The young gelding was a new purchase by a lovely kind-hearted woman that wanted a nice trail horse for her family. He was a big chestnut Quarter horse about five years old who had extensive training in reining and cutting. The new owner wanted a natural horsemanship foundation established before she took him home, so he arrived at my barn for a three month program to include trail training.
When a new horse arrives at my barn I always perform a thorough examination for injuries and watch closely for any mysterious swellings or soreness that may arise in the first twenty-four hours as a result of injury sustained during transportation. While examining the chestnut boy I noticed a small hole under his chin in the middle of his left jawbone that appeared to be a draining abscess. I pointed out the abscess to the new owner and she advised that her veterinarian had examined it the week prior assuring her that it was simply a puncture wound and it would heal. I advised the owner that I would care for the wound, but expressed my concern that this did not seem to me to be a possible bone infection since there was no mass or soft squishy tissue to pinch or squeeze.
I began the gelding’s training over the next couple days assessing what he knew and how he understood training cues which he responded with ease and appeared to be well trained, but his overall attitude and countenance was listless and quick to agitate with pinny ears and a swishy tail. I also noted he was very mouthy which did not improve with correction. He was constantly nibbling and nipping at me when grooming, working with his feet, bonding and flexing – basically whenever I was in close proximity. The boy was also moody and not making a bonding connection with an attitude of “performing only because I have to” instead of willingly participating with me. I was a bit stumped searching for techniques that would invoke his willingness for a relationship, but he maintained a ho-hum duplicitous attitude. He certainly was not an unkind horse in any way, just something wasn’t right and he was seemingly unhappy…..
A couple weeks went by as I continued to work with him, clean his wound and apply antibiotics daily, but neither his attitude nor wound was improving. And in fact the hole in his jaw was starting to widen and more pus matter draining regardless of my efforts. I felt around the wound and knew this wasn’t a simple puncture wound or abscess it had to be a bone infection. Now, I needed to convince the gelding’s owner to allow my vet to examine him even though she had her vet out weeks before. I prepared by calling my vet first and had the opportunity to chat with him personally. He agreed that it sounded like an infection in the bone, but felt it was a bad tooth, not a puncture wound and suggested an x-ray. I hadn’t thought about a bad tooth. It took my breath away to imagine how long this horse must have been in pain to now have an infection coming out through the jaw bone under the chin. My heart sank with the thought.
With this information I made the phone call to the owner. She was more then happy to have my vet exam the young gelding and was deeply concerned about her horse being in pain. My vet visited that afternoon and confirmed that a lower molar tooth was completely infected beyond repair and the tooth next to it badly infected, but possibly salvageable. Based on the level of deterioration and the infection in the jaw bone my vet said that the tooth had probably been infected for at least two years……
I was flooded with emotions of pity, guilt and compassion for this horse. It all made sense now. His behavior, his aloofness, his agitation, his mouthiness; he was just trying to tell me “I hurt”. I wrapped my arms around the horse’s neck and tears welled up as I asked his forgiveness for not recognizing his pain sooner. What a tolerant and forgiving boy. This horse chose to tolerate people and our continued requests for performance while he stuffed his pain and put up with us. The previous owner sold him because “he just wouldn’t perform” to optimum level as a reining and cutting horse. No wonder! How well would you perform if you had a toothache for two years?
Within a few days the tooth was pulled and a routine float was performed. Since the gelding’s mouth was so sore I soaked his hay for each feeding, which is four times a day at my facility. Since horses have small stomachs and large intestines they need to eat continuously in order to maintain their peristalsis action to avoid colic. Many horses only get fed twice a day which can result in fasting from 8-10 hours a day. This is very hard on their bodies due to their physical design; therefore we have found feeding four times a day keeps the peristalsis action stimulated which has resulted in zero colic episodes at our barn in over three years (pasturing horses is always the best circumstance however). Also whenever a horse has dental care that involves sedation, I feed a very wet bran mash once a day for the first three days after the procedure. Sedation slows the gut and if your horse is on the verge of colic due to an impaction/constipation which otherwise would possibly have worked itself out naturally, the sedation and soreness in the mouth can be enough to push the horse in to colic. A horse is not going to eat as much or as frequent right after a dental procedure due to the soreness in his mouth so again I highly recommend a very wet bran mash at least once a day for the first three days.
A couple weeks later the chiropractor was out for his usual 30 day visit and performed several adjustments on the boy. His Poll, Atlas and TMJ needing adjusting along with T1, shoulders, hips, sacrum, whorlbone and tail. Basically from head to tail he was adjusted. What was simply amazing was right after the doctor adjusted the young boy’s TMJ the horse completely relaxed blowing out his nose releasing a huge emotional sigh that prompted a client standing by to exclaim “did you see that?” He was finally out of pain for the first time at least two years. His eyes sparkled and he seemed to glow – it was a beautiful sight.
I believe it is critical to a horse’s recovery after dental care to have chiropractic performed before resuming training and/or riding. Dental problems and procedures affect the WHOLE horse, like dominos, as one falls they all fall. I know when I have a headache it tends to move into my neck down my shoulders and then into my back; the same is true for our horses. My horse chiropractor is a licensed equine veterinarian and I mention this because I believe the anatomy of a horse can not be learned in a weekend course, so I caution you to be selective when choosing a horse chiropractor. Be aware of the laws in your state as well – Oregon requires animal chiropractors to be licensed veterinarians and that’s a law I can appreciate.
After four weeks the young gelding was able to eat dry hay and was healing beautifully. The most remarkable change however was is emotional wellbeing. There was a sparkle in his eye and lightness in his feet. He no longer was nibbling or biting since “I got the message” that he was hurting and addressed the source of his behavior. It was a privilege to take care of him during his recovery which bonded us deeply. He was a completely different horse with a loving desire to please and to be with me, and wow was he a wonderful ride. We were on the trails in no time running freely through the woods and swimming in the creek. As I always say Problems are not always training issues.