Why Do Horses Need Dental Care?

A horse's teeth begin to erupt in the first few days after birth, and they continue to grow throughout most of a horse's life. Therefore, dental problems can occur at any age. A "baby" tooth might not shed properly, resulting in an impacted permanent tooth. A horse less than three years of age might have problems with the emergence of permanent teeth. An older horse might need attention because of lost or damaged teeth. The most common dental problems faced by a horse, however, are the result of the horse's normal anatomy--the horse's maxillae (upper jaw) is wider than the mandible (lower jaw).

As the upper and lower teeth grind food, the surface of the tooth is worn away naturally. Each tooth slowly continues to grow to replace the portions that are ground away by normal wear. Problems occur when the edges of the teeth become sharp from not being worn off. These sharp edges, or uneven wear patterns, usually occur on the outside or cheek side of the upper teeth and inside or tongue side of the lower teeth because the upper jaw is wider than the lower.

"The teeth are like a grist mill--two grinding stones," explained Fred Faragalla, DVM, an equine practitioner in Creedmoor, N.C. "But the upper teeth don't meet and grind off the outer edges, and the lower teeth don't meet to grind off the inner edges. So, this sets the horse up to have 'points' that stick up and prevent the horse from chewing from side to side and creates a vicious cycle for digestion and mastication as the teeth continue to erupt."

Also, when any permanent tooth is lost or damaged, the opposite tooth continues to grow. Since this tooth doesn't have an occlusive tooth to wear against, it tends to become elongated. This also can occur when a marked overbite or underbite is present.

"The goal of equine dentistry is to enhance free movement (lateral excursion) of upper and lower jaws to create a grinding action," said Faragalla. "Beaks, hooks, and ramps can occur and cause problems."

He explained that these names are given because of the look of a tooth when it has grown abnormally due to a dental problem. Beaks, hooks, and ramps are areas on teeth that are overgrown. They are abnormal surfaces that make an uneven "table" on which the teeth can slide against each other and grind feed, preventing the horse from normal side-to-side chewing. And when incisors become overgrown, they act as a brake and greatly limit the range of motion of the normal grinding action of the upper and lower archades, (an overgrown cheek tooth acts in a similar fashion but to a lessor extent).

So at what age should the horse begin dental care?

"Even a young horse, one six months old, can benefit from a dental 'tune-up,' " said Faragalla. "Younger horses have softer teeth, and they can develop razor-sharp edges quickly."

Paying attention to the young horse's mouth also is important in setting a template for permanent teeth.

"The horse is not going to lose the opposing upper and lower baby teeth at the same time, so a permanent tooth can take on the appearance of what it comes in contact with--the remaining baby tooth," said Faragalla.

Imprinting of foals at birth (as taught by Dr. Robert Miller) usually includes sticking a finger in the foal's mouth, rubbing the gums, and touching the tongue. This is thought to get the foal used to having its mouth touched when veterinary or dental procedures are required later in life.

Routine oral exams are recommended for horses every six months, depending on the age and use of the horse, with at least one procedure performed annually. This oral exam means not only visual examination of the teeth, but palpation of the back teeth that might be hard to see. Many horses require routine dental work when they begin training or are broken. At this time, the "caps" or remains of baby teeth can be removed, wolf teeth can be extracted (see The Horse of September 1995, page 46), and the horse's teeth can be "floated" or rasped to remove sharp edges. And while the need for dental extractions (other than wolf teeth) is not common, it does occur.

Signs that a horse might have a dental problem include head tossing, turning the head sideways when chewing, feed being dropped while chewing, resisting the bit or fighting bit placement, reluctance to work or move in one direction, mouthing the bit excessively, excessive salivation, bad breath, nasal discharge, grain undigested in manure, weight loss, and even colic.

So, while out of sight, out of mind might be a good saying, taking time to have a veterinarian examine a horse's teeth and correct any abnormalities will not only solve some problems, it will prevent others.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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