Because he’s used to comments like this when people find out what he does for a living, Joseph Holownia just smiles and says that no, he does not floss horses’ teeth.
It’s a fair question because how often do you run into an equine dentist?
“There are not many of us,” the 30-year-old admits, “and there are even less of us who are officially trained and certified.”
Born and raised in Sackville, NS, Joseph went to Mount Allison University to swim competitively. Realizing his degree in Canadian Studies in Geography limited his career options, he turned to what he’d known all his life.
“I had a mother and a sister who were really into horses,” he explains. “By default I was a rider growing up. Because of that, because I’d grown up around horses and knew how to work with them and had that interest, I ventured on into equine dentistry.”
He completed the two-year program at the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho then returned to Canada to become a veterinary technician.
“The laws in this country governing dental work are different than in the States so by becoming a technician, I cover all my bases on the legal aspect of it so I can do what I do and not have someone say ‘That’s veterinary medicine and you’re not a doctor’,” he explains.
When the equine dentist who’d been in this area moved to Montreal, that left a vacancy in this area and Joseph now works at the Northumberland Veterinary Services in Pugwash.
“Vets all can do equine dental work,” Joseph says, “but it’s the difference between a couple of pages in the textbook versus entire books and courses. In vet school, we were strictly nose-to-ears and equine dentistry is a specialty. On top of that, the equipment is quite expensive so if you’re not using it on a regular basis, you generally don’t invest in the high-end specialty equip.”
Being a dentist who works on horses (and llamas and alpacas and even cows if he needs to) is a lot like being a dentist who works on humans but with two major differences: the way the teeth come in, and how the horses are handled.
“Horses have teeth that don’t really grow,” Joseph explains. “They are fully formed but they are hidden in their jaw and they erupt out as the horse gets older. In the wild, they eat in their natural position with their head down and they pull grass and forage and get enough grit from the dirt that they wear their teeth at the same rate as the teeth are erupting at. But since we’ve put horses into captivity, we feed them in their stalls twice a day and that has changed the position of their teeth as they eat. They now are no longer wearing their teeth at the proper rate and at the proper angles. On top of that, we’ve started feeding them processed foods with molasses and corn which causes them to have periodontal disease, and tartar and plaque buildup. So roughly once a year, a horse needs to have its teeth realigned and scaled.”
But it’s not as if you can lay a horse back in an extra-large chair to work on it.
“There are horses who will let you float [grind] their teeth unsedated. Personally, I’m of the mind that you’re not going to get the quality of work regardless of how well-behaved your horse is if they’re not sedated. You’re working with millimeters you’re trying to take off so the slightest head toss really makes difficult to get the point off that tooth.”
Sedation does not knock them out -- “They’re standing kind of drunk,” says Joseph -- but it has to be a pretty fine line between sedated upright and sedated lying down.
With a grin, he agrees.
“You don’t want to be to close to the not-upright line because they’re pretty big to hold up.”
A horse-sized speculum fits over the horse’s incisors and ratchets the mouth open so Joseph can safely reach all the way to the back of the horse’s mouth.
“People are astounded that I’m brave enough or foolish enough to stick my arm up into a horse’s mouth,” he says. “I know people who have lost digits in dentistry accidents so it is possible. I count my blessings every day,” he laughs while waggling his fingers, “when I come home with all of them.”
Home is in Westchester where he now lives with his girlfriend and three dogs.
But no horses.
“I don’t really feel a huge urge or need to have horses at my house,” he admits. “I do enjoy them but I’m not interested in continuing on in the competitive show world.”
It turns out that claiming that he ‘grew up around horses’ is an understatement. Joseph says that to keep him interested in horses, his mother signed him up for the Modern Pentathalon competition. One of the oldest sports in the modern Olympics, it involves five sports: fencing, swimming, riding and a combined event of running and pistol shooting.
“I was 11 or 12 when I started competing in that and went on to be youth national champion a couple of times and I was on the junior Canadian team for a few years.”
He competed in Modern Pentathalon for 10 years, travelling across North and South America as well as Europe but now Joseph now attends horse shows simply as the dentist. He enjoys his unique job, enjoys the challenge presented by each horse’s special issues and he’s content with working in Nova Scotia.
“I enjoy travelling and I’ve been fortunate, mostly due to competitive sports, to have been able to travel all over North America and Europe,” he says, “but I do like coming home so I’m not sure that I will ever completely move away. I do continue to travel and I could probably do without the winters.”
That might make the seed of an idea sprout into a bigger plan.
“I have some desire to go and work, maybe even pro bono, in less-developed South American countries where they have horses both as pets and work animals,” Joseph says. “On several of my trips to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, I saw horses in dire, dire need of dental work. Although here we like to push for the ‘full meal deal’, a little bit does go a long way especially when they’re at the point where they can no longer eat.”