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Straight from the horse's mouth

4/17/2009

Bobby Griswold has been riding saddle broncs for nearly 20 years as a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association member. But, he's never received quite a jolt in his rough and tumble sport as he did last month while performing his sideline profession of equine dentistry.

On March 4, Griswold was the first person arrested in Oklahoma under a new change of state law that makes it a felony to perform work on horses without a veterinary license.

He was arrested after meeting an undercover state investigator in the parking lot of an Oklahoma City convenience store, according to officials. He then injected a horse and performed dental work (floating teeth on the horse).

Griswold hasn't been formally charged and is free on bail. Now, he and his family are preparing for a costly legal battle.

Until Nov. 1, 2008, such practice was considered a misdemeanor and rarely prosecuted. The bill upping the charge to a felony was sponsored by a veterinarian and slipped through the Oklahoma legislature with little notice from the legislators.

So, now Griswold could be a felon. Simply because he was "floating teeth" on a horse, a practice in which a large file (float) is used to grind down any abnormal dental growth that may cause the animal oral discomfort or make the chewing of feed inefficient.

This is incredible. I don't believe investigators would have set up Griswold were he not a high-profile figure in the rodeo and horse world. He's qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport's world championship, four times, including last year when he finished 11th in the final PRCA world standings. He has reportedly been warned by letter in the past to stop the practice. In short, he's well-known as a rodeo athlete and equine dentist, making him an easy target for law enforcement officials to make an example of.

I'm all about obeying laws, but this legislation needs to be revisited and studied further by the Oklahoma legislators.

Even Rep. Charles Key, R-Oklahoma City, said the law is a big mistake. "We need to fix that because it's way too harsh,'' he told The Oklahoman.

The sponsor of the law, Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, a veterinarian, said prosecutors declined to charge illegal horse dentists when the violation was only a misdemeanor, but "they can't ignore a felony. These guys have been breaking the law for years and years.''

He said he was asked to sponsor the legislation by the state Board of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, and said it passed in the Legislature without a single "no" vote.

Renegar told The Oklahoman that it protects horses because only vets are supposed to be able to administer the sedatives needed to work on teeth. Done improperly, the horse could die, he said.

But, in reality, the law is way out of whack. There are around 1,700 veterinarians in Oklahoma, and there are between 300,000 to 400,000 horses in the state. There are too few vets who actually perform teeth floating — Renegar himself was cited by the website of the Daily Oklahoman as saying that 256 vets in Oklahoma perform equine dentistry.

This business has been done by laymen for many years. I remember growing up on a farm in south central Texas over 50 years ago, and my father would have a non-veterinarian horseman come over to work on his horses' teeth. None was ever injured in the process.

Today, Texas, with its many horses, has not enacted the law, although it is on hold in the Legislature.

Griswold, who has an equine dentistry certification after going to school to learn the procedure, has been providing the service now for many years without any mishaps.

He earned his certificate in 2000 after his bronc riding career almost ended at the Great Lakes Circuit Finals when he was bucked off and landed on his neck. Some rib heads from his sternum were broken off and lodged in his shoulder blade.

It was during that down time he decided to pursue his other profession. In fact, the movements used in dentistry helped him gain strength in his shoulder and back, allowing him to return to the rodeo arena.

Floating teeth can be a taxing job. "It's hard work,'' said Larry Mahan, a six-time world all-around champion in the PRCA who now has around 100 horses on his place in Sunset, Texas. "For a long time I had a guy who had been floating teeth at the race track come out and do my horses. I never had any problems with him. He's retired now, and I've actually found a vet who does it.''

But, Mahan says that's a rarity. A large number of vets don't want to do it, or don't know how to do it. Many of them hire laymen to do the job for them.

Rodeo announcer Boyd Polhamus said he once had Griswold work on his horse's teeth at a rodeo in Arkansas with no problems.

"I asked the attending vet out of courtesy if it would be OK to have Bobby work on my horse's teeth, and he said he had no problem,'' Polhamus said. "I felt perfectly comfortable with having Bobby do the work.''

Animal dentistry is not part of most veterinarians' expertise. Veterinary education is structured in such a way that students take classes based on their specialty. And teeth floating usually is not part of it.

A trained equine teeth floater would have far more experience in the process than would a vet because the teeth floater does that kind of work on a daily basis.

So how is it that Griswold could end up being a felon? That's crazy. This law has to be reworked or repealed.

— Ed Knocke

Ed Knocke is a Texas-based writer who has covered rodeo and horse events for over 30 years. He also is a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Editor's Note: On April 8, 2009, NewsOK.com, the website of The Oklahoman newspaper, reported that State Representative Don Arms, R-Faxon, filed an amendment to a bill that would "allow equine dentistry and other animal procedures, such as shoeing hooves and transferring embryos in cattle, to be done without a veterinary license." The amendment also proposed a change in the overseeing body for those practices from the state Board of Veterinary Examiners to the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department.

The amendment passed the House of Representatives on a 99-0 vote and is now in the Senate awaiting a vote. At press time, House and Senate members were working toward a resolution on the language in the amendment.