What’s in a dentist?

This post is my attempt to explain my very limited understanding of what I observed when using a neuromuscular equine dentist for the first time. Please forgive my shortcomings in terminology or biomechanical understanding. It is a lot of connected information. This post is intended to invite you to do some real research of your own on what you think is best for you horses with a hope you will consider just maybe what you thought you knew or have been told by those in the wide trail might not be complete…

For those who love, or are at least curious about the narrow trail…

After over a year of research, digging, inquiring, waiting, praying and then scheduling, today was the long awaited day that the dentist from the Spencer Lafleur school of Neuromuscular Horse Dentistry (aka Natural Balance) came to our barn.

Most horse people I know agree that taking care of the horse’s teeth is important. Yet a little over a year ago I learned the standard common practice of equine dentistry generally does not address the horse’s mouth in a biomechanical way and cause negative unintended consequences.

I have noticed in my equine journey there seems to be a wide trail and a narrow trail. The wide trail is what mostpeople are doing with horses in care and training.

Each step I walk off the wide trail I notice my horse changes for the better. Sure, at first the narrow trail seems less clear, a little lonely and it’s never as simple. It takes some digging, seeking, asking deeper questions and sometimes small leaps of faith. Yet the more time I spend on it I see that in the long run it costs less and is more freeing and infinitely more fulfilling than my experience was on the wide trail.

My most recent foray off the well beaten wide trail has been in equine dentistry.

My first equine dental experience was with a “local” guy who had good rapport with the horses, generally didn’t need sedation and hand floated the teeth. I don’t remember how he was trained but he was not a vet. I was told that power tools were bad.

A few years after that I needed a chiropractor for some issues in my older mare. I found a highly recommended chiropractor who was also a vet and helped me substantially bring a horse back to better physical health after a bout with Lymes and what ended up being a serious saddle fit issue that as a new horse owner I did not understand until it had caused some real damage. This chiropractor vet worked closely with a skilled dentist and explained that power tools were good in fact you can’t expect to get the job done right with hand filing the horse’s teeth. The enamel is very hard and doing the job right takes time and strength most equine dentists don’t have thus hand floating is usually not done to the extent necessary for good health in the horse’s mouth.

Feeling newly educated by a professional I trusted I became a power tool believer and insisted from then on my horses must be done this way. Hand floating was stone age. From almost 5 years ago I had power tool and sedation dental work on my horses about every year until two years ago.

Looking back I do not see any difference in my horses physically in hand floating or power tools.

I had been introduced to Cranialsacral Therapy (CST) for some issues in a different horse and my mind was blown. I watched my horses transform before my eyes and the practitioner always knew things that had been going on with my horses in a way that made me feel my horse was TELLING her things while I stood and watched. My horses welcomed the process and trusted the woman working on them.

It was my CST practitioner who asked about my dental work history and suggested that some of my horse’s physical issues will be not truly ever be sorted out while my horse’s head and neck aren’t able to function properly (due to traditional dental work that didn’t take the angles of the Temporal Mandibular Joint (TMJ)–  the joint where the jaw hinges to the skull into account which greatly affects the poll of the horse which greatly affects… EVERYTHING). She did not care about hand floating or power tools- she wanted to know if the dentist was trained and skilled at seeing the horse as a whole and balancing the teeth in the mouth to the needs of the body: jaw, poll, neck, hind, legs, feet etc…

WHAT!?

I am certain I have never had a dentist who was looking at my horse’s mouth in this way. I have never had a dentist speak to me of such things- they talked of sharp points, hooks, waves and bit seats- but never about the nerve system that runs through the body or the fact that imbalance in the jaw and mouth can create tripping or imbalance in the body, an inability to bend properly at the poll or use her hind end effectively.

My CST was certain I didn’t have a dentist who took these all into account as well- because she was looking at my horse as a whole and the angles in the jaw and poll were hindering my horse from true free movement she needed to thrive.

I began to dig into the world of neuromuscular equine dentistry and the Natural Balance school. And with more education I made another step off the wide trail, this time to seeking a professional who would work with my horse to create the correct balance in the mouth as a first priority to dental health.

I decided not to have anyone else work in their mouth again until I could get someone trained at the Spencer Lafleur school.

NOTE: This is not to say I don’t believe anyone else is doing good dentistry- but that I believed I could trust this school was training professionals that were doing what I wanted… so I would start with them.

There aren’t yet enough of these professionals to handle the even small percentage of clients who are beginning to realize how important this approach is! Thankfully someone within a days’ drive was new enough to be building a client list. Even so, this meant months to get scheduled, but she at least was willing to talk to me and agree to travel to my area as long as I could find enough horses to make it worth the day.

