Read as Geoff Tucker, DVM, talks about his career as an Equine Dentist. Find him at http://www.theequinepractice.com/ and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a veterinarian with a practice limited to equine dentistry. This is a complex subject due to many different points of view as well as a patchwork of state laws so please read this entire article.
How would you describe what you do?
Horses chew between 10,000 to 40,000 times a day. Their teeth erupt throughout life replacing worn off tooth from the chewing. Imagine a mechanical pencil where you click out more lead as you write. Also imagine writing without turning the pencil which creates a longer and sharper side. This long and sharp side rubs against the cheek and tongue creating pain and even abrasions called oral ulcers. What I do is remove this long and sharp side of the horse’s tooth on a regular basis to keep the horse pain free.
What does your work entail?
I travel to farms covering states from Florida to New York. I use horsemanship to connect with the horses allowing me to insert a carbide steel file into their mouths and rasp off the sharp edges. On occasion there are problems with the teeth that I work to correct. Horses between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years of age lose 24 baby teeth which I often help to remove.
What’s a typical work week like?
If I am within 2 hours of my home, I will leave about 7 to 7:30 and work on about 10 to 15 horses every day. I return home between 5 and 8.
If I am “on the road” I will sometimes drive for 12 to 15 hours or I will fly. I take no days off when I travel and will work 8 to 16 days in a row.
Some days I will work on one horse and drive the rest of the day while other days I will stay near one barn with 40 horses and work for several days.
You can see that there is no “typical week” for me. However, even though I work hard, I do schedule in days off. See a later question about time off.
How did you get started?
One day during my third year in Vet School (out of four years) my mentor showed me how to float horse teeth. He said that it was an important part of veterinary medicine. I believed him.
During the summer between my 3rd and 4th year I worked at an equine veterinary practice. From 6:00 to 7:30 in the morning I would go to a large race horse training facility and float a few horses each morning before going to the practice for the day’s work.
All during my final year in vet school I would find horses to float in the area as well as the school’s horses. I learned a lot through trial and error. There were no dentistry schools then. I may not have done a thorough job but I was hooked on it. Equine dentistry became a regular part of my equine practice that I started upon graduation in 1984.
What do you like about what you do?
I like connecting with the horse through horsemanship. I like removing the cause of the horse’s oral pain. The horse often places his face into my chest offering gratitude. I also enjoy the positive feedback from the owner as the chewing or bit issues resolve themselves after my work.
What do you dislike?
I honestly do not dislike anything about what I do.
There are some owners who disrespect me and my time. There are some horses that do not appreciate what I do but usually this is because they don’t like men, vets, strangers, or all of the above. Also scheduling people that live so far apart is often trying especially with my quest to arrive on time. However, these types of things can be found in any business.
I do have a strong dislike for anyone who says bad things about another person’s work behind their back. In equine dentistry many appear as an expert by putting down another person’s work rather than standing on their own abilities. Integrity is lacking in so many professions and unfortunately it is hit or miss in equine dentistry.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I am paid for the work I do on the horse. I do not charge for the visit to the farm and I do not charge for exams with no work. I have additional charges for work beyond the normal routine such as broken teeth, extractions, and medications.
How much money do Equine Dentists make?
My income is per float so the more horses I see, the higher my income. Equine dentists starting out usually charge less. I have seen it as low as $35 per horse. Some equine dentists charge as much as $500 per horse but these usually include X-rays plus intra-oral photographs, sedation, and other specialties. An average is $125 but it really depends on your experience and reputation.
If you do 1 horse a day, 365 horses a year, at $100, then your gross income will be $36,500 per year. This is very attainable.
Your expenses include a vehicle, insurance, maintenance, and fuel. Additionally, there are the cost of the blades which have a limited life. Finally, there is the initial cost of training and equipment amortized over time. Basically, the costs are low and the revenue is high.
If you work for another dentist as you start your career you will be paid less due to the risk you pose as an employee. You may earn from $10 per horse on up depending on your arrangement.
