The field of equine dentistry has advanced significantly over the past two decades. Recent research has fueled numerous articles and books on the subject. Thanks to this new information, coupled with innovative advances in equipment and instrumentation, we’re able to offer your horse a much higher standard of care.
Our goal in this article is to introduce common equine dental problems, and how we address these problems to improve your horse’s health and performance.
Why Does a Horse Need Dentistry?
Here are some common dental problems that, over time, may cause your horse to chew less efficiently and perform at a decreased level: faulty incisor alignment, long canines, wolf teeth, sharp enamel points, ramps, waves, steps, and hooks.
Faulty incisor alignment The incisors are the teeth in the front of the mouth. If a horse could smile, these would be the teeth you would see. Horses use these teeth to nip forage and tear it off. The diet typically consumed by domesticated horses — as opposed to the traditional diet of wild horses — has increased the incidence of incisor problems.
Horses typically have six upper and six lower incisors. Optimally, these teeth meet evenly and in parallel fashion. Common problems include diagonal, curved, or stepped incisors. These problems are corrected by realigning the incisors.
Long canine teeth Canines, found in geldings and stallions, are located in the space behind the incisors and in front of the cheek teeth (premolars and molars). Mares will occasionally grow canines, but they’re usually less developed. Canines are the teeth that clank against the bit when you bridle your horse. They function as fighting teeth. Excessively long or sharp canines must be carefully shortened and smoothed.
Wolf teeth Most geldings and stallions (and some mares) will also grow wolf teeth. These are found adjacent to and just in front of the upper first cheek teeth. They will occasionally be found further forward and may be felt under the gum line. (We call such teeth “blind” or “unerupted.”) Rarely, they will be found on the lower jaw. Because wolf teeth have a short root, they’re a common cause of problems with the bit, so they’re typically removed prior to a horse beginning to train.
Sharp cheek teeth Horses typically have twelve lower cheek teeth, also called the premolars and molars. These large teeth are responsible for pulverizing and grinding feed. Horse’s teeth grow two to three millimeters per year, and the outer edges of the lower teeth often become sharp. These sharp points will eventually wear on the inside of the cheeks resulting in painful sores.
The treatment is “floating” — grinding or filing down these sharp edges. Again, domesticated horses are more prone to this problem, because the diet we feed them is much lower in silicates than forage a horse would eat in the wild.
Other common dental conditions:
Ramps are often found on the lower first cheek teeth.
Hooks are commonly found on the upper first cheek teeth and the lower last cheek teeth particularly on a horse with an overbite.
Waves are easily seen as undulations of the middle cheek teeth.
Steps are usually seen opposite a missing tooth.
Any or all of these can be present in a horse’s mouth. They all disrupt the proper chewing motion, which decreases the horse’s ability to utilize its feed. They may also restrict the lower jaw from moving forward, resulting in the horse resisting flexion at the poll. Correcting these problems — along with fixing incisor alignment problems and balancing the horse’s mouth — is corrective dentistry or dental equilibration.
Other common corrective dentistry treatments:
Bit seats A bit seat treatment rounds or bevels the front of the upper and lower first cheek teeth, allowing the lips and cheeks a little extra room when pressure is applied to the bit. A bit seat is one of the best ways to help a horse be more comfortable, even when not exhibiting symptoms. Because they’re so frequently beneficial, we routinely add them to our corrective dental care regimen.
Baby teeth Commonly called caps. Horses start losing caps around the age of two, and continue to lose caps until age five. By five years of age, most horses will have a full set of adult teeth. That means, between two and five years of age, horses will lose twenty-four caps. It’s very common to see problems with horses as they shed these teeth. These problems can range from spilling grain from the mouth to large sores that prohibit them from chewing.
How to Tell When Your Horse Needs a Dental Exam
There are many important reasons to schedule an annual dental exam for your horse.
Horses with dental problems, can’t chew at their optimum and will require more feed to maintain weight. Proper dental care allows them to chew efficiently and digest what you feed them.
Chewing problems can be responsible for many cases of choking, as well as for colic and diarrhea.
Obvious signs of dental disease include:
- head shaking
- sores in the mouth
- reluctance to eat
- performance difficulties
- bit chewing
- resistance to the bit
- unwillingness to flex at the poll
- tail wringing
All of these common symptoms can be prevented or relieved by timely, proper dental care.
Signs of dental disease are often not apparent until the disease is more advanced. The longer these problems go untreated the greater the chance of permanent, irreversible changes.
Dental Issues and Aging
The best time to begin dental examinations is when the horse is born. At this time, we can identify any congenital problems, such as a severe overbite or underbite. This is typically a part of the newborn foal examination.
The most critical time to examine a horse’s teeth and begin corrective procedures is just prior to training with a bit. The bit is a challenge in many ways. Your horse’s teeth need to be at their best to avoid behavior problems, especially if he is experiencing pain from sharp enamel points, loose caps, or other cheek-teeth problems.
Between ages two and five, your horse should have dental exams at least once, and often twice, each year. His teeth will grow very rapidly and shed caps frequently, as the permanent teeth grow in.
Dental services for mature horses — between the ages of five and twenty — should be based on the overall quality of their teeth and the level at which the they’re performing. (After five years of age, most horses will have a full set of adult teeth.) We recommend an annual exam in all cases. Older horses, horses competing at a high level, or horses with a history of dental issues may require more frequent exams.
Senior horses are not only susceptible to all the problems faced by teenagers and twenty-somethings; they may also have loose teeth, periodontal pockets, spaces between their teeth, or fractured teeth. Depending on the specific problems, frequent dental care may be called for. And we’re always especially cautious and considerate when performing corrective dentistry on older horses.
Dental disease has a direct impact on the health of your horse and his ability to perform. Beginning routine dental care early in your horse’s life helps ensure his life-long optimum health and peak performance.