Veterinarian Diane Febles (left) and her assistant, Tracey McKnight, of Veterinary Equine Dentistry work on a horse in Henry County, Ga. The silver speculum keeps the horse's mouth open and prevents the animal from biting Febles' fingers.
Veterinarian Diane Febles (left) and her assistant, Tracey McKnight, of Veterinary Equine Dentistry work on a horse in Henry County, Ga. The silver speculum keeps the horse's mouth open and prevents the animal from biting Febles' fingers. Joanne Silberner/NPR
Chew on this: Diane Febles spends her days filing down horses' teeth.
The first question you may want to ask is, "Why do horses need dentists?" The answer: mechanics.
"The upper jaw of the horse is 20 percent wider than the lower jaw, and that allows the outsides of the upper teeth and the insides of the lower teeth to grow longer, so those become very sharp," Febles says. "[These teeth] have ridges when they come in and unless they're addressed, they become very sharp and they actually chew and ulcerate the inside of their mouth."
Febles' most common task is using her electric drill to file those ridges down.
Horses in the wild grind down their own teeth by eating harsh grasses and grit. Domestic horses need people like Febles, who lives in rural McDonough, Ga., once or twice a year. Their teeth continue to push out as they age.
And horses with cracked teeth and abscesses may need a tooth or two pulled.
So how did Febles wind up as a veterinary dentist?
"I always had an interest in dentistry and felt like it wasn't being done properly," Febles says. About eight or nine years ago, she gave in to the urge. She took courses, and over the years bought $50,000 worth of drills and X-ray equipment and the like.
So How Is It Done?
On a recent visit to a nearby farmette, Febles and veterinary technician Tracey McKnight begin working on Traveler, the first of owner Sue Fortier's four sturdy horses whose teeth need their help.
Fortier grabs Traveler, a 19-year-old light brown gelding with a black mane.
"Traveler, are you happy to see Dr. Diane, Traveler?" Fortier asks. "Traveler, are you happy? No, you're not. Your ears are back."
Ears back means Traveler is not looking forward to this.
Febles runs water and antiseptic into a bucket to sterilize what can only be described as a wide vise that opens horizontally.
"This is called a speculum and I put this in their mouth to keep their mouth open, so that I can put my hands in there and work without any kind of fear of getting my fingers removed," Febles says.
McKnight injects Traveler with a mild sedative, and Febles positions the speculum in his mouth.
Febles peers into Traveler's mouth. He needs his teeth filed. She's got her drill.
Febles is elbow deep in Traveler's mouth looking to find out something only Mr. Ed, TV's talking horse, could tell you.
"It may look like it's totally level and smooth, but my hand can feel if there's still a little sharp edge somewhere that may be aggravating him or has the ability to cut into his tongue," Febles says.
She gets the spots.
The process takes 10 or 15 minutes. Traveler stands placidly. He's a little doped up, but Febles, who is 5 feet 3 inches and just about 100 pounds, says she never has trouble. The trick is working with her patients.
"Horses generally do better being asked than being told and so it's a matter of being able to handle them and not forcing the issue," Febles says.
It's not a bad living. Febles charges $125 for what Traveler got. Extractions range from $50 to $500, depending on the difficulty.
Next up is Junior. Then Buddy. Then Archie. Then back into her F-350 truck and on to the next farm.