Story and Photos by Art Petrosemolo
OCEANPORT – Mike Mullin has been around horses since before he could walk.
Today, the 49-year old former jockey and current trainer at Mike Mullin Racing also works as an equine dentist caring for thoroughbreds, show horses and family riding horses all around New Jersey as well as at Monmouth Park.
“You’d be surprised,” he smiles, “these 1,000 pound animals actually seem to enjoy having me work on them. Many times, they can have pain from sharp points on many of the 36 teeth that make up their dental arcade, causing discomfort while eating or, if a race or show horse, performing at peak levels.”
Mullin learned his skill as an apprentice under the watchful eye of former equine dentist Glenn Barney. He also has attended several sessions at the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho and has passed on his knowledge and skills to fellow trainer, Ed Kelly.
“Today there are not many of the ‘old school’ practitioners,” Mullin says, “who know horses from being a jockey or trainer and can work on them, gaining their confidence, without sedation and using hand instruments called floats (files).”
Today, with the advent of more sophisticated power instruments, a lot of the equine dental work is being passed on to veterinarians who sedate horses and are able to work at a faster pace but at a higher house call rate.
“Our job with horses is to reduce down the high, sharp points on their teeth,” Mullin says. Horses teeth are long and erupt constantly, leaving sharp points that can irritate the inner mouth.
“Thoroughbreds, standard bred and show horses spend much of their time in a stall now eating a concentrated diet with less roughage,” he says. “They have little grazing time and do not wear down these sharp points as they would do in a natural setting.”
Horses now need their teeth attended to one or more times a year and Mullin works at many training and breeding farms in Central New Jersey as well as on their horses training at Monmouth Park.
Mullin says even high-strung horses or those that have a tendency to bite seem to relax when being worked on. Mullin can work on the teeth in the front of a horse’s head by feel and uses a variety of strong carbide files to smooth down the points. He does not have to see the teeth but can feel where he has to file. For teeth in the rear of the arcade, he uses a speculum that keeps the horse’s mouth open for better access so he can use his floats on back teeth. At times, Mullin can be working with his arm up to his elbow deep in a horse’s mouth.
It can take nearly an hour to work on horse’s teeth. Trainers – with working stables of dozens of horses – have to schedule equine dentist visits on a regular basis, like blacksmiths to shoe their horses.
Mullin’s love for horses can be seen in the gentle way he talks to them before, during and after he works on their teeth and the way they respond to his gentle touch. “It’s like this with even the horses who are known to bite. They never bother me while I am working in their mouth but they might get me later,” he says.
Mullin works closely with fiancée/breeder Kristen Lomasson at Mike Mullin Racing. Lomasson juggles Mullin’s schedule using two cellphones and a notepad. Mullin trains a string of a dozen horses, exercises many of them each day and also finds time to do horse dentistry. “All of my dentistry work involved house calls,” Mullin smiles. “It makes for a busy day.”
Equine dentists establish, like blacksmiths, relationships with owners and trainers who call on them regularly to check and work on the sensitive mouths of their horses. But, Mullin laments, the practice is getting more and more high-tech. What he is referring to is the new, power filing tools that are used by veterinarians while horses are sedated. “Horses can get under a lot of stress with this work,” Mullin says, “and it may take me longer to do the job the old-fashioned way but, in my opinion, the horse is more relaxed and I can work deep in their mouths without a problem.” Vets using power dental instruments must sedate the horse before doing any procedure as the noise is too stressful for the animals.
Mullin partners with a veterinarian for complicated procedures or when a horse needs one of its giant teeth extracted. “It all comes down to these horses not chewing enough as they do in the wild or in the pasture,” Mullin says. “Today they eat more processed, high-caloric feeds to keep their weight up for racing and the teeth don’t get the workout to keep the erupting points down naturally.”
Mullin, who rode in the 1980s and has been training since the early 1990s, is busy throughout the year. He is one of four equine dentists at Monmouth Park but the majority of his work is away from the track, as horses need dental care year-round. His fiancée also has two foals to add to his workload soon at the Four D farm in Allentown.
One of a dwindling number of old-school equine dentists in a trade that is going high tech, Mullin is a master of his craft and one who gets high praise from the trainers he works with. Says Holly Crest Farm’s John Mazza who has worked with Mullin for 20 years, “Mike has worked for me both at the racetrack and at the farm for the past 20 years. He is a dedicated expert in equine dentistry as well as an all-around excellent horseman.”