The Significance of Maintaining Your Horse’s Oral Health

Ensuring proper dental care for your horse is crucial for its overall well-being. In today’s world, where we have altered the diets and eating habits of domesticated horses and expect more from them at a younger age, routine dental examinations and maintenance procedures, such as floating, have become even more essential. Additionally, the selection of breeding animals often overlooks dental considerations. Therefore, it is important to understand the reasons behind the significance of proper dental care for your horse.

The Anatomy of a Horse’s Mouth

Horses evolved as grazing animals, and their teeth are perfectly adapted for this purpose. Their incisors, located at the front, function to shear off forage, while the cheek teeth, including molars and premolars with wide, flat, grinding surfaces, effectively grind the feed to a mash before swallowing.

Similar to humans, horses develop two sets of teeth throughout their lives. The first set, known as deciduous teeth or baby teeth, are temporary. The first deciduous incisors may emerge even before the foal is born, and the last baby teeth typically appear around 8 months of age. These teeth gradually get replaced by adult teeth starting around 2.5 years of age. By the age of 5, most horses have their full set of permanent teeth, with adult males having 40 and mares having between 36 and 40 teeth, as mares are less likely to have canine teeth.

To identify potential abnormalities associated with teething, it is helpful to refer to the approximate ages at which different teeth erupt.

Common Dental Problems in Horses

Horses can experience various dental issues, including:

  • Sharp enamel points forming on the cheek teeth, leading to lacerations of the cheeks and tongue.
  • Retained caps, which are deciduous teeth that are not shed.
  • Discomfort caused by contact between the bit and the wolf teeth.
  • Hooks forming on the upper and lower cheek teeth.
  • Long and/or sharp canine teeth interfering with the insertion or removal of the bit.
  • Lost and/or broken teeth.
  • Abnormal or uneven bite planes.
  • Excessively worn teeth.
  • Abnormally long teeth.
  • Infected teeth and/or gums.
  • Misalignment or poor apposition, which can be caused by congenital defects or injury.
  • Periodontal (gum) disease.

Recognizing Dental Problems

Horses with dental issues may exhibit obvious signs of pain or irritation, while others may adapt to their discomfort and not show noticeable signs. That is why periodic dental examinations are crucial. Indicators of dental problems include:

  • Loss of feed from the mouth while eating, difficulty with chewing, or excessive salivation.
  • Loss of body condition.
  • Presence of large or undigested feed particles, such as long stems or whole grains, in the manure.
  • Head tilting or tossing, chewing on the bit, tongue lolling, resisting bridling, or fighting the bit.
  • Poor performance, such as struggling with the bridle, difficulty turning or stopping, or even bucking.
  • Foul odor from the mouth or nostrils, or traces of blood from the mouth.
  • Nasal discharge or swelling of the face, jaw, or mouth tissues.

Oral exams should be an integral part of your horse’s annual physical examination conducted by a veterinarian. These exams provide an opportunity for routine preventative dental maintenance, resulting in a healthier and more comfortable horse.

Floating and Preventative Maintenance

An oral examination should be a standard component of the annual physical examination performed by a veterinarian. Every dental exam presents an opportunity for routine preventative dental maintenance, leading to a healthier and more comfortable horse.

The historical term for routine maintenance of a horse’s teeth is “floating.” Floating involves the removal of sharp enamel points. The current term used to describe this procedure is occlusal equilibration, which encompasses smoothing enamel points, correcting malocclusion (misalignment of teeth), balancing the dental arcades, and addressing other dental problems mentioned in the section on common dental problems. Before any dental procedures, a complete oral examination should be conducted.

Horses grazing on pasture naturally wear down their teeth due to continuous grazing and the presence of dirt and grit. However, stabled horses may not experience the same level of dental wear. Their feedings are often scheduled and consist of processed grains and hays, which require less chewing. This can lead to excessively long teeth or uneven wear. Adult teeth continuously erupt and are worn down through chewing.

Because the lower rows of cheek teeth in horses are closer together than the upper rows, and horses chew with a sideways motion, sharp points form along the edges of the cheek teeth. These points develop on the outside (cheek side) of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth. Smoothing these points is necessary to prevent damage and ulceration of the cheeks and tongue.

