Podcast Episode 10: Equine Dentistry with Guest Mark Burnell
In this episode Natasha speaks to one of the most interesting people you will ever meet - Mark Burnell, the superstar horse dentist! He talks about how he became a dentist, how often you need to have your horses teeth done and his journey with horses. If you'd like to know more about Mark, watch the video below which was created by 10Sport... and if you are in Australia and need a good dental technician, find out more by going to http://www.equinedental.com.au/
If you have any suggestions for future podcast content, people you would like Natasha to interview or if you are an equestrian that loves our message and would be interested in being interviewed, contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hello Riding Superstars!! We are here with the amazing... ooh... listen to me, I'm getting so excited! The amazing Mark Burnell. Thank you so much for your time.
You're welcome Natasha.
I am so pumped and excited to be sharing this conversation with you. I've known you forever. Yes. And you need to tell me later how you have not aged. I definitely have, and you look amazing.
Alright, so you are a horse dentist and you've been a horse dentist since I was 15 years old, but even way before then. Please tell me, how did you get into horse dentistry? How does that story look?
I was a pony club kid like yourself and was doing my K certificate. And as part of that, I would, was interested in looking into horse dentistry. And at the time in Melbourne, there were only three people that were horse dentists. So I annoyed the guy that used to do my pony club horse. And my dad had a couple of race horses and he lived near Caulfield at Malvern. And we used to have to float our horses from where we lived down to Caulfield stables to a friend's racing stables and he'd do their teeth. And he was, um, he'd been doing it his whole life. He took over from his father in 1937.
Wow. And this is not a university taught course in 1937. This is just passed down.
No, well, in 1937 they were just possibly beginning the first veterinary school in Australia.
And his father had been a horse dentist for 49 years before him. So, uh, the guy who taught me Ted McLean is regarded as the best of the top 10 trainers that were training in Melbourne. He did nine of them.
He did Garryowen, which is a famous horse for Voilet Murrel, and was friends with all the Murrels. Uh, they were great horsemen. And a couple of years annoying him for my K certificate project, I was at uni. I was doing...
What were you studying?
Science apparently. So, uh, I was a lot of hard work, a lot of harder playing, unfortunately. And, um, I persisted with asking Ted, you know, was there any chance he would ever train someone, and then he came to me and said, look, time to retire. He wanted to finish up at 65. He'd never taught anyone. He had all these clients who relied on him and would I be interested? And I just ran it. And I was so lucky.
And from there it was a long apprenticeship. And, um, it was interesting as time went on, uh, in America, in the late eighties, they started the first dentistry course in the world.
In America. And I contacted them and went over and signed,
You finally became accredited all those years later?
Well, it was a day and a half. And, uh, they had a convention after that, the first international association convention. And that was interesting. I went back the following year and I could see how things were changing in America, where they were churning out a lot of people with a piece of paper and not a great deal of competency. So the difference between a certificate of attainment versus a certificate of attendance became incredibly relevant. Around the same time back in Australia here, and in particular, the Victorian department of agriculture were reviewing the prevention of cruelty act and the Veterinary Act as they do after so many years. And in particular, they were looking at equine dentistry as part of the Veterinary Act. But there were several people earning a living, doing teeth. Some of them also gelded horses and drenched horses and did a lot of para veterinary things that weren't good.
So we formed an association of people who were interested in being a professional horse dentist or equine dental technician. And it all went from there. We developed a course. I helped write the course, I got the course accredited, um, and then got the course reviewed and re accredited. And we set up the hardest dentistry course in the world.
That is so cool. That is such an amazing story. What you've contributed so much to that space. I just think it's amazing. So if I am 15 years old and I think I like horses, and I think I want to work with horses and maybe horse dentistry would be something, how would I do that now?
That's a good question. Um, the thing that we look for in, um, assessing people for their potential in that, which is a difficult thing, potential's a hard thing to read.
There are three criteria that we look at. One is their life experience, which includes their horse industry experience. And also their ability to do the course is the second thing. Can they afford the money and the time because it's a full time course.
