Ed Pearson slowly pries open the mouth of his patient. He wiggles his slender fingers past the front teeth and pushes his hand over a foot-long gray and pink tongue. With his entire forearm stuck inside the mouth, he bends his knees and angles a small flashlight attached to the brim of his beige baseball cap.
"There it is!" Pearson says, smiling as he rubs his fingers along the gums. He pulls a foot-long pair of cutters from his bucket, wiggles them inside the mouth and squeezes hard, his face turning slightly red.
Pop! Out comes a two-inch-long, blackish tooth.
Pearson's patient, though heavily sedated, stumbles backward from the sudden force. But the discomfort is worth it. The overgrown molar was preventing Katie Jean, a 1,100-pound Belgian mare, from grinding and swallowing all her food and had caused her to lose 500 pounds.
Pearson, 40, traveled 8,000 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, to Loudoun County to learn how to do just this. He is one of six students at the two-year-old American School of Equine Dentistry in the Loudoun community of Neersville, one of only a handful of such schools in the world.
"You can't learn this where I come from," says Pearson, who has worked for 21 years as a blacksmith in between jobs running oil rigs and who learned about the course in Loudoun through the Internet. "You either have to import someone who knows how to do this or come and learn it."
Veterinarian Raymond Hyde, 43, set up the school, turning an abandoned barn behind his stone house off Harpers Ferry Road into a three-bedroom cottage for his students. A cinder-block classroom in the basement is filled with his collection of horse skulls.
"They've all either got a lot of nerve or a lot of stupidity to try this," Hyde said of his students. "It's not easy. It takes guts."
Even with sedation, working inside a horse's mouth can be dangerous. If a horse kicks or rears its head back, the metal bit used to keep its mouth open can slip off, enabling the animal to bite someone.
Besides Pearson, Hyde's current class consists of a vet from Austria, an accountant-turned-vet from Maine, a Southern Virginia horse trainer, a recent business major graduate from Connecticut and a Baltimore native who once showed horses. In his November class, Hyde will have students from Alaska, Greece and Turkey.
It used to be routine for vets and blacksmiths to work on horses' teeth, often using a foot-long file, but it became a lost art when tractors replaced horses in plowing fields. Now, however, with the growing popularity of pleasure horseback riding, showing and racing, there has been a resurgence both in the horse population and in the demand for equine dental services.
Increasingly, horse breeders and trainers have realized that their animals will perform better if their teeth are taken care of on a routine basis. And equipment developed in the last five years, including special drills and forceps with extra-long handles, has made it easier and faster to do the work.
"We took it from a hard, sweaty, $10 job to a $200-a-horse, respectable job," said Tony Basil, president of the International Association of Equine Dental Technicians, who has been practicing horse dentistry for 30 years. "Now everybody wants in on it."
There are only about 40 certified equine dental technicians in the United States. But the number of "lay dentists"--those who lack certification but have learned some dental work through apprenticeships with vets--is estimated to be much higher. In Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia alone, there are 25 lay dentists, and that number has more than doubled in the last decade, said David Butts, director of a Florida equine dental group.
At the Loudoun school, students pay $3,500 for a four-week course to spend 10 to 12 hours a day with Hyde on routine calls to horse owners' barns. About a week is spent in the classroom going over horse anatomy.
In a 12-by-12-foot stall at a riding center in Thurmont, Md., Shawn Thacker, 27, peers into the mouth of a 1,000-pound Arabian horse named Shammar and inserts a drill with burrs on the end. Two of Thacker's classmates hold the wobbly animal as Hyde looks on.
"Yup. She's got some teeth in there giving her some discomfort," says Thacker, the trainer from Amherst, Va. One of Shammar's teeth is so sharp that it's difficult to fit the bit in her mouth and painful for her to turn to the right when ridden. It is Thacker's job to grind down the offending teeth.
Twenty minutes later, Thacker, who started training horses at age 15, gets an approving nod from Hyde after the teacher has run his fingers over Thacker's handiwork.
Thacker wipes the fog from the horse's breath off his glasses, spits his wintergreen tobacco and smiles. He says, "I'm going to throw all my shoeing tools into the river and go into teeth."
Straight From the Horses' Mouth
Equine dentistry has evolved into a highly specialized field that is drawing students from all over the world to Loudoun County to learn. Virginia horse breeders and trainers are recognizing their animals eat more easily and perform better if their teeth are taken care of on a routine basis.
Most horses have 42 teeth (humans have 32) that are typically about three inches long and grow about an eighth of an inch a year. Equine dental technicians can determine the relative health of a horse, as well as its age, by examining the teeth.
Each tooth is composed of a crown and a root. Where a human tooth is covered in enamel, horses are endowed with a special enamel that grows inside the tooth called infundibulum. The infundibulum strengthens each tooth, allowing the horse to grind its food with ease.
A horse's teeth wear down at a rate of 2 to 3 mm a year. Uneven wear can leave a horse's mouth unbalanced. Dental technicians must "float" or file teeth down to get rid of any sharp edges. If they are not floated, a tooth can develop "hooks" that make it painful for a horse to eat. As horses age, the roots of their teeth get shorter. By the time they reach 30, it is not uncommon for a horse to have teeth fall out.
SOURCES: Richard Hyde; "Veterinary Anatomy: The Horse," by Raymond R. Ashdown, Stanley H. Done; "The Veterinary Clinics of North America Equine Practice," Edited by Earl M. Gaughan and Richard M. DeBowes