Regular examination and correction are particularly important for horses missing teeth or experiencing improper wear due to misalignment. For example, misaligned front or rear cheek teeth can lead to the formation of hooks.

If left untreated, these hooks can become long or sharp enough to damage soft tissues. Short hooks or other malocclusions can be corrected with hand instruments, while tall malocclusions may require motorized instruments. Motorized instruments are now preferred over molar cutters and chisels due to a reduced risk of tooth damage. Treating tall malocclusions may require several sessions spread over 12 to 18 months.

Wolf Teeth

Wolf teeth are small teeth that usually appear in front of the second premolar, although they rarely appear in the lower jaw. Horses can have one to four wolf teeth or none at all. While not all wolf teeth cause problems, veterinarians often remove them to prevent pain or interference with a bit.

Considerations Based on the Horse’s Age

The age of a horse influences the level of attention and frequency of dental care required. Here are some points to consider:

  1. Foals should be examined shortly after birth and periodically during the first year to identify and correct congenital dental abnormalities.
  2. Yearlings may develop sharp enamel points that can damage cheek and tongue tissue, making floating necessary to enhance their comfort.
  3. Horses entering training for the first time, particularly 2- and 3-year-olds, should undergo a comprehensive dental check-up. This includes floating to remove sharp points and checking for retained caps, which should be removed if they haven’t shed. Addressing these issues before training begins helps prevent training problems related to sharp teeth.
  4. Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dental exams than older horses. Deciduous teeth are softer than permanent teeth and may develop sharp enamel points more quickly. Furthermore, this period involves significant dental maturation, with the shedding of 24 teeth and the replacement of them with 36 to 40 adult teeth. To prevent eruption problems, young horses from birth to 5 years of age should undergo semi-annual examinations.
  5. Mature horses should receive a thorough dental examination at least once a year to maintain correct dental alignment and detect any dental problems early on.
  6. Senior horses (17 years old or older) are at an increased risk of developing periodontal disease, a painful condition that requires early diagnosis for successful treatment. During a horse’s senior years it is crucial to ensure a functional grinding surface beyond the age of 20. As horses age, the surfaces of their teeth may become excessively worn or uneven, making dental alignment correction challenging.
  7. Horses over 20 years of age should undergo dental evaluations and receive nutritional counseling at least once a year to maintain their overall condition and quality of life. With regular dental care, many horses can maintain functional teeth well into their third and fourth decades of life.

Developing Greater Awareness

If your horse starts displaying abnormal behavior, it is essential to consider dental problems as a potential cause. Any abnormalities should be corrected, and teeth should be floated and maintained as necessary. To prevent pain and interference with the bit, wolf teeth are routinely extracted from performance horses. When performing dental procedures, sedatives, local anesthetics, and analgesics can relax the horse and keep it more comfortable. However, it is crucial that such drugs are administered only by a qualified veterinarian.

Most equine dental procedures, including basic floating, should be carried out by a veterinarian as they irreversibly change the structure of the horse’s teeth. If your equine practitioner identifies a loose tooth, extraction may be recommended to reduce the risk of infection or other complications. Canine teeth, typically present in mature geldings and stallions, can be rounded and smoothed to prevent interference with the bit and minimize the risk of injury to the horse, handler, or other horses in the vicinity. Depending on the condition of your horse’s teeth, multiple visits from your equine practitioner may be necessary to optimize oral health.

Importance of Early Detection

It is crucial to identify dental problems early on, as delaying treatment can exacerbate certain conditions or even render correction impossible. Regular dental examinations, combined with appropriate care and maintenance, play a fundamental role in preventing more serious dental ailments from developing. Conditions such as tooth and gum infections, excessively long hooks or overgrowths on the cheek teeth, and lost or fractured teeth may require advanced dental care or extraction by a qualified veterinarian. Your equine practitioner can recommend the most suitable treatment or refer your horse to a dental specialist when necessary.

Maintaining the health of your horse’s mouth is of utmost importance. Routine dental care, including regular examinations and floating, is crucial for your horse’s comfort, efficient feed utilization, performance, and longevity. By understanding the unique dental needs of horses and recognizing the signs of dental problems, you can ensure that your horse receives the necessary care to maintain a healthy and functional dentition throughout its life. Consult with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive dental care plan tailored to your horse’s specific needs and age-related considerations.

By Staff writer