A five year dental plan for your horse

Your horse’s dental needs change as he develops and ages. Find out what he requires during the first five years of life.

When I was in veterinary school, doing dental work on young horses was generally limited to situations involving trauma, such as a fractured jaw, broken tooth or tooth root abscess. Even though we were told about wolf teeth and educated on dental eruption times, there was no mention of the unique and particular dental needs of horses during their first five years of life. As a matter of fact, most people – and many vets – had the idea that horses did not need to have their teeth looked at until they were older or had specific problems.

A new era in dentistry

Fortunately, preventive equine dental care is undergoing a renaissance! As you can see from the sidebar, horses experience a continual dynamic of dental activity from their first week of life until they are over four-and-a-half years of age. Compared to 20 years ago, the general horse-owning population has a considerably greater awareness of equine dental issues. It is now “common knowledge” among vets and riders that horses often develop not only sharp, painful points on their teeth, but also imbalances such as hooks, ramps, waves and uneven incisors. These problems can lead to prematurely worn teeth, infections and temporamandibular joint pain or dysfunction. These issues can manifest as slow mastication, discomfort in the bridle, a sour attitude, and even pain in other areas of the body from bracing and lack of energy flow.

Developing a dental wellness plan

One question I am frequently asked by my clients is: “When should a horse’s teeth first be worked on?” My answer is that every horse’s dentition should be evaluated within the first few days of life as a part of a “well baby” check. While there are not always viable treatment options for some conditions, such as severe over or under bites (mostly due to a lack of affordable and effective technologies), seeing the horse’s dental conformation early on gives the caretaker and veterinarian the opportunity to come up with a dental wellness plan.

Besides conformation, other factors to consider are:

1. What is the horse’s intended “job”?

Will he be shown in halter classes at a very young age? Will he be ridden with a bit? If so, when? Will he be trained to be a driving horse? Does it make a difference if the rider wants to go bitless?

2. What is the horse’s breed and when is he to be trained?

If he’s a Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse, he may be asked to carry a bit in his mouth and a rider on his back at a relatively young age, often before he turns two. If he’s an Arabian or Warmblood, he might be granted a longer time to mature and “be a horse” before entering into official training.

3. What is his environment like?

How often is he handled? Is he turned out on a large pasture with acres of grass and weeds (herbs, not toxic plants) at his disposal, or is he fed processed feed such as hay and pelleted vitamins or grain mixes?

4. What is the horse’s dental conformation and what was going on with his dam while he was in utero?

While genetics play a large role in the formation of any given individual, DNA can be affected by environmental factors such as toxins, stress and nutrition. Compare a heavily vaccinated and chemically dewormed broodmare with not enough free turnout and mostly processed feed, to a mare on a large acreage with balanced minerals and a variety of plants and herbs to eat, and one or two well-matched herd mates. Stress hormones, nutrient absorption, and the chemical burden of these two mamas might be vastly different, and there is really no way for this to not affect the foal’s development.

A whole horse approach

When all these factors are taken into account, we have a more holistic view of the horse and his individual needs, rather than lumping all horses into the same treatment category. Even if the dental plan does not vary greatly from yearling halter Quarter Horse to Arabian trail horse, it is important to always take the whole horse into account and not just look at the teeth. Holistic veterinarians take into account all factors of a patient’s life when putting together a health plan for that animal. A holistic equine health plan will always include a dental care schedule as well as nutritional and environmental evaluations, parasite control, immune system support and so on.

Early intervention If a foal’s initial dental exam reveals malocclusion of the upper and lower jaws that manifest as an over or under bite, then gently and regularly (every three to six months) reducing hooks or ramps can allow a more functional dental pattern to evolve. Even if an obvious malocclusion can’t be observed by looking at the incisor area, there can be malocclusions of the molar arcades, so as the premolars come in, they should also be evaluated for alignment. I have seen large hooks or ramps result from severe malocclusions/over or under bites of the molar arcades, even when the incisors appear to match up well. By the same token, I have seen some incisor malocclusions with surprisingly well-aligned molar arcades!

If you are looking at a horse’s bite, you need to observe how the jaws match up when his head is down, as this is the normal eating position. Many people think their horses have an overbite, yet I am able to show them how it magically disappears when the head is not being lifted up to eye level.

