Are Drugs Necessary To Float A Horse?

Geoff Tucker, DVM EDWD Post Leave a Comment

Medication Should Be Used When The Horse Asks For It, Not For Convenience Of The Operator

I use medication in about 15% of the horses I float. Many people think that I don’t believe in their use. I do believe in their use, but for a different reason than what people expect. There is a basic misunderstanding of why drugs are used for floating.

The drugs I use are potent pain killers in the horse’s mouth. Within a minute after giving the drug, I can start floating most horses that would not otherwise allow me to. However, the 85% not needing drugs are much like the humans receiving a routine cleaning at their dentist.

Today, modern equine dentists automatically drug the horse with a sedative. My guess is that it makes their job easier and therefore allows them to do a better job in reaching all areas of the mouth. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Unfortunately they often overdose the horse. This is where the misunderstanding occurs. Why do they drug a horse that would not need medicating and why are they over sedating? I am not sure. One thing is certain. Pain killing medication given intravenously is necessary to control pain in about 15% of the horses. These include tooth extractions, fractured teeth, and sensitive horses with ulcerations of the cheeks.

The Threshold Of Pain

This is a good time to describe what I call the threshold of pain. Imagine a pebble in your shoe and the same pebble in your friend’s shoe. You both start running. One of you cries out in pain while the other keeps running without any problem. It is the same pebble and the same road, but different thresholds of pain. Horses also exhibit different pain thresholds.

I use a scale to describe how sharp the teeth are (S score) as well as the degree of cheek ulcers (U score) caused by the sharp teeth rubbing on the cheeks and the tongue. The scale goes from 1 (none) to 3 (moderate) to 5 (severe). A score of S1 U1 is a horse just floated. A score of S5 U5 indicates teeth as sharp as razors and cheeks ripped to shreds. Most of us with even a small cheek ulcer can hardly chew, yet I have seen many horses with scores of S5 U5 showing no evidence of pain. Yet in the stall next door, a horse has one little ulcer and he goes nuts when a float blade goes near it. That is why I say it is not the sharpness of the teeth that is as important as the threshold of pain for that horse.

Finally, some of the drugs I use are controlled substances meaning only a vet can administer them. These drugs minimize pain rapidly without the drunken side effects of heavy sedation.

The bottom line in my practice is, if the horse has a low threshold for pain and asks to be medicated, I oblige the horse. But I find that horsemanship usually is enough to successfully complete the job.

Thanks, Doc T

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