Case Study – Balancing Teeth Solves Trailer Trauma
By Susan Rifkin Ajamian

For two horses the answer to their trailer traumas was a trip to the equine dentist. Before equine dentists solved their balance problems, Snickers would climb the trailer walls, and Richie would load and ship quietly but drip with sweat. This is a tale of how correcting dental imbalances solved some trailer traumas.

Judith M. Shoemaker, DVM explains that "Shipping problems are very frequently due to a horse's problems with balance. The jaw and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) are major balance mechanisms for the horse. If there is a problem with them the horse gets erroneous information. If the incisors and molars are not properly aligned, this affects the TMJ. So the brain does not receive accurate balance information." Dr. Shoemaker specializes in complementary medicine for performance horses. She analyzes the relationship between the horse's physiology and biomechanical function. Several very skilled equine dentists come to Dr. Shoemaker's Pennsylvania clinic to work on her clients' horses. She also speaks at equine dental conferences.

No More Scrambling

Snickers is a tall, opinionated Thoroughbred gelding. His owner boarded him with her trainer, Debby Hadden, who specializes in balance issues of the horse and rider. Debby noticed that Snickers not only was difficult to ship, but that he was worse on the left side of the trailer, especially on right turns when he would climb the wall with his hind feet. When she discussed this with equine dentist Kent Durr, he thought the underlying problem was Snickers' mouth being out of balance. Kent recommended taking Snickers to Dr. Shoemaker's clinic, so that she could use chiropractic to balance his body before Kent did the dental work to balance his mouth. Dr. Shoemaker explained to Debby that balancing Snickers' teeth and therefore his TMJ would improve his proprioception and thus his shipping.

In early October 2000, Debby loaded Snickers into her trailer for the one-hour hilly and twisting ride to the clinic. He was already loaded on the left side when she remembered this was his bad side, but it was too late to re-load him. He was alone in the trailer, with a partial partition, so he had plenty of room to spread his legs. Debby recalls, "I was careful to take any right hand turns very slowly. That is, until a driver cut us off and I had to swerve abruptly to the right. There was so much commotion from Snickers I thought I'd killed him".

If power tools are needed (which they nearly always are for incisor work), Dr. Shoemaker tranquilizes the horses so they stand very still while the dentist carefully and gently uses the high-speed tools on their teeth. Kent had to work on Snickers' molars and incisors to properly balance his mouth. Then Debby waited for the effects of the tranquilizer to wear off before leaving the clinic. She said, "I wanted a direct comparison with the trip down, so I tempted fate and loaded him on the left side of the trailer for the trip back." Snickers shipped quietly all the way home, and did so again seven weeks later when Debby took him to his new home several hours away.

No Sweat Shipping

Richie's trailer problems were less dramatic, but took longer for the dentists to fix. For many years my quiet Thoroughbred gelding Richie would load reluctantly but without a fight, then stoically stand in the trailer, and sweat. He would sweat a LOT. One time I had a professional ship him to a dental appointment in a 3-horse slant load gooseneck. The trip was only five miles, but Richie left a puddle of sweat.

Some time in his youth he fractured his skull and lost two molars. I had his molars floated regularly. In 1997 when Richie was 18 years old, Dr. Shoemaker told me about a new dentist she was bringing in who did mouth balancing with incisor reduction. This would cost more, but she recommended that I do this. I was unenthusiastic about the idea until I read the "Whole Horse Journal" article and saw that Richie's incisors matched their example of a severe problem.

Immediately after his first mouth balancing appointment Richie's balance information changed so much that he could not stand up straight. He leaned about 10 degrees to his left, and was in danger of falling over sideways. Richie's brain had been receiving skewed information for years through his misaligned TMJ, and now it was finally accurate. But his body had to learn that it no longer needed to compensate for misinformation. He told animal communicator Anita Curtis that it took him about an hour to adjust to the change, and that it gave him a headache.

For this article, Shalini Bosbyshell, an animal communicator and horse trainer, interviewed Richie about shipping before and after all his dental work. He told Shalini that he had trouble shipping when he was a racehorse and later a show hunter. At the horse shows he liked the jumping and socializing with the other horses, but the travelling was stressful. Shalini said, "He would grit his teeth and deal with it. He'd steel himself and wait until it was over and try not to think about it."

Richie also explained to Shalini that for a day or two after he had dental work done his poll and upper neck would be stiff and sore, and he'd feel almost dizzy.

His mouth was so badly out of balance that it took several appointments to fix it. But Richie eventually made the same 5-mile trip, without sweating.

Body First

Shalini thinks it is important for people to realize that what appears to be an emotional problem may actually be due to a physical problem. She remembers especially one horse who explained to her that he had balance problems. When he was shipped in a stock trailer he could stand diagonally and spread his legs. When his person changed to a smaller trailer, with a full center partition, he was afraid he would "fall over and die".

Physical problems are indeed a potential source for horses' loading and shipping problems. Please give your horse the benefit of your trust in their honesty and always start by looking for physical problems as the source of behavioral problems.

About the author:
Susan Rifkin Ajamian writes about holistic veterinary care, especially what she learns from caring for her animal friends.