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A career long in the tooth

Equine dentist Bill Bartlett Jr. knows just how far down to file the sharp edge on a horse's tooth to create the precise balance and the perfect bite. But then he learned from the best - his father and his father's father.

"I've been doing this for 34 years, and every horse is different, every mouth is different," said Bartlett, who has gone straight to the horse's mouth more times than he can remember.

No question Bartlett comes from a long line of horsemen - lineage that he has put to good use.

He's the track dentist at Tampa Bay Downs. He also does a thriving business at horse farms in Hillsborough, Pinellas and counties to the north. And in the summer he heads north to Maine where he plies his trade until it gets too cold for man or beast.

"You don't want to work in that kind of cold, for yourself or for the horse," Bartlett said. Bartlett's father, the late William Bartlett Sr., was track veterinarian at Tampa Bay Downs for 40 years. And his grandfather, Skipper Bartlett, was a riding master in Maine.

As a young man, Bartlett planned to follow in his father's footsteps. But when he failed to gain admittance to veterinary school, he opted for what he considered at the time to be second best.

"I'm happy now as a dentist, but at the time I was disappointed," Bartlett acknowledged. "I wanted to be a vet."

As it turns out, destiny has served him well.

Bartlett, 53, has carved a niche for himself in the world of equine dentistry. He works with racehorses and other breeds as well.

His work might one day take him to Oldsmar, the next day to Odessa, then Ocala. And while most of what he does is routine, it's necessary for the horse's oral health and its overall well-being.

"You're doing this to achieve a balanced mouth," Bartlett said. "And that affects the whole body."

A domesticated horse's mouth easily gets out of balance. Their teeth can develop sharp edges that need to be smoothed out, a chore usually performed one to three times a year.

Horses develop those painfully sharp edges because of the food they eat, hard grains that require them to rotate their jaw in a way that makes teeth uneven and sharp. The dentist must file down those uneven edges so the horse can comfortably eat and perform.

"If you've got a horse with a sharp point in its mouth, you're going to have less control on the bit," said Rusty Herold, a trainer and blacksmith. "You're going to notice it by not having the right amount of tension."

Herold, who has been working with horses for 35 years, said the problem could be a knee or an ankle, but the mouth is the first place to look.

Wild horses, on the other hand, spend 12 hours a day grazing on soft grasses. Their teeth, for the most part, remain even.

"When you get into a horse's mouth, you're getting into their psyche and some of them don't want you there," Bartlett said.

Bartlett ventured into several horses' "psyches" recently at L&D Farm in Odessa.

Owned by Larry Vaughn, the place is a sprawling haven with pristine white fences, rolling pastures and spotless barns. It's also home to scores of mares, brood mares and thoroughbreds.

Dustin Vaughn, Larry Vaughn's son and farm manager, helped Bartlett as he worked on a handful of brood mares and 2-year-olds.

Vaughn helped steady each mare while Bartlett, his shoulders flexing with exertion, used a long-handled rasp to scrape back and forth along the mare's teeth. From quadrant to quadrant, the two men worked, all the while keeping up a steady, calming patter of conversation.

"Okay, sugar, I know it's tough on you today. I interrupted your grazing," Bartlett cooed to a 1,200-pound brood mare growing weary of having his hand in her mouth. "She's losing her patience, but she's got one tooth with a rim on it I've got to reduce so she can chew her food."

Though his roots reach back to Maine, Bartlett was born in Clearwater and went to Pinellas County schools.

He managed to get two days in at Dunedin High before the family moved to Maine, where he finished high school and college. He moved back to Florida 30 years ago and lives in Oldsmar with his wife, Julianne, and their son, William.

With his straightforward manner, brown leather doctor's bag and bucket of long-handled rasps, Bartlett is part of a vanishing breed.

Maybe that's because he was brought into the fold in the early '70s, an era when the old-timers were still around. It was a time when a blacksmith might do some minor horse doctoring, and even file down a troublesome tooth or two.

"I was brought along by the old horsemen," Bartlett said. "If you had an old draft horse not eating well, you knew you had to take care of his teeth."

Bartlett avoids using motorized tools for routine maintenance because it requires that the horse be sedated. Instead, he favors the old-fashioned elbow flexing done by the old horsemen of another era.

"You see, horses don't talk to you," Bartlett explained. "But the old docs knew the shortcuts, how to analyze, how to diagnose. And knowing a horse like that saves a lot of money and time."

Even Bartlett's dress reflects his roots.

"I try to dress like everyone else around the barn," said Bartlett, who on this day wore tan trousers and a plaid shirt. "They see a stranger, and they know something's going to happen."

And just as he never wears a white coat, he never barges into a stall. "I start easy, not vigorous. I let them warm up to me."

He usually starts by gently palpating the outside of the horse's jaw before ever reaching for an instrument. And the first tool to go in is an equine oral speculum. That keeps the horse from chomping down on his fingers.

But focus is foremost.

"I'm paying attention to their eyes and ears because they're talking to me," Bartlett said. "They'll let you know, and you retreat back to a different area if it's uncomfortable."

And if he hits a nerve?

"I mark that in my book," he said. "You respect a horse's sensitive tooth."

In 34 years, Bartlett has never been hurt. He doesn't take chances and takes his time.

"I never wear a watch," he said. "The only time you want to put a clock on a horse is in a race."