A Day in the Life of an Equine Assistant

Sarah with HorseSince the time I got my first pony when I was a little girl, the importance of equine dentistry has been an aspect of horse care I have known to be very important. Gone are the days of equine doctors trying to struggle to get the job done without a speculum, sedation, assistant, and using hand floats. The oral care our horses receive today has improved drastically and is only going to keep getting better and better. A big part of my role at Avon Animal Hospital is helping equine dentistry go smoothly, for both the client and patient.

Here is a glimpse of what goes into a typical day as an equine assistant, which as it turns out, is the most absolute favourite part of my job!

Sarah with equipmentBehind the scenes: The call comes into the clinic from a barn owner needing dentistries for her group of horses. At the barn, she has her own 5 horses plus 10 boarders. Sounds like a day in paradise to me and the call is scheduled for the next Wednesday, starting at 9 am. The barn owner is going to email in a list of horses and their owners, including the vaccines each horse also requires since most people vaccinate their horses at the time of floating. There are a few new clients and patients as well and the barn owner has agreed to let them know that they need to call in and set up accounts prior to the visit.

During our busy spring and summer season, keeping up with messages and phone calls can be tricky, but it is another part of my job that I do enjoy. Scheduling routine calls with clients that live in the same area and learning where farms are have been a huge learning curve for me. Obviously, it makes no sense to book a call in Stewiacke and then one down in Coldbrook on the same day. It has taken me a lot of years and experience to learn where different farms are located and how to make the most out of our days. Some days we spend all day at the same farm doing 12-15 dentistries, while on another day we may have to spend a fair amount of time travelling and not get nearly as many done.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes! Being prepared for a long day in a barn is essential. The proper clothing, which may not be the most fashion-forward at times, can really make or break your day. I have finally learned after my fair share of cold, wet days that I have no desire to be wishing I had just put on my long johns or grabbed my snow pants on the way out the door. Weather appropriate footwear, hat, and gloves are my besties for winter, early spring and fall calls. All barn folks are in the same boat. Being comfortable allows me to concentrate on my job and not the fact that I’m freezing. During the warmer weather, it sure is a nice time to rock our clinic swag and blunnies.

Paul and Sarah in a car

The morning of: Wednesday morning at 7:30 am I arrive at the clinic and immediately go to the truck to make sure we have all the supplies we need. Stocking up the vaccines and medications, and cleaning supplies. There are also more appointments to be booked and knowing that most horse people are awake bright and early, I take a few minutes to make a few calls and get some appointments booked for the following week. Dr. Doubleday arrives just shortly after me and prepares her notes, reviews files, and makes her plans for the day ahead. After fueling up the truck and grabbing the essential Timmy’s bevie; we are on our way.

Did someone say picnic?? Something else I have learned over the years is that I am a much happier and more productive person when I’m not hungry. Packing lunch with items that are easy to grab while on the go keeps the fuel tank topped up. My job is very physical and it’s not always possible to stop somewhere for lunch. One thing that Dr. Doubleday and I have started doing is taking turns packing lunches for each other when we’re working together. It’s a nice way to treat each other and takes a little of the stress out of having to come up with lunch ideas every day. And hey, food made by someone else always tastes better!


The Arrival: Typically, I am the driver because most times whichever doctor I am travelling with is busy with paperwork and phone calls. We arrive in the yard and I scope out the best place to park so that we are not in the way but that also allows us easy access to the door. More than one trip will be made back to the truck, that’s for sure. We are greeted by a herd, could be small or large, or muddied pawed, wagging tailed farm dogs, and the farm owner. We begin unpacking the supplies we’ll need and make our way into the barn. I begin to set up while the doctor talks to the owner, deciding which horse we’re going to start with while I find water and a power outlet. In most cases, we prefer to work on each horse in their stall. This way once we have finished they can comfortably wake up in a place they are familiar with and we don’t have to move a sedated horse around. It’s also always nice when there is not a mountain of hay in with the horse.

Having a “clean” mouth to start with and then not having to remove all the hay from the stall is a bonus. The swallowing reflex is the last to come back for a horse that has been sedated, so to reduce the risk of a horse choking on their hay they should not be offered food for about an hour (this varies horse to horse) after we are done working on them.

