Most horse owners will have no issue paying for the services of a farrier every six weeks, but some can miss an equally important aspect of horse care – a horse’s teeth. “It’s one of the easiest things to do, to check teeth, but sometimes it’s overlooked,” says equine dentist Maria O’Rourke.
O’Rourke is passionate about her job, and these are wise words for owners. From thoroughbreds, to sport horses, donkeys and Shetlands, this advice applies to all equines.
Over the past 10 years the Dublin native has travelled throughout Leinster, and sometimes beyond, sharing her knowledge which she honed while studying equine dentistry in the US.
“Sadly there’s nowhere in Ireland to train, so I had to travel to the American School of Equine Dentistry in West Virginia.”
O’Rourke explained. Her only other options were a four-year degree, or a crash course over one weekend, both in the UK. Neither were workable and so she enrolled in a 12-week course which later allowed her to practice here at home.
Some years earlier O’Rourke had qualified as a human dental nurse and hygienist in the UK and was busy working at various clinics in Dublin. It was only when a friend said that she had found it difficult to get someone to treat her horse did it spark an interest.
“I had been involved in horses from a young age, but equine dentistry was never on my radar, so I went home and did a search online. That is when the course in the States popped up. I asked a few people and it was the best option.
“I was already working as a dental hygienist, so I just needed time off, which my employers kindly gave me. My parents had both died and left me money which afforded me [the opportunity] to travel to the States.”
O’Rourke said that while her qualification in dental hygiene was advantageous, being confident around horses was even more important. At that time there were very few equine dentists in Ireland.
When O’Rourke returned from the US she continued to work as a hygienist while building up a book of equine clients. She continued in the same vein until 2021 when her equine patients outgrew her human equivalents.
“It was a risk to leave the part-time work, but thankfully the horses became very busy,” she said.
Nowadays O’Rourke has regular clients throughout Leinster, with some also in Tipperary, Kilkenny and Roscommon.
Given the number of equines in Ireland, it is surprising that it is only in the last 20 years that equine dentists have increased in numbers. The lack of a training facility here is undoubtedly a factor.
The Equine Dental Association of Ireland (EDAI) is now an important support network for all practicing dentists. “It can be a lonely job and we are all self-employed, but the EDAI offers support and advice when needed.”
Equine dentists like Maria O‘Rourke can offer most services, but sedation of horses is strictly forbidden. “I still get asked about it quite a lot but most people should know by now that this can only be performed by a vet.”
O’Rourke notes that while some vets will carry out routine dental work on horses, others don’t and this is where they need to work together. For horses needing wolf teeth extraction, it often requires a vet to sedate the animal.
Either the vet – if willing – or an equine dentist can then carry out the procedure.
O’Rourke said that in more recent years power tools have become popular with dentists, but she prefers to use hand tools in most situations.
“For example some horses only need slight rasping and it’s important to make sure their teeth are left a bit rough so they can chew their food properly.”
As we head into the spring O’Rourke reminds owners to pencil in their equine dentist for a routine check-up. Young horses, especially, need to be seen twice a year, to ensure that caps (baby teeth) have been shed to allow for the growth of their permanent teeth.
“Sometimes there’s a problem such as a horse misbehaving and the teeth are the last thing an owner might check. Horses can get sharp points and ulcers which can lead to so many other problems, so it’s important to tackle these sooner rather than later,” she concluded.