywhere on the head and get the horse to stand for the procedure. The more you can do to get the horse used to the sound and the feel will help. I would go so far as to have the clippers running, making noise while I had the sweat scraper in the mouth.

 If you haven t seen the newer equipment that the dentists are using, it is power equipment, plain and simple, and it can be loud. Whether the old trainer s tip of putting cotton plugs in the horse s ears, that can be done for clipper training, would help, I don t know. I have never resorted to the technique. I m sure, just like our human dentists, that the equipment will get better and better, but if the horse will not stand still, the dentist is going to have to reach for something to keep the patient quiet, which means the veterinarian. (It is not legal for unlicensed individuals to administer tranquilizers, only your vet should.) As I have noted several times in recent articles, the use of fast acting tranquilizers has revolutionized the equine medical practice. I don t blame vets one bit for reaching for the shot, but I do blame the person responsible for the equine.

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