Special Features


Horse Handling for Dentistry

An interview with Maria Wagner, EqDT

As a stranger to a horse at first visit, how does a practitioner elicit cooperation from him? Especially for less pleasant but vitally important things such as dentistry... even humans don't like going to the dentist! We asked Maria Wagner, EqDT, of Quakertown, PA, known for her horse-handling skills as well as her equine dentistry skills, how she finds the cooperative horse inside even the worst patients.

NHM: What are your thoughts on the practitioner-horse relationship, and what should horse guardians/owners expect from a practitioner in regards to horse-handling?
Maria: All guardians should expect their horses to be treated with dignity and respect. Going along with that, all horses should expect their guardian to be present when experiencing contact with a practitioner as the guardian is the trusted partner. It is my belief that we develop a partnership with every horse we come in contact with under all circumstances based on the horse's natural behavior and instincts. 

NHM: Where, or from whom, did you learn your dentistry and horse-handling skills?
Maria: In order to achieve this partnership, I have spent over 30 years watching horse behavior in different circumstances and settings. As a 10-year-old, I rode my bicycle to the Liberty Bell Race Track in Northeast Philadelphia to muck stalls. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing trainers who at that time were training winners without the 2x4. I have also purposefully exposed myself to all types of personalities and disciplines. In addition, I have done intensive reading of any horse psychology book that I can get my hands on. As the industry in general is moving towards a more respectful partnership with the horse, I find that owners who have never been exposed to this type of philosophy are not only amazed by their horse's behavior with a total stranger but find that a new avenue has been opened for them.
 As for the dentistry, I attended the American School of Equine Dentistry located in Purcellville, Virginia. While this school is geared towards the veterinarian community, a select group is accepted based on their experience and knowledge of horses. 

NHM: How do you convey to the horse that you are a partner? Do you have a basic plan of approach for every horse?
Maria: I usually try to arrive early for my appointments. This allows me to observe the horse with the owner. From this observation I can start to determine how the horse is going to approach me. I am constantly watching the horse's body language and adjusting my body language based on what the horse is telling me. For example, with my back exposed to the horse, if the horse approaches me with forward ears, head at wither height and nose extended, I know that this horse is curious but being cautious. Should the horse step towards me and touch me, I will step away and back. I will then start to scratch the horse's neck. This becomes the critical moment wherein the horse will turn away or turn towards me. Either reaction is alright, but it tells me whether the horse has accepted me or not. While this is going on, I'm having a conversation with the owner regarding any problems they are having with eating, bitting, or behavior. As I am watching the horse, the horse is listening to his person and me having this meaningless, unintrusive conversation while being scratched probably by both of us. This is either the start of the partnership or my determination that I am not going to force this horse further.

NHM: How do you deal with the horse who initially shows aggression toward you? Fear?
Maria: Of the thousand or so horses that I have come in contact with, I have only been truly attacked once. This attack came without warning. The horse reared and started towards me striking. I hit the dirt, rolled, jumped up and took off! When the horse came to the end of the lead rope, she turned and started kicking out in my direction. This was a clear indication that I would not be floating this horse without sedation by a veterinarian. I deal with fearful horses on a regular basis. If the horse is going to harm itself, the owner, or me, then sedation is usually in order. However, I like to give the horse a chance to trust me first and make my determination from there. I can always come back another day. I do find that most horses that had been sedated the first time don't usually require sedation the second time as I didn't force them and I didn't hurt them. Horses never forget how I or any other individual has treated them.

NHM: What are your thoughts on restraints?
Maria: I personally don't like physical restraints. I rarely use a lip chain or a twitch unless the owner is the one applying it. However, if the horse continues to be abject to the procedure, I will ask the owner for veterinary sedation for the safety of all involved. I'm not into forcing my own horses and don't like to do it to any horse. It conflicts with my philosophy.

NHM: Do you find that most horses want to cooperate?
Maria: YES! I like to take my time with each and every horse and make the procedure a pleasure for the horse, the owner, and myself. I also like to work on the horse's comfort level. I float some horses over their stall door, in the paddock at a walk, or in their stall. It's on the horse's terms, not mine.

NHM: Do you find your way of handling horses takes more time to get the job done?
Maria: Once again, it's the horse that makes that decision. They don't follow our concept of time and neither do I. Some horses may take longer but most horses are completed within 20 to 30 minutes. I do have one horse that I must float within 10 to 15 minutes as he becomes very impatient and prefers that I just move along!
I am constantly watching their ears and eyes. I am also watching their muscle movements. Relaxed horses have relaxed muscles and tense horses tend to bulge their muscles on their entire body. I am watching their legs as they move forward or back and the speed involved. Some horses lift their head and that's okay. My cousin's horse didn't feel comfortable at my level, but did just fine while I stood on a muck bucket!

NHM: Is there anything the guardian can do to keep horses cooperative for dentistry?
Maria: I definitely don't recommend putting your fingers into the horse's mouth. It REALLY hurts when you get your fingers between their teeth. The best patient I have is a 16.1 hand TWH mare. The horse has an enormous amount of trust in her owner. This horse lowers her head for her owner and I sit on a bucket to float the horse! The entire time, the owner is scratching her ears and her head. Now that is the ultimate proof of a partnership! 
The dead give-away that the horse trusts and is bonded with his partner is that the horse will look at the partner constantly for reassurance. That is the moment that the owner will reassure the horse and surprisingly enough they do it automatically. A horse that trusts the decisions and situations that his partner places him in is always the most cooperative and the most pleasurable to work with. I still find it fascinating that two species that are so different can work together with trust and confidence.Hoofprint

About Maria:

Maria started with her horse obsession as a 10-year-old at Liberty Bell Race Track in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mucking stalls and later exercising. She has enjoyed competing in local hunter paces, mock fox hunts, weekend trail rides in Cape May and the Appalachian Mountains, observing horses in the herd environment in Virginia, and serving in the Navy. Maria began her career in Equine Dentistry after graduating from the American School of Equine Dentistry in Virginia, and working with a local rescue and the SPCA. She has recently re-entered the world of horse training on a limited basis, and is currently pursuing an Associates Degree in Specialized Technology for Veterinary Technician. Maria is under the direct and indirect supervision of several veterinarians in the areas in which she works. She can be reached at 215-529-4388.