If there’s one thing I’m pretty good at is rallying the troops. I called her back with 6 horses to schedule and we chose a date for mid January which gave me heartburn because that’s when real winter has usually begun and I figured the chances we will have clear weather for her to travel here was about as good as santa clause dropping down my chimney with a unicorn….

… it could happen… right?

As you have guessed from the blog so far, I’m pretty sure 2019 is the year of my unicorn!

Friday was a clear sunny but cold day and though the rest of her weekend was threatened with snow she determined to come to us even if she had to cancel the rest of her weekend nearby clients.

The true test of anyone’s ability to understand horses is Wyoming. She’s a fantastic mare, but she doesn’t trust easily and she puts up with little human error. She is a little wild, a little sweet and a lot smart and once her opinions are developed it takes a lot of time to change them.  I still struggle with trimming one of her hind feet after a bad farrier experience two years ago who thought what she really need was more fear of humans; so I had mild heartburn trying to imagine her allowing someone to put a file in her mouth and work on her teeth with minimum sedation. I was fully prepared to pay for the consult and find the dentist may be unwilling or unable to do dental work on a suspicious mustang mare. Still I was willing to wager my money on this process believing that if the gamble paid off it would be a really wonderful thing for her and me both.

Khaleesi as usual was the most suspicious. She is in charge of everyone and everything and needs to approve of how her herd is treated and handled. She got over her initial concerns quickly as the dentist checked her over and showed understanding of horses and in finding areas she wasn’t physically comfortable- they came to agreement while I watched them in their own language converse about areas of tension and decreased mobility. Licking and chewing et. al.

Next she came to Wyoming and the two got on perfectly. Turns out this dentist inherited some nice young horses with a sad human backstory which meant they ended up feral a few years on a property and turned out some pretty wild youngsters including stallion with what she called a 30 foot bubble when she got him. She’s learned how to build trust with mistrustful equines and spoke mustang with ease.

While evaluating Wyoming at one point a dance ensued that I didn’t understand and I thought Wyoming was refusing to move with her and I wondered if a blow up could be coming (I’ve learned to see this way way early on while things still look ok to most domestic horse folk…) but no such issue arose. She explained Wyomings range of motion was being tested and the mare was simply saying I cannot move that way… nope… nope… not possible. The dentist response was simply: ok how about this? No? ok how about this? No, ok don’t worry I’ll help you…It was simply part of the evaluation to see what was needed to help the horse get her body functioning better.

Though none of the horses put up much fuss, it turned out Wyoming was the most compliant of the three with the process. She seemed to appreciate the small changes as they came. She was no problem at all for my new dentist friend… and being Wyoming approved is huge in my book.

I cannot expertly explain the entire system of this style of dentistry, but I can offer a website that gives a nice range of information if you’d like to delve in for yourself.

Link: Neuromuscular Horse Dentistry Home

I directly witnessed positive changes in each horse in unique ways. My understanding (opinion) is that OVERALL the traditional dentistry these horses have undergone (Khaleesi and Wyoming with power tools and full sedation, Molly with a “traditional” hand floating program) treats the horse’s mouth with an “all mouths should level out basically the same” approach. In the words of Spencer Lafleur:

Many of today’s equine Dentists apply centric, or centered alignment to the mouth; that is, applying a static “leveling”, standard to every equine mouth they treat. The focus common among dentists currently, is occlusion. This means, the meeting, or flush contact, of upper and lower tooth – on- tooth surfaces…. The fact of the matter is that the focus should be on reestablishing proper biomechanics to the horses jaw.

What I saw in effect was that when this standard leveling was applied to these horses, it created different issues for each of them in their unique bodies. Upon finishing the work on each horse they had very individual reactions to the changes, but overwhelmingly positive.

In Khaleesi her incisors had been done (or not done) in a way that didn’t allow her jaw to move freely as she walked. This in turn affected how her neck would move, and how she had to hold the angle of her jaw at the TM Joint, which in turn affected what angle her poll could manage, and due to the “pulley” system that runs through the entire horse from poll to tail meant that after the work on her mouth was done and she couldmove more freely I watched her hind end drop down and her hind legs find better balance underneath her body. Something I’d been wondering how I might be able to accomplish physically in recent weeks.

Wyoming had more serious issues that resulted not only from previous dentistry but likely began with an injury. After looking the mare over briefly she turned to me and asked: do you know if this horse had a wreck where she had pulled back hard on the halter? Why yes. She accrued an injury and was pulled from the mustang makeover event in fact and that’s how she ended up going in the the TIP program and wound up here.

