How Sedation-Free Equine Dentistry Works

An Approach Grounded in Equine Behavior

woman brushing horse teeth

I am so excited to introduce Eleni Ingalls of Sunshine Equine Dentistry, located here in Florida. I first discovered her work when I was looking for no-sedation dentistry for my mare Gracie, and though at first I was a little skeptical that a no-sedation hand float would work on my skittish and temperamental horse, I was really pleased by the results. Not just the technical results of my horse's teeth being filed, but the experience for the horse -- it was way less stressful for everyone involved! Now I sing Eleni's praises to anyone who will listen, and my new mare Lilly sees her every year for her scheduled float. What I really value about Eleni's approach is that it's grounded in natural horsemanship methods -- something I talk about on this site and which directly corresponds to the understanding of equine behavior. I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out exactly why and how Eleni does what she does.

Q: I’m curious about how you got into equine dentistry in the first place. What inspired you to go into the field?

A: As a young girl I always had a passion for horses and strived to, one day, have a career built around them. Throughout my childhood I was told by many people that I “had a way” with animals. As a naïve child I took this to heart; I very much believed my life would be surrounded by animals at all times! I had an amazing opportunity to work for a husband and wife team who had a hobby farm of 30 horses. It was there that my education around horses started to catch up with my passion. They taught me all of the basics and really stressed that the most important part about being with a horse is the connection. I was able to put my skills to the test with a foal named Mira - she wasn't supposed to survive, hence the name. Mira became my project to train. With guidance from my mentors I was able to successfully train her from the ground up.

After high school I moved onto college in pursuit of an Equine Studies degree at SUNY Cobleskill. It had all the typical classes one would think to be involved in that degree, however there was one class that captivated me beyond anything ever before. This class was called Tackless Training. Here we learned about equine behavior and how to use it to aid in training with zero tack. That’s right, no halters, saddles or bridles. We experimented with clicker training and used our technique of free lunging to train the horse to ride. I spent all my free time studying this and putting it to the test. The results amazed me and I knew that this is how I wanted to communicate with horses from here on out. To put it in simpler terms, you can think of it as a mutual respect between us.

After school I had a big life change as I moved states. My dreams of being successful in the horse industry came crashing down and I lost touch with my future for a bit. After working a few dead end jobs, I said to myself “there has to be more to life than this”. One night while mindlessly searching on the internet, I came across Geoff Tucker and his technique of dentistry. I was instantly captivated, just as I was the first time I saw Tackless Training. I knew I needed to learn Horsemanship Dentistry.

Q: Can you explain the philosophy of no-sedation dentistry?

A: It is performed with no sedation and with no speculum to hold the horse’s mouth open. What makes this possible is the communication developed between me and the horse. Now while every horse is different, there are four main categories that each horse fits into. Right or Left brained, and Extroverted or Introverted. A horse can move through these categories during any given time, however each horse has an innate one, for example my mare Rocket is a Left brained Extrovert but she has many Right brain tendencies which makes her quite overreactive.

So how do I get my job done? I have to make a connection with the horse before I begin - this is done within the first 30 seconds or so and you’ll likely never notice it. I notice how the horse looks. Are his eyes wide? Is he distracted? This gives me a baseline on how to proceed. Some horses are extremely confident and require me to be a very confident and firm leader, others are reserved and insecure which requires me to bring my energy level as low as it can go while still giving them the confidence they need to follow my lead. You will oftentimes hear me actually speaking to the horse as if they were a human, believe me they understand everything I am saying. As soon as I begin to take their oral pain away, they are so grateful. This is what I live for. There is just something about having a 1000+lb animal melt into your hands that you will never get tired of.

Q: What's the difference between what you do and other types of equine dentistry?

A: There is the horsemanship approach and there is sedation. I am not here to discredit sedation dentistry because there is a need for it. I am here to help you make the best choice for your horse. When we sedate a horse, we are no longer able to receive feedback from that horse. I believe the feedback we get from a willing partner is so much more than just peering into their mouth. Being able to feel exactly what the horse feels tells me a greater story than viewing with my eyes. And let's face it, the horse appreciates being a partner rather than a patient.

Now like I said before, we do still have a need for sedation. If the horse needs an extraction or they are just too painful to handle a float then that would be cause for sedation. I have stuck my hands in a few mouths that needed more than I could provide.

Q: I know a lot of people are hesitant to hire a hand floater for a variety of reasons. What would you tell those people to convince them or put their minds at ease? 

A: Many horse owners are skeptical because it is different. I want to tell you that seeing is believing and once you see how grateful your horse is you won't ever look back. I do my best to narrate the visit in a way that horse owners can understand and relate with, leaving them informed and at ease knowing their horse is free of dental pain.

Q: Finally, what is the #1 thing you would like horse owners to know about taking care of their horses’ dental health?

A: Equine Dentistry is so important to the well-being of our horses. It should never be overlooked. Horses chew on average 25,000 times a day, humans chew about 2000 times a day. Can you imagine chewing more than 12x more with sharp teeth rubbing ulcers into your cheeks? I know I wouldn’t want to! So please, get your horse seen at least once a year. They will thank you!


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