MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And now, straight from the horse's mouth. As part of our series You Do What, we're going to meet someone who spends her days filing down horses' teeth. That's right. We're talking about a horse dentist.
NPR's Joanne Silberner has our story.
(Soundbite of a car ignition)
JOANNE SILBERNER: Fifty-year-old Diane Febles starts her day in a pretty ordinary way.
Dr. DIANE FEBLES (Equine Dentist): A venti, non-fat, vanilla mixer with four raw sugars and whip and primo dolce (unintelligible).
SILBERNER: Did you say...
Dr. FEBLES: Four raw sugars.
Dr. FEBLES: Four. That be four.
SILBERNER: With a trip to Starbucks. We're in rural McDonough, Georgia. It's a long way from the apartment building where Febles grew up with only a gerbil for a pet.
Dr. FEBLES: Queens Fields.
SILBERNER: You don't have a Queens' accent.
Dr. FEBLES: Thank goodness. I worked very hard to get rid of it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SILBERNER: Powered by those four sugars, we're back in her big Ford F-350 pickup in a couple of minutes. Febles starts about how it all started: trips to a cousin's house outside the city when school was out.
Dr. FEBLES: I took (unintelligible) out there in the summers and loved -just fell in love with it, and knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do. And I have never regretted that decision.
SILBERNER: And pretty soon, we're at Sue Fortier's farmette. Four sturdy round horses are in the field, oblivious.
Dr. FEBLES: Sue, where would you like us to setup?
Ms. SUE FORTIER (Farmette Owner): I want to do everybody in one place.
Dr. FEBLES: All right. So let's start with these guys.
SILBERNER: Sue Fortier grabs a 19-year-old, light-brown gelding with a black mane.
Ms. FORTIER: That's Traveler. That's my boy.
Traveler, are you happy to see Dr. Diane? Come on, show her. You happy? Yes? No, you're not are you? Your ears are back.
SILBERNER: Ears back means Traveler's not looking really forward to this.
Dr. FEBLES: Hey, Tracey. Can you grab some gloves?
SILBERNER: She runs water and antiseptic into a bucket to sterilize what I can only be described as a wide vise that opens horizontally.
Dr. FEBLES: 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.
SILBERNER: Veterinary technician Tracey McKnight injects Traveler with a mild sedative, and Febles positions the speculum in his mouth.
(Soundbite of clicking)
The first thing people ask Febles when they hear she's a horse dentist is why horses need dentists. The answer: mechanics.
Ms. FEBLES: The upper jaw of the horse is 20 percent wider than the lower jaw, and that allows the outsides of the upper teeth to grow longer and the insides of the lower teeth to grow longer, and so those, they become very sharp. They all have ridges when they come in, and unless they're addressed, they become very sharp and they actually chew and ulcerate the insides of their mouth.
SILBERNER: Febles's most common task is filing those ridges down. Horses in the wild grind down their own teeth by eating harsh grasses and grit. Domestic horses need people like Febles once or twice a year. Their teeth continue to push out as they age. And horses with cracked teeth or abscesses may need teeth pulled.
Ms. FEBLES: I'd always had an interest in dentistry and felt like it wasn't being done properly.
SILBERNER: But eight or nine years ago, she gave into the urge. She took courses and over the years bought $50,000 worth of drills and X-ray equipment and the like.
Febles peers into Traveler's mouth. He needs his teeth filed. She's got her electric drill.
(Soundbite of drill)
SILBERNER: Febles is elbow deep in Traveler's mouth looking to find out something only Mr. Ed, the TV talking horse, could tell you.
Ms. FEBLES: It may look like it's totally level and smooth, but my hand can feel that there's still a little sharp edge somewhere that may be aggravating him or has the ability to cut into his tongue.
SILBERNER: She gets the spots.
(Soundbite of drill)
SILBERNER: The process takes 10 or 15 minutes. Traveler stands placidly. He's a little doped up, but Febles, who is 5'3" and just about 100 pounds, says she never has trouble. The trick is working with her patients.
Ms. FEBLES: 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.
SILBERNER: 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 the F-350 and on to the next farm.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
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