She had almost no mobility turning her neck to the left and the angle of her jaw had obstructed the nerves coming through the poll and TMJ area to the point where she had vascular system issues- like a hose that was kinked- there isn’t complete stop to the flow but significantly reduced. The dentist noted this horse in particular would have likely had stifle issues. Why yes actually that is the reason we even began using our CST was due to stifle issues in the mustang…After working on her incisors she dropped her head and relaxed and began to participate and help the process. Apparently some horses realize what is going on and begin to move their tongue to help create space for the tools and begin to pull their jaw and teeth slightly against the tools to help file and move in ways as to ask for attention to be paid here and there.

Her head and neck moved completely freely from the poll in all directions right after the work was done. I can’t wait to see if these changes will also help her feel better overall and if the physical work I do with her gets easier.

As for Molly, she’s had enough tooth taken away that they appear not to be able to vibrate and meet properly if her jaw is correct (or possibly the eruption process has been inhibited by incorrect past dental work) — yet making the changes for the teeth to do that in her case would compromise her whole jaw and do more damage.  The natural chewing movement a horse needs was not possible which meant she had to use force to press her jaws together instead of the macerating usual chewing motion. The vibration of the teeth as they move properly with the jaw movement in chewing encourages correct eruption which is the slow process where they continue over time to “erupt” into the jaw to then (hopefully) get worn down by eating. Vibration therapy to the jaw should help this process “wake up” and begin to encourage her mouth to come into better balance.

During her evaluation we were able to see that she had no visible muscle in her cheek responsible for normal chewing compared with both other horses (completely atrophied and sunken). To start Molly had her incisors adjusted so that her jaw would move more naturally then some work done deep in the back of the molars. Her jaw was not only off from front to back but right to left was misaligned and this explained the serious discrepancy in her shoulders (one more developed and one higher than the other). Of course the shoulder issue connects to everything- her turned in front feet, her ability to balance in her hind end, and between that and the issues it caused in the poll she moves around in a state of inversion most of the time only exacerbated when being ridden and carrying weight. The changes in this mare’s jaw resulted in an observable change in her hoof balance that was not there before the dental work began.

In other words- balancing her mouth made it so her legs were able to straighten out which made her hooves which previously looked correct between leg and ground NOW needed to be rebalanced to match the more biomechanically correct carriage of her front legs. This will change the way she loads her hooves which will hopefully, over time, change the odd growth pattern that she’s developed in her feet.

Getting all the pieces right for this mare over time is like unraveling a scarf that had gotten all off in the knitting in order to set things right. It takes time to make the changes but it will be beautiful as they come right as a whole. Focusing too much on either her shoulder, atrophied top line, inverted posture, or her turned in feet would only create more trouble somewhere else. She needs a whole horse approach that includes regular adaptive hoof trimming, dental work, bodywork, remedial walking therapy to allow her to feel her body changing into better balance, a dynamically fitting saddle, patience in creating a relationship-mental connection, and TIME to trust the humans helping her through the process.

Horses are awesome creatures designed for human error. Each time we inhibit their best efficient and correct/tweak movement with misunderstanding of the whole system of moving parts- like ill fitting saddles, unbalanced hoof trimming, forceful tack tools (tie downs, tight nosebands, severe bits…), changing of the jaw function in dental work, not to mention unbalanced riding or injuries and accidents… the amazing creatures fill in for us by adjusting the entire system to fit our issue and continue on often with big hearts that perform what we ask even while (at times severely) compromised.

Horses unlike dogs do not cry out in pain. Instead when the struggle has gotten hard enough on them, they act out in the inability to comply with behavior so often seen as disrespectful, disobedient, spooky, dangerous and often called stupid. Much of the time (especially on the wide trail) these attempts at communicating: I JUST CANNOT are answered with force. It looks like a more severe bit, a tighter noseband, a tie down, a crop, cross ties, two people holding the horse to be mounted, or a new training program where the horse learns who is boss, to have a healthy fear (ahem…respect) of humans etc.

I realize many people will find it hard to believe that the wide trail of equine dentistry with all of its science and accepted common understandings could be damaging to horses. It’s what EVERYONE does…It’s what the vet says to do (or does himself). The people on the wide trail look at you funny when you suggest that the issue they are using a tie down for could be contributed by bad dentistry ?of course as part of the whole)…the flares the farrier can’t seem to make go away… or the lack of muscle on the topline… ulcers or tripping.

Well. That wouldn’t be the first time someone on the wide path looked at me like I was a little off the beaten path.

That’s ok.

I am.

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