Training up baby

If a horse has great dental conformation, no early intervention is needed in my
opinion, unless the foal is telling you otherwise (dropping hay, bleeding from the mouth, only chewing on one side, expressing pain or head-shy behavior when the mouth area is gently touched). However, just as we get young horses used to having their feet picked up, it is helpful for foals to occasionally have their lips and bars gently touched so they learn it’s not something to be feared. Do be aware where your horse’s teeth are – horses rarely bite us on purpose, but they will “test” a finger to see if it is edible if it comes near their teeth!

“Wolf teeth”

Horses that don’t need early adjustments should have their first full dental check and float when they are 18 months to two years of age. By this time, the first premolars (erroneously dubbed “wolf teeth” by some confused person way-back-when) will be in if they are going to erupt. These are small, shallow, rooted teeth that do not continually erupt like the other molars. Horses may get no wolf teeth or up to four, one in each quadrant. It is important to feel for wolf teeth as well as look since they can remain unerupted under the gum and cause significant discomfort. I recommend removing these teeth in all horses, even if someone says they will never carry a bit. I feel it is good insurance for the horse in case he someday ends up with someone who does ask him to carry a bit. I can’t tell you how many older horses I see that still have one or both wolf teeth. They almost always have discomfort with bits and do better after the teeth are removed. Some horses are more sensitive than others – a poor attitude and limited athletic performance can be created by the pain of these teeth against the bit.

Even if wolf teeth aren’t present, it can be very beneficial to the horse to have a light float, check for appropriate tooth eruption, overcrowding, hook formation, etc. I am staunchly against aggressive filing of young horses’ teeth – balance and comfort are the goals, not filing them down to nothing! It is possible to take too much tooth off with heavy handed floating and I have seen young horses damaged by overzealous filing.

Years one through five

I prefer to see young horses every six months from the time they are 18 months old or so, to about five years of age. If they have a propensity for imbalance, early corrective work can help establish a more normal and functional dentition in later life.

Baby or deciduous teeth start to shed at around two-and-a-half years of age, with the central incisors leading the way. From then on, the horse is going to be continually shedding baby teeth and erupting adult teeth until he is almost five years old. In geldings, this may continue well into the fifth year as the canine teeth push through the gums on the bars, a process that can create sensitivity to bitting. So even if a horse has perfect dental conformation to start with, frequent exams allow us to assess proper adult tooth eruption and balance while he’s is in this crucial developmental phase. I have worked on many young horses that had good alignment to start with, but their baby teeth did not shed evenly, creating areas of impacted feed, stuck baby tooth fragments and painful ridges, all of which interfered with training and eating and created stress for the horse and rider. Dealing with these challenges as they come up can help the horse have a more pleasant and productive early training experience, as well as healthier and more balanced dentition as an adult.

Shedding baby teeth are known as “caps” when they are close to coming off. Removing stuck caps that are creating pain and infection can be very beneficial to the horse, but it is important to understand the physiology of the tooth structure so as not to do damage. A layer of cells between deciduous and adult teeth plays an important role in the normal development of adult teeth. Premature removal of baby teeth will do more damage than good.

Signs that cap removal may be appropriate are:

• The crown of the baby tooth is visibly wearing.
• The baby tooth isn’t fully attached to the underlying adult tooth.
• You can feel and see a line of separation between the adult and baby tooth.
• There is feed packed between the baby and adult teeth – usually this is quite stinky.

Less is more

I want to emphasize the importance of understanding dental anatomy and physiology when it comes to the care of your horse’s teeth. Teeth are not dead – they are vital items with deep roots that are meant to erupt slowly and regularly over the horse’s lifetime. Removing too much tooth (as with extreme bit seats), over-burred canine teeth, and aggressive floating of molar arcades are not needed and may be harmful to the horse. Our aim is to help, not harm, so even with adult horses, the goal is not to have a float last forever – if the molar arcades are smooth as glass, the horse can’t properly digest his feed and is at risk for choke, colic and malnutrition.

Appropriate dentistry can help horses in so many ways, but careless work can do a lot of harm. An educated and balanced approach that takes the whole horse into account is ideal!