SUP200220NADsteveclark2.JPGSteve says the horse figures out that he is taking away their pain and they will move their head closer and open wider. Photo / SuppliedSUP200220NADsteveclark3"The more I manage to relieve their pain, the more they love me,'' he said. Photo / Supplied
Horses have been a lifetime love affair for Northland equine dental technician Steve Clark.
He has been training in Idaho in the US with acclaimed horse dentist Dale Jeffrey as he slowly builds his new business catering for his equine clients.
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Steve says most horse dentistry work is about taking off sharp bits to relieve pain.
"The more I manage to relieve their pain, the more they love me,'' he said.
Steve has been taught to work with unsedated horses, using the least abusive time-tested gnathological (science of the jaw) methods. He will sedate the horses if necessary but has found that horses treated in this way never understand the pain relief of the dentistry work and so will be more difficult to work with.
"It's such rewarding work because it's all about the horse. If a horse doesn't like you or trust you, there is no way you can get in their mouths."
Steve says as he works, he can watch as the horse figures out that he is taking away their pain and they will move their head closer and open wider. They will put up with some pain if they know the greater pain will be gone.
"When I come back in six months, they will come running up as they remember that I helped them,'' he said.
Horses have hugely powerful jaws and if, at any stage, they have had enough then that will be it for the day.
Steve's close connection with horses started at a very young age. His great-grandfather was a jockey and his uncle provided him with his first horse when he was a child growing up at Waikeria prison's staff village.
Steve's father was a prison officer, and the Clark family lived in one of the village houses like all the other staff families.
"It was an amazing place to grow up because all of our parents earned the same amount. We all had the same upbringing and it was a very close-knit village atmosphere where we were looked after by everybody,'' he said.
"We all went through the same classes and were encouraged to be athletic so most of us played sport.''
But Steve was the only kid to have his own horse, with grazing costing 50 cents a week.
"This came from the old rules where horses were counted as transportation so the house cost $1 and it was 50 cents for the garage or horse.''
Steve would ride 10km to the farm of family friends to get a ride to pony club and excelled at horsemanship.
His natural athleticism developed into an obsession with bodybuilding, and he won the Mr New Zealand title for his class in 1989.
He trained to be a prison guard and later joined the police force where he became well known in Northland as a mounted policeman.
He went on to become huntsman for the Northland Hunt for seven years and then moved to Australia where he worked as a personal trainer and caregiver for a quadriplegic man in Queensland for two years.
For the past 10 years he was working for a private prison in Queensland, at first as a prison officer and later as a civilian running a gym programme for inmates.
After such demanding work dealing with some tough inmates, he is revelling in his chance to work with horses again.
"My goal is to make life as comfortable as possible for my horse clients.''
Unlike human dentistry, horse teeth continue to erupt and are continually ground down by chewing until the horse is "long in the tooth".
"They eat in a circular motion rotating the feed around in up to 30 gallons of saliva on one side at a time. Teeth need to be matching biomechanical planes of occlusion so that they wear evenly.''
From two-and-a-half years of age, eight teeth are changing in a regular pattern every six months, so that it is possible to accurately age a horse from its dentistry.
In the wild, horses would graze on tough tussock and trees so the soft grasses and feed provided by most horse owners "is all pudding really".
"Feed that has a lot of molasses or sugar content will rot their teeth just the same as humans.
"Feed bins are best left on the ground rather than being placed higher up as this can affect the angles of how the teeth are worn off in the mouth of a young horse and cause problems.''
Steve says it is important for all horses to be checked to make sure their teeth are balanced, ideally every six months.