Horses require routine dental care to maintain function and prevent painful oral diseases. When performance deteriorates, whether it is abnormal head carriage, extreme sidedness or head tossing, look for a physical cause. The mouth is a good place to start.
Horse teeth erupt continually throughout their lives. They are literally long in the tooth.
The act of grazing and chewing gradually wears teeth down as new tooth material is exposed. About two to three millimetres are worn off teeth each year.
At this rate, most horses have enough tooth length to last until the age of 25 to 30 years.
Improper tooth wear causes the development of sharp points.
Most domesticated horses are far removed from their native grassland environments and spend their time in small enclosures eating meals rather than grazing.
Sharp points occur on the outside edge of the upper cheek teeth and inside edge of the lower cheek teeth.
With time, these points sharpen and grow, cutting into the soft tissues of the cheek and tongue when the horse chews its food.
A vicious cycle ensues whereby the chewing motion is restricted to avoid pain, which subsequently enhances formation of larger points.
The wounds on the inside of the cheeks from points are painful and can result in head tossing and other undesirable behaviours.
Signs your horse requires dental care include weight loss, decreased appetite and dropped feed.
With really sharp points, some horses will eat hay before grain to pack their cheeks as a way to protect them.
Occasionally, horses with dental disease seem fine when eating soft grass and concentrates but slurp and drop feed when eating hay.
Large pieces of hay and whole grain in feces can indicate improper chewing. Facial swellings or foul breath can be a sign of tooth infections.
Choose a veterinarian who has taken specific training in equine dentistry to care for your horse’s teeth.
An over-zealous float by unqualified individuals can literally remove years off your horse’s life by shortening the amount of tooth left to erupt.
An examination of the incisor (front) and first premolar teeth can be performed on an awake, co-operative horse. This can give an indication of whether dental care is warranted but can miss problems located further back in the mouth.
Standing sedation is given to ensure the safety of the horse, veterinarian and handlers. Only veterinarians are qualified to safely administer sedation and reversal drugs.
A full mouth speculum is inserted between the incisors and opened to allow access to the cheek teeth. On an average-sized horse, I am up to my elbow to reach those back teeth. The speculum used to open the mouth is heavy and can cause serious injury to people and the horse if placed in an awake horse.
Power-assisted dental tools and hand floats are commonly used to remove the sharp points along the cheek teeth.
Power-assisted tools decrease the physical work required and the time needed to remove the sharp points.
The less time a horse is sedated, the better. Balancing of the incisor teeth may be required.
Wolf teeth, small premolar teeth, can be found in front of the large cheek teeth. Unfortunately for riding horses, these teeth occur in the same space occupied by the bit, often causing pain. Young horses should be examined for the presence of wolf teeth and have them removed before entering training.
If possible, feed your horses on the ground so that their heads are in the most natural grazing position. This allows the lower jaw to slide forward and minimize the formation of sharp points at the back of the last teeth.
Most horses require annual dental care. In those horses with severe abnormalities such as missing teeth, twice yearly appointments may be necessary.
Routine dental care is just as important as proper hoof trimming to your horse’s welfare and performance.