Say ahhh: Equine dentist looks horses in the mouth

Veterinarian and equine dentist Dr. Bess Darrow is hoisting a horse’s head up using a two-foot wide plastic buoy under its chin and tugging on the attached rope.

Once 15-year-old gelding Buckster, who is sedated and very relaxed, has his head at the right height, Darrow snaps the rope into a cleat and gets to work.

Dr. Darrow invented the lifting mechanism that allows her to work on horse’s teeth without having an assistant hold up a horse patient’s heavy head for long periods of time.

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She credits her “female ingenuity” for the setup and says it’s not the only unique feature on her 25-foot-long trailer, which has life-sized images of horses on it and displays her company name: Tune Ups Veterinary Equine Dentistry and Services. Darrow, who has spent 26 years as a veterinarian, uses the fully equipped trailer to make barn calls throughout Florida.

She says the trailer is solar powered: “That’s how we get our juice. I use the sun to power my lights and to motor the tools.” 

Today, Dr. Darrow has three checkup appointments at the farm on Jan Shakespeare’s property in High Springs.

“This is Buckster,” Shakespeare says. She calls him her “little mischievous” Appaloosa pony.

Shakespeare tells Dr. Darrow that she is worried that Buckster is leaving long pieces of hay when he eats and wonders if it’s a tooth problem. Dr. Darrow places a metal speculum in Buckster’s mouth to keep it from closing on her hand or tools as she carries out a cleaning, filing and inspection.

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“Horses have teeth like rabbits or guinea pigs,” Dr. Darrow explains. “They constantly erupt until they are 20 years old.”

“Alright mister,” Dr. Darrow says, joking that Buckster has “teeth that only a mother could love.”

The drill starts and Buckster remains relaxed and mellow.

Today is just a simple checkup and teeth filing for Darrow, but she says on some appointments there are cavities and extractions to handle.

“None of this hurts,” she says as she continues to grind down long teeth. The drill is actually covered in diamonds bits that are sharp enough to get the job done.

“There are no nerves in the part of the teeth,” Dr. Darrow explains. “Sort of like hooves or nails.”

Dr. Darrow earned her DVM at Ross University and earned her certification as an equine dental technician with the International Association of Equine Dentistry in 2001. She also completed a clinical year at the University of Florida.

Darrow notes there is a blister on Buckster’s tongue probably from biting down. She says horses love to have their tongues and cheeks scratched so she accommodates Buckster, giving a thorough cleaning and then rinsing out his mouth with water and an antibacterial mouthwash.

The appointment takes about 20 minutes. And all the while, vet tech Ashley Loeffelholz is assisting Darrow by helping to load and unload the horse from the trailer, and taking notes on a digital chart using an iPad.

After Buckster, comes a 16-year-old Paso Fino named Barto which Shakespeare says is short for Bartolomeo and finally comes the Haflinger named Alfie, 19, who is a pony-sized draft horse bred to pull logs up and down mountains.

Barto is also having the same issue of leaving long hay stems behind so Dr. Darrow checks to make sure his teeth are in good shape, filing down any long ones.

“You don’t graduate from vet school automatically knowing how to do this,”  Dr. Darrow says about her extra training in equine dentistry. “It’s a very physical type of work,” she says that not every veterinarian prefers.

Darrow has made a career out of focusing on equine dentistry that she was first intrigued by when in 1990 she listened to a lecture about the practice of dentistry on horses while she was working as a barn manager.

Once in a while she will get an appointment to work on a llama, but horses are her preference and specialty. She enjoys her own five horses that are trained in English riding, dressage and jumping.

Darrow knows helping horses maintain healthy teeth keeps them out of pain and living longer, happier lives. She gives presentations and lectures on the topic to pass on her knowledge and plans to continue serving her clients in Alachua County and beyond.

“There are a lot of horses in the world, and they all have teeth,” she says.

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