When Mary’s veterinarian offered to float her gelding’s teeth as part of his spring check-up, she readily agreed. The vet spent the next 15 to 20 minutes filing off a couple of sharp points, while Mary breathed a sigh of relief, believing her horse’s mouth was taken care of for another year. Unfortunately, what Mary didn’t know was that there’s much more to equine dental care than just a float.
If your horse’s mouth is still a bit of a mystery, there’s good news. Gaining a basic understanding of equine dental care and what to look for in order to help is relatively easy and may save your horse the pain and frustration of dental imbalance.
Why do domestic horses need dental care?
In the wild, horses spend much of their time eating a variety of feedstuffs, using their incisors to tear up native grass, weeds and herbs. Various barks demand the use of their powerful incisors and extensive grinding naturally wears down the molars. Because teeth erupt continuously, this wear is essential. Foals also partake in these practices so baby caps fall out at the appropriate times, allowing the permanents to erupt normally.
Horses who eat only hay, pellets or cubes, however, or are on a soft monograss pasture, do not use their incisors the way nature intended. Without proper dental care, the incisors become too long, preventing molar occlusion (alignment). Soft or chopped feeds do not require extensive grinding, resulting in unbalanced molar surfaces. This in turn causes sharp points, hooks and ramps, all of which are painful to the horse.
Failure to feed at ground level also contributes to dental imbalance. When a horse is in his natural ground-level feeding position, his lower jaw slides forward into the proper grinding position. When fed at shoulder level or higher, he is forced to chew with his molars not properly aligned, resulting in partially chewed food and other issues.
Get to know your horse’s mouth
For many people, the horse’s mouth is a mystery. Most are surprised at how big it is – in average horses, it can be as much as one foot deep. It would be impossible to conduct a complete exam or do dental work without a full mouth speculum holding the mouth open.
• The lower jaw is narrower than the upper. This results in a very efficient grinding table. Horses chew in a circular motion rather than up and down. If the molar table gets unbalanced, the chewing pattern is hindered. The horse loses his ability to properly grind his food, and his digestion is affected.
• Much like humans, horses have two sets of teeth in their lifetime. The baby or deciduous teeth start to come in at about seven to ten days old. Around two-anda- half years (three-and-a-half for minis), these caps begin to shed and are replaced by permanents. This process is normally finished around five years of age.
• Although horses can have up to 44 teeth (12 incisors, 12 premolars, 12 molars, four canines, and four wolf teeth), males usually have 40 to 42 while females have between 36 and 38. Mares normally don’t develop canine (fighting) teeth but occasionally one is found.
• Horses’ teeth continuously erupt until they are between 18 and 20, depending on previous dental care. This extra tooth is stored in deep pockets within the jaw and erupts to the point of occlusion (until it hits another surface, normally tooth). If the opposing tooth is missing, damaged or mis-worn, the stronger tooth will grow too long because there’s nothing to stop it. This can cause other issues, and in bad cases, perforation of the opposite gum tissue and possibly the nasal cavity.
• Feed at ground level. This can also reduce respiratory issues since the horse won’t be directly inhaling dust and hay particles.
• Offer free-choice or multiple feedings of various coarse grass hays. This helps the horse wear down his molars with frequent grinding.
• Provide trees, shrubs and natural logs if possible. This allows the horse to use his incisors for tearing as well as providing additional minerals he may need.
• Have a trained dental professional exam your horse’s teeth once a year.
Although this doesn’t replace a full exam by a qualified dentist, the following basic check-up can help you spot dental imbalance:
• Is chewing circular or up and down? It should be circular.
• Is the face symmetrical? Eyes, ears, and nostrils should be level.
• Is the cavity and muscle above the eye larger on one side than the other? If so, he may be chewing on only one side for some reason.
• Are the incisors level?
• Feel softly along the side of the face where the molars are. Does the horse jerk away?
Finding a qualified dentist
Many horse owners assume their veterinarians have been completely trained in dental care, but this isn’t the case. Most U.S. veterinary colleges do not teach equine dentistry and it is not required for graduation. Some colleges are now offering an elective, but even this is only a very basic course. You wouldn’t go to your family doctor to have your teeth done unless you were dealing with an infection or a broken jaw. It’s the same for horses.
Fortunately, there are qualified certified equine dentists who have attended intensive programs through one of the U.S. equine dental schools. These practitioners not only receive in-depth study in dentistry but also anatomy, conformation, horse handling and more. To find listings of these practitioners, visit www.equinedentalacademy.com or www.equinedentistry.com.
Once you find a CED, get some references and call them. Not only is his level of dental competence important but so is the way he handles horses. Finding someone you can mesh with and who will help you learn and understand is also very important. This practitioner will become part of your horse care team, so a good relationship is essential.
Just like appropriate feeding, fresh water and hoof care, proper dentistry is a necessity for a happy, healthy horse.