As it is with humans, dental care is extremely important to a horse’s health. Owners should keep a close eye on their horses so that problems can be detected early. If an issue is suspected, the owner should contact his vet or dentist right away. Let’s take a quick look at a horse’s mouth in order to understand why the teeth need such good care.
Incisors: front 12 teeth used for biting
Canines: up to 4 behind the incisors, typically in males
Wolf teeth: 2 in upper jaw
Pre-molars: 12, used to grind food before swallowing
Molars: 12, used to grind food before swallowing
The teeth in the lower jaw are closer together than in the upper jaw, so the horse chews in a sideways motion rather than up and down as humans do. When horses are on pasture and able to forage consistently, the constant chewing and silicate in the grass wears down the teeth naturally. Stabled horses however, have a lot more problems. They can’t eat continuously, and the soft, processed feed requires less chewing. The teeth end up too long and wear unevenly. Sharp points (hooks) form along the edges of the pre-molars and molars on the outside of the upper and the inside of the lower teeth since the teeth don’t meet squarely while chewing. This sideways chewing motion can cause the teeth to rock slightly, loosening the gums and allowing food to collect and decay. From there, an infection can occur and will likely lead to an abscess.
The deciduous (baby) teeth have all come in by 8 months of age and have started to be replaced by adult teeth at age 2.5. All the permanent teeth are in when the horse has reached the age of five. Males have 40 teeth, but since females are less likely to have canine teeth, they typically have only 36.
- The enamel in the molars and pre-molars become sharp, forming hooks that cut the cheeks and tongue
- Long canine teeth or wolf teeth can interfere with the bit
- Cribbing can wear out incisors
- Lost or broken teeth
- Uneven bite planes
- Worn or long teeth
- Infected teeth
- Malformations (over/ underbite)
- Difficulty chewing, or dropping food from mouth
- Body condition worsens, weight loss
- Resistance to bit, tongue out, head tossing during training
- Poor performance
- Swelling of the face or jaw
From birth to age 5, horses should be seen by a vet or dentist at least two times per year to have their teeth floated. The deciduous teeth are softer than the permanent ones and can develop sharp points faster. A horse’s teeth continue to grow through around age 20, so he must continue to be seen once a year. Even after the teeth finish growing, they still have to be watched carefully because infections, loose teeth and other issues can occur.
Floating the teeth involves using a rasp to smooth the teeth out. A speculum is used to hold the jaws apart and the mouth is cleaned with water before the rasping begins. Sometimes the horse needs to be sedated to keep him calm during the process. Teeth floating removes the sharp enamel points in the mouth and corrects other problems as well. Due to the unevenness of the wear on their teeth, many horses end up with a “wave” in their mouth. All this means is that there are high and low spots on different teeth, preventing them from meeting properly. Sloped angles (ramps) also develop on the lower teeth, further preventing them from lining up properly with their upper counterparts.
Most dental problems and routine teeth floating can be addressed by a veterinarian. A dentist should be called however, if a vet is unable to treat a specific issue. Keep an eye on your horse’s mouth, because dental care is just as important as caring for the rest of his body!