Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Can there be Equine Dentistry Without Drama? Geoff Tucker says YES!

This article was originally published in June 2009. It has now been dusted off and re-published as part of November 2011’s “You Look Familiar” Series. Enjoy!

By Larissa Cox

Geoff Tucker is a different kind of Equine Dentist. He has floated over 40,000 horse’s teeth using only hand tools and rarely uses sedatives. He uses good horsemanship and principles of respect to have the horse allow him to run his hands inside their mouths to feel each and every tooth. It is equine dentistry without power tools, equine dentistry without sedating horses, indeed, it is Equine Dentistry Without Drama™.

geoff tucker large

Why do you call your practice “Equine Dentistry Without Drama™”?

In 1983 when I was introduced to equine dentistry by my mentor at the Cornell vet school, the only power was muscle.

geoff tucker 1974

In the 1990’s an electric Makita reciprocating saw was adapted to move the float blade with the only purpose of making it easier for the person doing the floating.
Toward the end of the 90’s, several non-veterinary equine dentists saw their opportunity to adopt power tools and to develop new techniques and establish new theories in equine dentistry. The veterinarians were slow to respond. Once the vets got up to speed, several procedures developed by the non-vet dentists were already established and sounded good. They were adopted by veterinarians with little scrutiny. What was determined was that the new power tool approach was physically easier and therefore more appealing to veterinarians. Thus, in a short time, horsemanship skills were quickly replaced with mechanic’s skills almost without question.

Are you feeling the drama yet? There’s more!
In the late 90’s I was a member of the New York State Equine Practice Committee where we discussed the legality of non veterinary equine dentists. At the time they were practicing veterinary medicine without a license which is a felony. In fact, at the time, this was the case in every state. The Committee concluded that the law would have to be changed and there was not enough interest from the vets to do that. The committee made no changes yet did not enforce the law. Right after this, in 1998, I started to limit my practice to equine dentistry.
Since 1998 2 things have happened. 1) Several states now allow some sort of equine dentistry by non-veterinarians. Each state is different. 2) The vets are playing catch up.
In the haste to make equine dentistry appear more important and glamorous, several observations were made and conclusions drawn (called anecdotal based medicine). For example, cutting the front teeth to make them level (incisor reduction) was invented one day by a non-veterinarian as a “new profit center” (as he told my friend 20 years ago). None the less, incisor reduction was accepted and has led to new theories such as lateral excursion of the jaw and equilibration of the mouth. Yet one of the leading researchers of equine dentistry in Europe as well as the AAEP have both stated they are “moving away” from performing incisor reductions. Why? No evidence that it is necessary (evidenced base medicine) and horses have died from it.

My practice is called Equine Dentistry Without Drama™ because it is based on the use of horsemanship and on the removal of pain from the horse’s mouth. There is no application of unproven theories. There are no procedures done that risk injuring the horse such as neck lesions associated with an over drugged horse whose head is suspended from the ceiling. There is no jacking the mouth open, hanging the head from the ceiling, drugging the horse to another planet, or any other big production that looks more like auto mechanics than the care and compassion of good old fashioned horsemanship.

What approach do you use in your practice that is different from typical equine dentistry?

Geoff working on a horseMy approach is two fold. One is for the client who asked me to the barn and is paying me and the other is to the horse who is bigger than me and can kill me.
For the client, I remain calm and confident, show up on time, am respectful, and strive to leave them with this one thought – that was worth it and I want him back. I give them everything I would want if I were in their shoes.
For the horse, I first ask permission, I show respect, I seek respect, I provide leadership to the level they are comfortable with, and I analyze their personality. This takes a few seconds. We reach a mutual understanding and then I start working. This process evolves as I float. Most horses “get it” but some don’t. I am a man and a vet which for some horses are two strikes against me. They may have too much baggage, but many overcome it without medication.
During the floating process I find the areas causing pain in the mouth. I try to remove these causes first so the horse can connect what I am doing to what he is feeling. Often, when the connection is made, the horse’s head will lower and he will become relaxed. By the time I am done, his forehead usually is pressed into my chest while he calmly licks his lips.

Is it true that you rarely use sedatives?

The drugs I give are potent pain killers, not just sedatives. When I give medication to a horse, it is because he requested it and not just to make my life easier. It is to relieve pain in a horse that cannot tolerate it or for a painful procedure such as an extraction.
For these reasons I find I medicate about 1 in 10 horses. There are some barns where the horses are less tolerant and I may need to medicate a higher percentage. Some horses have anxiety from past experiences that need to be medicated every time.
If I were just starting my career as an equine dentist, I would probably sedate more until my technique became good. Floating over 40,000 horses has allowed me to develop skills and muscles making it easier to connect with the horse. So medicating 10% of the patients is probably an exception brought about by my experience. However, automatically drugging each and every horse is wrong. What these practitioners are missing is the feedback each horse gives as you find the problem spots.

What do you feel is the most rewarding experience in your equine dentistry practice?

Easily, it is the response from the horse that he gives me after realizing I removed the sources of pain in his mouth. Secondarily, having horse owners refer me because of their good experience.

What advice do you have for horse owners for preventing mouth or bit issues in their horses?

Prevention is the key. Determine how often your horse needs floating. This is based more on perceived pain than actual development of sharp edges. For most horses it is somewhere between 6 and 12 months. Stick to the plan and get the horse comfortable BEFORE sharp points develop. If you spend time and money training your horse, don’t waste that time or money fighting your horse’s pain. How can an orchestra sound good if some of the instruments are not in tune? And they tune constantly!
Some say they can’t afford the equine dentist. I think you waste money AND time if you don’t float the teeth. Some say they can’t find a good dentist. I think it is time horse owners found out what a good dentist is and then start to demand that level of expertise from their dentist or vet. As my mentor pointed out to me in 1983, equine dentistry is an important part of veterinary medicine and should be included in the proper care of the horse.

What advice can you give horse owners to be able to identify “good dentistry” as opposed to dentistry that may ultimately cause harm to their horse?

The definition of good dentistry may be like the one for a good hair cut – open to interpretation and opinion. We should all agree that no harm to the horse is a rule. But neck injuries may be months later before appearing and certainly don’t occur in most horses. Some horses have difficulty chewing for up to a week as they learn to use their teeth pain free.
From my experience, you need to listen to your gut and to become educated. It is easier to bamboozle the ignorant. But for many, there is no choice. You trust your vet in everything, yet he or your local equine dentist does dramatic dentistry. Is it better than no dentistry? Yes it is – bottom line. However, I am assuming a competent job is done.
While this question is addressing the harm to horses from technique, I need to say that paying any price for a poorly done float harms the owner paying for the work.
Word of mouth recommendation is the best way to identify a good equine dentist. When he or she arrives at your barn, keep an open mind and then listen to your gut as it assesses the event. Finally, look at the horse for an immediate response as well as over the next few days. At the end of it all, you should be saying – It was worth it; I want that equine dentist back; and I need to tell my friends about my good experience.

geoff tucker with truck

For more information on Geoff, please visit his website, or follow him on twitter.

Happy Riding!



  Amparo wrote @

Book-marked, I really like your blog! 🙂

  Lynn Purcell wrote @

I totally agree with hand dentistry by an equine dentist! We recently purchased a 5 year old and her teeth had only been done by a vet previously and with sedation. So when our dentist started on her she was a little unsure but just like Geoff said in his article as he worked to remove the painful spots her head relaxed and she seemed to reach out to the dentist. She tolerated the complete procedure without any meds and actually seemed to be enjoying it for the most part.

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