PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Ever wonder how Mr. Ed got those pearly whites, considering it’s a little hard for a horse to brush and floss? It’s thanks to men like Steven Akeley, a former Presque Isle resident and graduate of the American School of Equine Dentistry in Purcellville, Va.
Akeley, who now resides in Damariscotta, is a frequent visitor to Aroostook County — most recently attending the Northern Maine Fair, where he provided an equine dental demonstration.
He explained why there’s a need for a “horse dentist.”
“In the wild, horses don’t get pressed hay. They eat twigs, bark, whatever they can to survive. Those materials wear down the teeth. But tame horses need a little help. It’s important to take the sharp points off their teeth — for the comfort of the horse,” he said.
Akeley said he starts as early as possible, getting horses used to having their mouths handled.
“I start with yearlings. I play with them to desensitize them — get them used to having a hand in their mouth. I work on what we call ‘wolf teeth,’ that’s a tooth that interferes with the bit,” he said
He said many times bad behavior later in life can be traced to a bad tooth.
“As with humans, health problems in horses can be tooth-related,” Akeley said.
Using his horse Tori, who’s 30, Akeley recently demonstrated some of the techniques he uses to address various dental procedures in horses.
“I’ve had Tori since he was 10. He’s very comfortable with me working on his teeth,” he said. “He broke off a canine playing with his brother.”
Akeley said a horse’s age can be determined by looking at the wear of its teeth. Sharper points are more apparent the younger the horse.
He said it’s important to take things slow, giving the horse time to adjust to changes.
“If a horse isn’t pleased, give them a minute to feel the difference. This can give you time to smell their breath too. As with people, a change in breath can indicate bacteria is present. Nasal discharge can indicate a problem as well,” he said.
“You should watch for any sign — any change in the mouth that could indicate there’s a health issue,” Akeley said.
Using a full-mouth speculum, Akeley filed some of Tori’s teeth. The apparatus keeps the horse’s mouth spread open, allowing the dentist to get his entire hand and whatever tool is necessary in to any tooth needing attention.
Akeley said although he grew up in a farm atmosphere, he knew nothing at first about animal dental care.
“Curiosity got me to where I am now,” said Akeley.
“Listen for a smooth sound. Filing makes a noise at first. When a tooth is smooth, the noise disappears,” explained Akeley.
He said checkups should be done yearly.
“If a horse loses a tooth, they can lose weight. It’s good to check yearly, so they don’t lose too much weight,” said Akeley. “During the first five years of life is when a horse sheds its baby teeth.”
Akeley said it’s important to check adult teeth as well, since adult teeth can push others aside, creating a problem.
Akeley said there are other signs to watch for that could indicate a problem.
“Watch your horse. If they look to the side, it could be the bit is causing pain. Correcting the issue can cut strain on their neck,” said Akeley, noting, “Teeth can relate to every part of a horse’s body.
“If their mouth’s comfortable, they’re happier and healthier. They’ll do what I want and it’s less feed going to waste,” he said.
“This guy’s retired. Tori used to drive a wagon but now is living out his years on the farm,” said Akeley.
Mike Carpenter of Houlton was also at the fair with two of his horses. He owns several horses and has used Akeley’s services for many years.
“I have 36 horses. Steve comes every year and does a terrific job checking all of their teeth,” said Carpenter, who owns and operates Carriages of Acadia, using draft horses to provide carriage rides for much of the year along the many miles of carriage roads created by the Rockefellers on Mount Desert Island.
Carpenter said his business depends on having healthy horses.
“We transport 20,000 passengers a year. We have 11 teams working this summer. All the money we make comes back to The County,” said Carpenter. “Steve’s work helps keep our horses healthy and happy.”
Carpenter brought Luke, 13, and Doc, 12, to this year’s fair.
“They’re Belgian-Suffolk crossbred, from Ohio originally. They’re the best horses I’ve ever owned,” said Carpenter. “I thought they deserved a break, so I brought them to the fair.”
For more information about the carriage rides, call 877-276-3622.
Akeley said he’s in Aroostook frequently and welcomes “new patients.”
“I get up to The County quite often to visit family and attend to clients. If anyone wants more information or to schedule an appointment for an equine dental exam, I can be reached by calling 687-9888,” said Akeley. “I travel throughout the state as well.”