It’s mid-afternoon and Dr. Scott Marx sits hunched over on a barn floor in Weld County. With his headlamp and a pair of blue rubber gloves, he struggles to work inside the mouth of a miniature donkey named Jenny.
“Donkeys usually aren’t that bad. And she was good. It was just her size, it made it difficult,“ said Marx, who specializes in equine dentistry.
Marx has come to the Herman family’s barn to see four horses and one small donkey for a routine check-up. At around $200 per animal, Kristen Herman says it costs about the same as taking her family of four to see the dentist, which they also pay out-of-pocket since they lack the insurance.
“We set money aside and plan ahead for this, definitely,” she said.
At first glance, horse dentistry might appear like any other fad in pet care, right next to canine acupuncture or CBD-infused treats. But horses depend on healthy teeth to chew and properly digest their food. Poor care can lead to malnutrition and even starvation, which is why, Marx explains, horse dentistry had become so advanced at the turn of the 20th century.
“It had to be because that was our transportation, it’s what we used to work in fields,” He says.
Like the tires on a car, maintaining a horse’s mouth was seen as essential. It’s why many of the early veterinary schools in the U.S., including the Chicago Veterinary College, were dedicated to developing the best dental practices.
“A lot of the concepts we now know were known back then,” said Marx. “But once the cars and trucks and tractors came in, a lot of it just kind of went away.”
A former captain in the U.S. Army, Marx always had an interest in working with animals. When he went back to school to study veterinary medicine in the mid-90s, he recalls horse dentistry was something “kind of irrelevant that you had to do.” He didn’t even enjoy it. It wasn’t until he started working at a mixed animal practice that he realized the techniques, which at the time were considered modern, weren’t cutting it.
Imagine, says Marx, if your own dentist didn’t carry out a full exam.
“(If) he didn’t shine a bright light in your mouth. Didn’t use a mirror. Took a finger and rubbed them on your front teeth and said your fine go home. What would you think of the quality of that examination?” he asks.
Typically, horses receive a treatment commonly referred to as “floating” (or rasping), but Marx explains to do this, many vets don’t even look inside the animal’s mouth.
Over the last 20 years, he’s helped rebuild the field of equine dentistry. Together with another vet specialist, Marx teaches these techniques in seminars around the U.S. and the world — from Canada to the Caribbean.
While he works, he wears gray scrubs and a face mask; his work boots are the only hint that he spends most of his time out on farms. And just like a human dentist, Marx keeps digital records of all his patients.
Hickory, a brown Quarter horse, is led by his owner to what would be the dentist’s chair for humans, only in this case it’s a narrow-padded stall set up in the center of the barn. He’s given a sedative but remains standing. Once it kicks in, Hickory’s eyes droop and Marx rests his head a top a stand and inserts a speculum to prop his mouth open. The beam from his headlamp reveals two deep rows of teeth, thick and square like yellowed piano keys.
Horses have between 36 and 44 teeth, around four inches long; most of that length sits below the gums in the jaw and skull bones. As the horse chews on a coarse diet of grains and plant roughage, the teeth naturally wear down in certain spots and new tooth fills in to take its place. But over time, excess growth can create sharp points that cut the inside of the animal’s mouth or cause an uneven bite.
It’s been nearly two years since Hickory’s seen a dentist — the official recommendation is once every 12 months. As Marx looks around, he notices things appear to be in pretty good shape.
“Even with those sharp points, his cheeks really aren’t cut,” he says.
Just like when a human dentist uses a file to even out a tooth after a new filling, Marx shaves off the overgrowth, careful not to remove anything that’s considered normal length or short. To do this, he uses several modified power tools: electric drills with small files attached at the ends. A leader in the field, he’s even consulted on some of the designs.
Over the sharp whine of drills, Stephanie Malman, a veterinary technician, pulls Hickory's tongue off to the side and offers a bit of comfort. Combing his ears, she murmurs, “It’s okay, buddy.”
A horse owner herself, Malman says it helps them relax.
“I think just in general talking to them and stuff like that they just respond,” said Malman.
All the while, owner Kristine Herman stands off to the side. She’s set most of her day aside for this appointment and wants to be nearby in case something unexpected comes up. She says this sort of thing is a “mom job.”
“You got to take care of them just like your kids,” she laughs. “Make sure they’re ok.”
While the typical vet might use a few hand files, they can’t be as precise as Marx, with his electric tools, speculum and even a giant version of the dentist’s mirror. When necessary, Marx can also take X-rays and perform root canals. And he’s constantly on the lookout for gum disease, which is quite common in older horses.
After finishing up, Marx rinses out Hickory’s mouth and givens him an anti-inflammatory. He can’t eat for the next few hours while the sedative wears off.
As one of just a handful of specialists in the state, Marx and his partner are typically booked two months out. A lot of their time, says Marx, is spent driving to see patients across the state.
As he packs up his mobile clinic and wheels his toolbox into the trailer that doubles as his office, I ask Marx who has the harder job, human dentists or horse dentists?
“Us,” says Marx. “No question.”