And how long is it a year?
About 18 months. And it's an occupational traineeship. So it's largely in a workplace environment, working for people who are expecting a professional job and you are supervised, supervised training, online learning works for some careers, but when you, when it's a practical skill, you can't learn the piano or how to play tennis or how to play pool by watching a video clip, you actually need to pick up the racket and smack the ball at some time.
So, and the final thing is our ability to teach them. That's very hard to be willing to admit that you need to learn - learning is a humbling experience. So a very humble person is very easy to teach and we get these CV's and they're fantastic. I've ridden since I was six I've ridden, since I was five, four, three, I've done this. I was, I was, I was.
And they're probably not the best? If they are very much "I know it all. And I will handle everything"
The cup is full. And one of the most refreshing things about what I do is the change in technology and the greater understanding, thanks to science and peer reviewed research, that things are improving all the time.
Yep. So it has changed how you've done horses teeth 50 years ago to now, Oh God, no, not 50 years ago because you look so young. So let's just go 20 years ago.
35 years - we'll go halfway. The outcome's the same.
Yes. It's still a tooth in a jaw that hasn't changed still a horse.
And there's a lot of a pseudo science - science fiction I call it around caring for horses teeth. The worst thing you can do is too much. It is a living structure. So the advent of power tools has created a lot of welfare issues and negative welfare outcomes for the horses. The reason we do teeth is to improve their life, improve their longevity, improve their ability to convert food into energy, improves their ability to be ridden, driven, whatever, and be comfortable with a bit - it's about improving their life. Not making it shorter or complicated.
Yeah, it's huge. And I remember when I was at pony club listening to your talk and you said, you know, horses correct me if I'm wrong, but they, they eat a certain way. Which means that one bit goes sharp and one bit gets worn away. And if no one in the wild, if you're a wild Brumby in the, or in the Plains of the Savannah, no dentist comes out to you. You don't live very long. Do you?
Yeah. It's often that teeth condition does deteriorate faster than a domesticated horse. They've done studies in North America, Australia, and New Zealand where we have large herds of feral horses, donkeys and mules. They're an introduced species in all three of those continents. Yeah. Average life span. Seven or eight average number of falls 2. So depending on where they are in the wild and how good the pasture is because they are herbivores that need grass. They're not adapted to eat plants. So in the Australian Bush, when there's no grass or poor quality grass, they need cellulose. They'll eat bark, they'll eat trees, they'll eat bushes. Their teeth aren't that good.
Yes. Yeah. No, it's crazy. Cool. So for everyone listening, how often should they be checking their horses teeth and, and yeah, if they're a pony clubber or a dressage rider, what what's going on there? What should they be doing?
Another good question. A good rule of thumb is a horse on largely a grass and hay diet - once a year it's routine care. So it's like caring for our own teeth.
Yes. Gotta do that checkup.
If you ask your dentist, get the checkup, say at least see a dental hygienist. And our role is probably more like a dental hygienist than a dentist. We can't administer scheduled drugs. We can't carry scheduled drugs. We can't prescribe drugs. We are not a doctor - we are a technician. A high grain diet. Most of my work's on race horses and grain harder to eat than grass. Their teeth get sharper sooner and then requires more care.
Yeah. And so do you have any cool stories you want to share with, cause I know you've got such an amazing experience with the race horses, anything that comes to mind where you go I think this, there was this one time, this one horse or some really cool anecdote.
Yeah. There's always a, a good story. Um, and that, that sometimes your small part in that of some great horses that have won really prestigious races and a lot of prize money in it in particular nowadays the colts they get, um, syndicated. If they win the right races for $10, $20, $30, $60 million is the dearest horse I've ever done. And just knowing - it was So You Think that was trying by Bart Cummings and going into his first Cox plate, he was a late three year old and losing his first caps. So horses are like kids, they get two sets of teeth - and just sweating on when to take his wolf teeth that and the cap so that they didn't throw his head. You can't have them throwing a head when they're going that fast and just seeing him win and knowing that he was comfortable and happy. And, yeah, that's good.