Feeding a HorseFirst up: It is always nice to start with the horse in the barn that is maybe the most anxious or that has never had dentistry before. This way they don’t have to fret watching the others get done and can instead enjoy their nap, waking up with amazing feeling teeth!! In most situations, the owner will put the halter and leadline on and hold the horse while the doctor completes their physical exam and administers the sedation. I have found that horses are more comfortable with their owners being with them for this part, which in turn allows the sedation to do its job easier and better. The calmer the horse is at the time the sedation is given the better it will work. There are times when the owner cannot be present so of course, I am happy to do this part. While the doctor and owner are doing this part I am normally filling our buckets with water needed for rinsing the mouth and cleaning the instruments. I am putting the speculum together and finding us a table to use to help keep our area organized. I also will prepare the vaccines, de-wormer and other medications if needed. All the while keeping my eyes on what is going on inside the stall.

Horse with Two Equine AssistantsOne part of my job that I take extremely seriously is keeping everyone safe. I try to read the horse and get a feel for how they are feeling and acting. We can be pretty intimidating for some horses with all our weird looking tools and smells. Not every horse appreciates the pinch associated with the sedation needle or the invasion of privacy from a rectal thermometer. Horses are beautiful, huge, powerful animals and their reactions can be unpredictable and explosive. We are blessed with the fact that a large number of our patients are gentle and kind but there’s always one in every crowd, as they say, so we like to be careful so that everyone stays safe.

Equine Mouth Rinse with SarahHands on: Now that our patient is happily off to la la land it’s time to get the speculum on and fitted, the mouth rinsed and opened up and Dr. Doubleday can see just what is going on inside. A big heave hoe (because horse heads, especially sedated ones, are very heavy) and we are in position for the doctor to be able to see, feel, and complete the oral exam. We have a large portion of our equine practice that does dentistry on their horses annually which is highly recommended. For the most part, these horses require what we call routine floating. Removing the sharp edges that have formed over the course of a year and check for any abnormalities or concerns that may have popped up. Lots of geldings and stallions like to collect tartar on their canine teeth, so removal of that is performed at this time as well. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this rings so true with horses. Just like people, however, not every horse out there has perfect oral confirmation and they may require a more in-depth float. Extra time and care are allotted for young horses that are having their first float and may have wolf teeth and/or caps that need to be removed, and also senior horses that may require extractions. Once the floating is completed (which happens on the outside edge on the top teeth and closest to the tongue on the bottom) there’s one final look and feel to make sure another happy, healthy year of chewing lies ahead, the speculum is closed and removed. Rinsing the mouth post-float to remove the floated enamel is like the icing on the cake. The halter is put back on and the vaccines are administered. I do like to typically hold onto the horse while they receive their vaccines to once again ensure the safety of the doctor. I’m always watching for an ear flicker or any other sign that our patient may not be happy about what is going on. Often times vaccines are given in the hind end when a horse has been sedated for dentistry, this can also be a bit of a danger zone, so having experience in reading horses allows me to inform the doctor if need be.
Sarah with Horse
Next in line: After wrapping things up with our first horse the instruments are cleaned and prepped for the next patient. The doctor takes a few moments while I’m doing this to record notes for their medical history and records. A look at the list provided by the barn owner tells me which vaccines are needed for the next patient so I can get those organized. Then on to the next patient.

The end of the day: Once the last horse is done and we have turned the once active, vibrant barn into a quiet, snoring, napping barn, at least for the next hour or so, the cleanup and pack up get started. Tools are given a thorough cleaning, totes are repacked, garbage is gathered, and the trek back home is underway. The doctor is very busy returning calls and messages from the day, completing notes and records, as well as filling out logs that record our use of inventory for that day. The drive back to the clinic is often a quiet one, reflecting on the day or thinking about the next day. Back at the shop (as I lovingly refer to the clinic), used supplies are restocked and the truck is tucked in for the night. Just enough time left for a few phone calls to book some more appointments before heading home to my family and my own horses.

Sarah and HorsePerks of the Job: Most people like to think that I have the best job in the world. Getting to spend all day in the barn with horses, what could possibly be better? For the most part, I absolutely agree! Horses of all shapes, sizes, and breeds are my true passion. The smell, the dirt, the physical aspects of the job, getting to see fellow horse people and friends, and of course learning something new every day. All of this helps to keep my job fresh, never ever boring and something I can see myself loving for a long time to come. I truly enjoy seeing the bond that owners have with their horses and the love they have for them. Horse owners have a certain level of pride in their horses and they are always happy to brag on their horse. That joy and sparkle in their eye is a really wonderful thing to see. Most horse people care for their horses 1000 times better then they care for themselves. From nothing but the of the best food, to designer horse clothes, there are some seriously lucky horses living in Nova Scotia.

Obviously, some days are really long and tiring. Some days are just plain hard. But, nothing makes a day at work more rewarding for me than leaving a barn knowing that all the horses are really going to enjoy their supper with their new, fresh, smooth teeth.

By Sarah Murphy