floating teeth

Horses in the wild may never need their teeth floated, but yours does. Here’s why!

Why should you have your horse’s teeth floated?

He has teeth that grow and wear as he chews in a circular motion. This allows him to grind the forages that should make up most of his diet. Mustangs in the wild don’t get their teeth floated, but in domesticating horses and donkeys we have taken an animal that would naturally spend 16 to 18 hours a day grazing, while travelling up to 20 miles a day in order to find enough food, and have stabled or restricted his ability to roam and changed the type of forage available to him.

The domesticated tooth

Horses’ teeth are designed to deal with tough grasses, but we now provide them with much softer grasses and feeds, causing sharp enamel points and protuberant teeth to develop. Sharp points can form on the outside surface of the upper molars and premolars, and the inside surface of the lower jaw’s molars and premolars. These points can cause pain, and even ulcers, when the horse chews or has a bit in his mouth. The pain of these injuries causes reduced food chewing and digestibility, dropped food, large undigested food particles in manure, and/or weight loss if it’s severe. In performance, sharp enamel points can lead to head tossing, resistance to the bit, or less than optimal performance.

Mouth balance

Upper and lower incisors must be balanced in coordination with the molars in order to have proper molar grinding. Incisors cannot be too long, so as to keep molars apart. If the incisors are too short they won’t meet when molars are touching, and this would make grabbing and tearing food impossible. Uneven molars (broken teeth, tall teeth that enter the level of the opposing molar plane, and teeth that form points at the ends of the molar table) cause a stop in the chewing motion. The rhythm of the mouth is interrupted and becomes awkward. Awkward motion expends energy at a higher rate than smooth, integrated motion. It is difficult for a horse to develop a pattern of integrated chewing motion when he has dental issues. Pain develops in the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) as a result of the uncoordinated movement of the jaw. These horses will show hind end lameness, and loss of muscle along the longisimus and intersegmental regions of the back.

Proper eating position

Horses should eat while standing, with their heads lowered to the earth. This is a normal position and involves the necessary spinal reflexes that allow for relaxation of flight muscles, making them ready to act when needed. When a horse eats with his head above ground level or at shoulder height, it fatigues the extensor muscles in the neck, especially if he is in a discipline that requires little neck flexion below the elbow. This reduces the normal pattern for flexion and extension that allows cellular waste products to be excreted and efficiently mobilized out of the system.

The weight of the horse’s head and neck (and spine) is an anatomical fact he must overcome when holding his head up for long periods. The head is heavy, and chewing involves the coordination of many muscles and systems (tongue, teeth, breathing, swallowing, lungs and diaphragm, heart, and salivary secretions). A great orchestration of neural input is required to allow this to happen, while cells are accumulating waste products as they bench press the weight of the horse’s head. This can actually lead to the development of metabolic issues. Horses that eat with their heads up all the time experience this problem and will have chronic subluxation issues along with metabolic problems.

Understanding incisors

When should you have your horse’s teeth floated? The table below offers a list of some indications that your horse needs dental attention. However, as a horse owner, it is very simple for you to keep an eye on the incisors. These are the front teeth, the ones used to bite and tear grass and hay so the molars can do their job. Some teeth floaters continue to ignore the incisors when floating teeth; they feel the incisors are too important to aging horses to float them. Historically, it was a felony to change the shape of a horse’s teeth in an effort to make them look a different age. However, in a recent study done in the UK, using registered horses with known birthdates, six “experts” aged over 300 horses based on their teeth. The variation of estimation range in horses under five was 18 months, while the range in older horses was +/- up to eight years; so using teeth to age horses is at best a guess. Very small abnormal incisor wear patterns (such as smiles, frowns or slants) can have a significant impact on the horse’s ability to effectively process his food.

These patterns make it difficult for the horse to complete a normal chewing cycle as the mandible cannot effectively complete the power stroke phase of the grinding process. When the incisors are curved upwards at both sides, when viewed head-on, we call it a “smile.”This makes the lower corner and upper central incisors too long. The problem with a smile is that the incisors cam off each other and force the cheek teeth apart too early. This restricts the lateral movement of the jaw, and the “grind” of the cheek teeth. The table angles of the cheek teeth are often too steep as a result.

When viewing the incisors from the front of the horse, they should look almost horizontal. In some cases they are not and are clearly on a slant. A horse with a slant has upper incisors that are too long, meeting lower incisors that are too short on one side of the mouth. On the other side, the problem is reversed. It is also not uncommon for there to be quite severe cheek teeth problems when the horse has slanted incisors.

Are incisor hooks pathological or not? Some horse experts feel these are important in aging a horse. If they are normal, they should be the same on both sides of the horse’s mouth. They should not be accompanied by altered movement of the jaw. In our practice, we find these hooks usually point to problems in the cheek teeth. There are other incisor patterns that are abnormal, but these should give you a place to star

Finding an Equine Dentist

Who should care for your horse’s teeth? The important aspects to look for are that equine dentists are legal in the area you live in; that they understand how their work will affect your horse’s movement; and that they understand the effects of any sedation they are using. It is very difficult to do a thorough job of balancing the entire mouth without some type of sedation. Even herbal sedation will have some side effects.

It is important that the person floating your horse’s teeth understands movement. Horses who have been floated like a table (fl at) rather than at an angle (15°) will have balance issues to both sides and have constant atlanto-occipital issues. These animals will have difficulty maintaining proper spinal motion, and have weak or painful neck muscles, hollow backs and difficulty changing leads in the canter. The TMJ will be painful on both sides and they will have huge jaw muscles. They will also have other muscles in the head that are no longer there.

The balanced movement of rider and horse requires a team effort; dentist, farrier, chiropractor and veterinarian must all understand what effect their treatments have on movement.

William Ormston, DVM and Amy Hayek, DVM are veterinarians whose combined experience of 40 years allows them to teach movement to other veterinarians. Dr. Ormston owns Jubilee Animal Health in Celina, Texas and Dr. Hayek owns East Coast Equine in Summerville, SC. In addition to owning and practicing, both doctors are well known lecturers and travel extensively all over the United States and internationally. If you would like to catch up with them, they can be reached via their websites, HYHH.TV or animalchiropracticeducation.com.


Dr. William Ormston graduated from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988. He received certification from the AVCA and began using chiropractic to treat his animal patients. Jubilee Animal Health is a mobile practice in the Dallas Metroplex area where Dr. Ormston cares for animals using mostly alternative methods.