So why do you do what you do for the glory, for the horse, for the love of the horse? What, what drives you?
I always was horse mad. My grandfather had a lot of horses. He had a dairy and he had horses that pulled carts to deliver milk. So he had 40 odd horses in, uh, outer suburbs of Melbourne. They would work six days a week and to see how they were kept and the diet they're on. Yeah. You hear a lot of stuff now and that's just an insight how horses can be such a great servant to man and just work and live in the most simplest of environments. So my interest in horses began there and I just liked horses a lot and enjoy working with them.
Yeah. My dad was a milkman back in the day and he said he, he wanted to do, he was also trying to run. And so he would teach the horse to walk along the little thing and he'd just jump out and jump in and jump in without directing the horse. And there was one court or something and he would leave the horse there and it would walk around and he would go out with all the milk and come back. And again, this bond that I'm like, cause I was like, you don't know anything about horses. You, you're not a bondy horsey person. He's like, actually. So it is, you don't have to be a gooey girl to have a connection. And to have that relationship, that working relationship with, will you figure out that this is what we're doing? And then we can go do this.
The smartest horse in the stable was always the spare because if a horse had a shoe boil or thrown a shoe or had a sore wither and the harness couldn't go on them. The spare horse was often a very old horse often in their twenties and they would go to do round number 13 or round number six or round number 20. And they would go down the first three or four streets then drop the reins. And they knew where to stop, where to turn, where to trot, where to walk. So, uh, my grandfather, they bought a horse who it turns out, was sick and had strangles. And this is pre vaccination for strangles.
Wow - I can't even imagine a world like that.
So a stable of 20 horses all got strangles. And uh, because they had to shared water trough. So it was highly a great way to spread the disease by sharing water buckets. Anyway, uh, the guys still had to deliver the milk. A man driving a ute was twice as slow as a horse and cart and a man that's because the horse and cart drove itself.
Yes and have that relationship. I love it. That is just so, so cool. And um, did you still ride, do you still ride?
I'd like to ride more - I ride badly. So, um, I've got a hobby trainers license and on my well, and I'm well and truly overweight for age. So, uh, they sneak me a funny look. We just got very slowly, my horses end up quite religious as I turned to God to try and hope they slow down or whoever I don't care. And uh, but they, you know, it's just an interest and um, everyone needs an interest or a hobby and horses are a fantastic hobby.
Yes. And do you feel, um, have you got certain goals that you still want to see in the dentistry world? Either you personally, or with the actual institution? It sounds like you've, you know, you're so into making sure the right people get into it. Is that, is there more goals there or?
Well the goal always was with forming the association in Australia was to get, um, legal recognition of the profession, which we have nearly got on one occasion. And that might still happen, um, to, to deliver accredited training. And that's important that, um, it is regulated and to make sure that, our members can get decent insurance. If you're paying someone they're a professional, they must have insurance. My biggest clients ask me every year, are you insured how much? And then prove it. So certificate of currency and the most, you can get to 20 million, 20 million, which for some of the horses you're doing, you're only working on them for 15, 20 minutes. That's a leg.
That's just whole other world isn't it? Just wouldn't even consider it.
But your performance horses they're, you know, to find a decent one can be hundreds of thousands.
Yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah. So many zeros I go what's a zero, just keep adding them on that should be nothing just more zeros! Do you have anything else you want to add before we wrap this up?
Not just, I'm probably the wrong person to ask about life as a horse dentist, because I've been very lucky and I love it.
So I think I, and I, I don't know if you know, I'm hugely fascinated about success and the definition of success. And I look at you and I go here's someone who just loves what he does and you can see it. I see you and you are an amazing horseman. I've watched you with my horses and I love being around you. You're so calm. And so it's just straight away you go. Ooh. Um, so yeah, you're, you are the definition of success in my eyes, so congratulations.
Thank you very much and likewise.
Thanks for being here today.