More Than a Toothache

Many practitioners have developed great dental skills and have expanded their dental services. However, clients aren't using them! Dental care is more that just "floating" teeth. There are many steps you can integrate into your program to improve your horse's dental health.

Step 1: Know Your Horse's Mouth

Horses evolved as grazing animals, and their teeth are adapted to that purpose. Just like humans, horses receive two sets of teeth--baby teeth (or deciduous teeth), and adult teeth (all permanent by the age of five).

Here are some terms to become familiar with:

  • Incisors: Forward teeth, used to shear off forage; there are three sets of incisors--1st incisors (centrals), 2nd incisors (intermediates), and 3rd incisors (corners).
  • Cheek teeth: Includes the molars and premolars; wide, flat, graveled surfaces that easily grind the feed to a mash before it is swallowed.
  • Canine (bridle) teeth: Usually obtained by a male, appear within 4 to 5 years.
  • Wolf teeth: Small teeth located in front of the 2nd premolar and do not have long roots that set them firmly into the jaw bone; rarely appear on the lower jaw. Horses can have one, two, or no wolf teeth. Veterinarians usually remove them to prevent pain or interference from a bit, though all are not troublesome.
  • Retained caps: Deciduous teeth that are not shed.

Step 2: Recognize The Problem

Correcting dental problems improves both eating and performance. Although improving your horse's eating efficiency is important, you will become even more satisfied when athletic performance is improved.

The following conditions are possible signs of dental problems:

  • weight loss
  • inability to eat
  • drooling
  • head-tilt
  • halitosis
  • difficulty in chewing
  • head tossing 
  • bit chewing
  • tongue lolling
  • tail wringing
  • bucking

Sharp enamel points cause a variety of signs, including unusual lateral motions of the jaw and simultaneous head-tilting, lateral head-shaking, lugging in or out on the track, and fighting the bit. Barrel horses may fail to complete a turn, cutting horses may run off on the ends, reiners may quit stopping, and rail horses may refuse to stay "in frame."

Discomfort elicited by the bit or cheeks hitting the wolf teeth may cause horses to throw their heads in an up-and-down motion and to show signs similar to those associated with sharp points. Fractured teeth cause excessive salivation, spillage of grain, and evidence of pain when attempting to chew.

Step 3: Get Help

Cheek teeth tend to develop sharp enamel points even under normal grazing conditions. Because the horse's lower jaw is narrower than its upper jaw and the horse grinds its feed with a sideways motion, sharp points tend to form along the edges. Points form on the cheek side of the upper jaw and the tongue side of the lower teeth. Your veterinarian can rasp these points to prevent them from cutting the cheeks and tongue.

Loose teeth are generally unhealthy teeth. If your veterinarian finds a loose tooth, he or she will likely extract it. This reduces the chance of infection or other problems.

When cheek teeth are out of alignment, hooks can form. If left unchecked, these hooks can become long enough to penetrate the hard or soft palate. Small hooks can be removed by floating. Longer hooks are usually removed with molar cutters or a dental chisel.

Other problems:

  • long and/or sharp canine teeth can interfere 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 due to congenital
    defects or injury
  • periodontal disease

Proper dental care has its rewards. Your horse will be more comfortable, will utilize feed more efficiently, may perform better, and may even live longer. For more information on dental care, contact the AAEP office for a brochure.

About the Author

American Association of Equine Practitioners

AAEP Mission: To improve the health and welfare of the horse, to further the professional development of its members, and to provide resources and leadership for the benefit of the equine industry. More information:

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