I have had many people ask me to teach them equine dentistry but find they are only looking to make money. While this is the purpose of a job, we need to remember that we are working with living and breathing animals that require us to not just look at them as a revenue machine, but as an individual seeking help. If you become good at helping horses through equine dentistry, your income will rise. If it is just about the money, then be prepared to be overworked and underpaid.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
When I decided to limit my vet practice to equine dentistry in 1998 I earned $50 per horse and aimed for 30 horses per month. That calculates to $1500 per month and $18,000 per year from which I had to take out my expenses. By two years I had tripled this but my expenses also rose.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
This is an issue. Before 1995 anyone could float teeth with no repercussions from the vets.
In every state there is a veterinary practice act which you will need to Google and read. These acts have either been modified or clarified regarding floating teeth as an act of veterinary medicine. Before 1998, only veterinarians were allowed to perform dentistry on any animal. Since then, several states have allowed non-veterinarians to perform routine floating without the use of drugs and without advanced procedures. Some states allow non-veterinarians that have graduated from certain dentistry schools to register which allows them to do all dentistry. Some states allow non-veterinarians to work under the direct supervision of a veterinarian (the vet is in the barn at the same time).
I practice horsemanship based equine dentistry where the most important skill is horsemanship learned by working with lots of horses. The techniques of dentistry are skills that can be learned from apprenticing. I am working on an online equine dentistry school which will teach these skills.
There are several schools of equine dentistry located throughout the United States. My issue with these schools is that there is no independent oversight of what they teach and students believe what they are taught without question.
Becoming a veterinarian requires 3 to 4 years of undergraduate college followed by 4 years of veterinary school. This is the best approach to becoming a complete equine dentist. However, being a non-veterinary equine dentist working directly with a veterinarian with a practice limited to equine dentistry is just as good if becoming a vet is out of the question.
What is most challenging about what you do?
There are 3 challenges. 1) making the connection with the horse. 2) making the client happy. 3) scheduling, especially if it is over a large geographical area.
What is most rewarding?
Making the connection with the horse is the juice that keeps me excited to go to work every day even after doing this for 29 years. Seeing the skeptic horse owner look in disbelief as I float their horse that everyone else had to drug heavily to do. Watching the owner as the horse lowers their head into my chest with eyes closed as the relief from pain is realized. The laugh and relaxation from the nervous new owner is palpable.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
First – check the laws in your state. In the spring of 2012 a non-veterinary equine dentist was arrested in Missouri for practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
Second – hang out with several different equine dentists to find out what their beliefs and philosophies are. Look for people who do quality and professional work and who respect the horses and their owners.
Third – Go to vet school and/or apprentice with a good equine dentist. If you think going to an equine dentistry school is the best route for you, then carefully evaluate each of them and talk with their graduates.
How much time off do you get/take?
I take as much time off as necessary to keep everyone around me happy.
The horse business is seasonal especially if the niche you find involves showing. There are certain months where we can find little time to stop while other months we work only half weeks.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Most people underestimate the importance of removing oral pain from the horse through good equine dentistry. They wait unit there is a problem with the horse rather than develop a preventive attitude. The big reason for this is the owner cannot see the changes inside the mouth as they can see the growth of the horse’s hooves. In addition, the horse continues to eat well even when problems are arising.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I would like to develop an online equine dentistry course where anyone worldwide could be told how to inspect the mouth and address some of the problems there. I believe that any effort to help the horse is better than ignoring a problem by not doing something.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
I am still passionate about equine dentistry after performing about 50,000 floats since 1983. I believe there are thousands of horses that I pass as I go to a farm that has hired me that will never see a dentist. If you start a career in equine dentistry remember it is a process. You will start with the “bad” horses before you move up to the “fancy” or “important” horses. I have personally worked on horses competing in the Olympics and that have won the Kentucky Derby. However, I started out with the “nobodies” and I learned the following:
1) Every mouth needs attention, and every horse has a personal perception of how much pain they are in.
2) Every horse has a person attached to it. I have never had a horse write me a check.
3) Every dollar earned, no matter where it came from, still spends the same. Do as many horses as you can to pay your bills and achieve your dreams, but avoid the influence of equine status. All horses need you and there are plenty of horses to work on.