Ever have a toothache so bad you almost had to stop eating?
If the answer is no, you’re probably not a horse.
If you are a horse, call Cliff Hanna, Whitehorse’s local horse dentist.
“The biggest thing we’re doing in a horse’s mouth is minimizing the sharp stuff,” said Hanna, the only horse dentist in northwestern Canada.
“A horse grinds his teeth laterally, so they sharpen one edge against the other,” he said.
“It leaves a sharp edge along the outside of the molar against soft tissue — on the upper teeth it’s against the cheek and the bottom teeth it’s against the tongue,” he added.
This is why most horses need a dentist.
“(Horses) get lacerations, cuts and scars on their tongue,” he said.
“What we’re doing is filing that sharp stuff off and making those teeth round as opposed to having a point on it.”
Hanna has written two books on horse’s teeth, The Horse Dentistry Handbook and Ageing Horse Teeth.
Last week, he spoke to a group of farmers at the Yukon Agricultural Conference held at the Westmark Hotel.
A horse’s teeth can prevent the animal from eating comfortably, said Hanna.
“They’ll eat awfully carefully,” he said. “For it to be so bad that they won’t eat, something is really getting missed. There’s usually signs prior to that of things not working well.”
Hanna has been working on horses’ teeth since 1990.
Originally, he worked on horses’ hooves, but was flooded with questions about teeth. He decided to do some studying and he enrolled at a school in Lincoln, Nebraska.
It was the only school teaching horse dentistry in North America at the time.
Equine dentistry still doesn’t have enough experts, he said.
He recently travelled to Ecuador to make up for the shortage.
“I went looking for that a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “We were looking for sun.”
Hanna and his wife Nicola travelled there because of the abundance of horses.
“They have 500,000 horses in that country and it’s not as big as the Yukon.”
Horses are a cultural thing for Latin American people, he said.
“It’s largely pleasure now, but they still have a lot of ranching (in Ecuador),” he said.
Hanna found a woman in Ecuador who maintained a tourist business and offered him a month’s visit to look at her horses and provide some training in horse dentistry.
“She was taking people on horses in the Andes on pack trips,” he said.
But when he arrived in Ecuador, he already had more clients lined up.
“When we got there, we worked as much as we wanted to,” he said. “We were just busier than anything.”
“We hooked up with this equine veterinarian there and we travelled to some of the bigger clubs.”
At home, Hanna travels across northern British Columbia and Alberta.
“We go from community to community,” he said. “We often get started in one by being invited by someone who’s seen us or met us in some other place.
“We do one-day awareness seminars just to educate horse people and give them a better understanding.”
But it always grows into a wider audience.
“Then we spend the next five days or a week working on horses for those people who came to that seminar and often that spreads out quite a bit too.”
A horse’s tooth can indicate how old the animal is, he said.
“What happens is the crowns at the base of the incisors wear and tear in a particular pattern,” he said.
“They get shorter and shorter and they slowly wear off. This process leaves a different kind of pattern as time goes on.”
To figure out the age, all you have to do is follow the pattern.
“The interesting thing is that it tends to wear in a set of pairs,” he said.
“The surface area of the incisors has what’s called a cup. As the teeth wear, the cups comes off.”
“So a six-year-old horse will have that centre pair of incisors with the cup worn off. At seven years old, the next set will have the cup worn off. At eight years, the next set will have the cup worn off. At nine years old, the centre pair at the top have their cup worn off,” he said.
At 10 and 11, the pairs continue to wear off at the top, he added.
“I don’t know how that works, but that’s how it’s done. It’s not a 100 per cent accurate, but it will get you awfully close.”
“As you get to a teenage horse or a horse in its 20s, it gets a little more sketchy.”
Hanna also discussed horse feed with the audience.
He blasted the use of alfalfa.
“It’s basically not horse feed,” he said.
“(Alfalfa) is just too much for them,” he said. “A horse is designed to process low-protein feeds and lots of it. And when you feed your horse alfalfa, you’re doing just the opposite.”
“You get these small little concentrated blasts of protein in the food. And it’s not something for they system.”
It’s a big problem in South America, he said.
“In Ecuador, the horses there are eating alfalfa straight,” he said. “One of their biggest problems is colic. Ninety per cent of one veterinarian’s work is colic. They have horses dying daily as a result.”
“They still haven’t got it figured out,” he said.
He’s seen the damage first hand.
“We had another case in Ecuador, a lady who had a bunch of horses,” he said.
“One (horse) died and one survived, they had stones like this in their system,” said Hanna, putting up his hands in the shape of a baseball.
“The one horse passed two stones, they looked like baseballs and they were solid.”
“It looks like limestone, like something you would find in a river bottom,” he said.
“The horse that died had one the size of a soccer ball.”
Hanna doesn’t know the chemistry behind it, he said.
But the vet in Ecuador did some analysis and it seems alfalfa was the culprit.
“They quit the alfalfa thing completely and went directly to steppe grass hays, and she hasn’t had a problem like that since,” he said.
Contact James Munson at email@example.com