Dentistry and the Horse - Horses [Skip to Content]

Illinois Livestock Trail
Dentistry and the Horse
by R. D. Scoggins, D.V.M., Equine Extension Veterinarian, University of Illinois CVM

The mouth of the horse and its relatives is uniquely different from other species of grass eaters. The upper jaws are somewhat wider than the lower jaws, which are less mobile than in other animals. The tongue is far less mobile and less active than the tongues of ruminants. Horses primarily use their lips to select, grasp, and hold grass for nipping it off by the incisor teeth. The teeth of the horse grow continually throughout its life. In the wild, horses graze 12 - 18 hours per day thereby keeping their teeth worn down. Domestication, training and showing usually result in horses being stabled and fed feeds that they can consume within 1-2 hours per day, drastically reducing the wear-time normally expected.

Historically, many horses were not expected to wear a bridle before they were five years of age. The horse was thought to reach physical maturity at that time. All of the horses permanent teeth, including the males canine or "bridle" teeth, are in place at that time so changes due to "teething" are no longer a problem. Modern day training schedules are a drastic departure from the past. Many young horses are started before their second birthday. At three years of age, they are expected to compete at an extremely high level of athleticism. This suggests we need to provide some extra care to compensate for not allowing nature to take its natural course.

The horse's deciduous incisors, or front nippers, and the first three upper and lower cheek teeth are all shed by four and one-half years of age. Normally, if these baby teeth don't shed at the proper time, significant discomfort occurs in the mouth. It's important they be removed at the proper time but extracting them prematurely can also cause problems.

Sharp points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth can cause sores on the inside of the cheek. Corresponding sharp points on the inside of the lower cheek teeth can cause painful ulcers on the edges of the tongue. These can occur at any age, even in suckling foals sometimes. This often causes wadding of hay or grass in the mouth to pad or protect those areas. This is called quidding.

Mouth discomfort can show up in a number of ways. Reluctance to be bridled or unbridled can be due to a tender mouth or sensitive teeth. Head tossing, gapping the mouth, lolling the tongue, chewing the bit, becoming stiff or rigid in the jaw or neck, leaning on the bridle and excessive switching of the tail are all possible symptoms of a mouth and/or tooth problem. Tilting the head, dribbling grain when eating, chewing abnormally and even reluctance to eat, all occur. Serious problems may show drooling, possibly blood tinged along with a foul odor, especially when an infection accompanies the injury in the mouth. Any or all of these suggest the mouth should be examined and necessary corrective steps should be taken.

In most states, equine dentistry is considered to be the practice of Veterinary Medicine. Veterinarians are subject to disciplinary action for sedating horses for non-veterinarians to perform dental procedures. Non-veterinarians doing dentistry may run into problems with state regulations and be disciplined. Equine dentistry has become much more sophisticated than it was even ten years ago. More shaping, especially of the front cheek teeth occurs. Rear molars are being more thoroughly examined and shaped as well. There is an increased interest in balancing a horse's incisor bite plane. There is more to doing good dentistry than just "knocking off the points".

One approach that many trainers are finding extremely valuable is to have young horses' mouths examined and any needed dental work done before training even begins. It prevents youngsters from becoming overly sensitive about their mouths unnecessarily. This allows more control early on and reduces the risk of the development of bad habits in the bridle.

Newer instruments allow better shaping of teeth. New sedatives and analgesics provide better restraint and pain relief allowing procedures to occur more easily and more thoroughly. Current techniques result in a more extensive rasping of the fronts of both upper and lower first cheek teeth. The tooth is shortened, beveled back and rounded on the front to provide a smoother surface. The bit, when tightened, tends to pull the tongue and other soft tissues back against these teeth. By shaping those teeth, it provides more space for these tissues, and a surface less apt to pinch or injure the soft tissues. Riders of polo ponies, dressage riders, and some trainers of English performance horses have already discovered the value of the so called performance horse float, the above procedure.

As with any physical procedure, thoroughness in both examination and floating techniques is important. This may often require chemical control, the use of a dental wedge or full mouth speculum and a light source. It is amazing how many more abnormalities are discovered if someone looks for them. Doing an incomplete exam or incomplete floating or shaping of teeth leaves the possibility that the current problem will not be corrected.

Its not uncommon for horses ridden on considerable contact to exhibit what's termed "bridle lame." This is a horse that appears lame or at least nods under tack but moves sound on the lead line.

It is usually suggested that a horse's teeth be examined twice yearly until six years of age. An annual exam will then usually suffice until ten to twelve years old. It is then a good idea to return to twice a year exams. A dental examination should be a part of any horse's physical exam.

One noted reining horse trainer offered that his two and three year olds were examined every 90 days. Any necessary work was done at the time. His comment was, "Picking up on a horse's mouth running 30 mph in a circle and having it say `ouch' because it needed its teeth worked on is not a good idea."

Pay attention to your horse's mouth. It's as important as its shoeing, parasite control, vaccination schedule or any other health concern.

You may find it puts "power steering" on a horse that was losing its feel in the bridle.

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