From the Horse's Mouth
It’s always important to maintain the health of your horse’s mouth.
August 25, 2010
From the American Association of Equine Practitioners
Routine dental care is essential to your horse’s health. Periodic examination, corrections and regular maintenance are especially necessary for a number of reasons:
- We have modified the horse’s diet and eating patterns through domestication and confinement.
- We demand more from our performance horses (beginning at a younger age) than ever before.
- We often select breeding animals without regard to dental considerations.
Proper dental care has its rewards. Your horse will be more comfortable, will utilize feed more efficiently, may perform better and may even live longer.
The Horse’s Mouth
Horses evolved as grazing animals, and their teeth are perfectly adapted for that purpose. The incisors, or front teeth, have a flat surface curved side to side for shearing off forage. The cheek teeth (including molars and premolars with their wide, flat, roughened surfaces) easily grind the feed to a mash before it’s swallowed.
Poor conformation can lead to lameness issues and limited performance ability. AQHA’s “Form to Function – The Importance of Horse Conformation” DVD explains how to spot an ideally conformed horse.
Common Dental Problems
Horses may suffer from any of several dental problems. The most common include:
- Sharp enamel points forming on cheek teeth, causing lacerations of cheeks and tongue
- Retained caps (deciduous teeth that are not shed)
- Discomfort caused by bit contact with the wolf teeth
- Hooks forming on the upper and lower cheek teeth
- Long and/or sharp canine (bridle) teeth interfering with the insertion or removal of the bit
- Lost and/or broken teeth
- Abnormal or uneven bite planes
- Excessively worn teeth
- Abnormally long teeth
- Infected teeth and/or gums
- Misalignment/poor apposition (bite) – can be due to congenital defects or injury
- Periodontal (gum) disease
Recognizing Dental Problems
Horses with dental problems may show obvious signs, such as pain or irritation, or they may show no noticeable signs at all. This is due to the fact that some horses simply adapt to their discomfort. For this reason, periodic dental examinations are essential. Indicators of dental problems include:
- Loss of feed from the mouth while eating, difficulty with chewing or excessive salivation
- Loss of body condition
- Large or undigested feed particles (long stems or whole grain) in manure
- Head-tilting or head-tossing, bit-chewing, tongue-lolling, fighting the bit or resisting bridling
- Poor performance, such as lugging on the bridle, failing to turn or stop, even bucking
- Foul odor from mouth or nostrils, or traces of blood from the mouth
- Nasal discharge or swelling of the face, jaw or mouth tissues
Everyone enjoys a snack, including your horse. Find out what are good and nutritious treats and those to avoid.
An oral exam should be an essential part of an annual physical examination by a veterinarian. Every dental exam provides the opportunity to perform routine preventative dental maintenance. The end result is a healthier, more comfortable horse.
Routine maintenance of a horse’s teeth has been historically referred to as “floating.” Floating removes the sharp enamel points. Occlusal equilibration is the term now used to describe smoothing enamel points, correcting malocclusion, balancing the dental arcades and correcting other dental problems. A complete oral examination should precede any dental procedures.
When turned out on pasture, horses graze almost continuously, picking up dirt and grit in the process. This, along with silicate in grass, wears down the teeth. Stabled horses, however, may not give their teeth the same workout. Feedings are more apt to be scheduled, not continuous, and include processed grains and hays. Softer feeds require less chewing. This may allow the horse’s teeth to become excessively long or to wear unevenly. Adult teeth erupt throughout life and are worn down by chewing.
AQHA’s “Form to Function – The Importance of Horse Conformation” DVD is great for beginners and advanced horse entusiasts, and is ideal for people interested in buying or selling a horse.
Because the horse’s lower rows of cheek teeth are closer together than the upper rows of cheek teeth and the horse chews with a sideways motion, sharp points form along the edges of the cheek teeth. Points form on the outside (cheek side) of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth. These points should be smoothed to prevent damage and ulceration of the cheeks and tongue.
Routine examination and correction is especially important in horses that are missing teeth or whose teeth are not wearing properly because of misalignment. For example, if the front or last cheek teeth are out of alignment, hooks can form.
Untreated, these hooks can become long or sharp enough to damage soft tissue. Short hooks or other malocclusions may be corrected with hand instruments. Tall malocclusions may be corrected with motorized instrumentation. Motorized instruments have replaced molar cutters and chisels because there is less change of tooth damage. Tall malocclusions may require several treatments spread over 12 to 18 months.