Working Horse Dentistry

Equine dentistry started centuries ago with filing horses’ teeth, but it was not until the past decade that motorized dental instrumentation coupled with research allowed vast improvements. These advances have helped all horses, but performance or working horses have seen the most benefit.

Why is dentistry particularly important in horses that are ridden or driven?

While all horses benefit from routine dental care, horses that are ridden or driven with bits might be more sensitive to sharp points or other dental abnormalities. Most horses that have not had routine dentistry (smoothing sharp enamel points) in more than a year tend to develop abraded (scraped) or even ulcerated areas in their mouths. Although not all horses show signs of being bothered by these abrasions, other horses, particularly when they are being ridden, show signs of discomfort. These signs can be anything from resisting in one direction to abnormal head carriage, head shaking, or evading the bit.

A recent study indicated how dentistry could make a difference to a performance horse. The purpose of this study was to measure how much the mandible (lower jaw) moves from front to back when the horse’s head is lowered and raised, and compare the amount of movement before and after routine dentistry. After the dentistry, the horses could move their mandibles significantly more than before. This is important because any time you collect your horse, or even if you use the reins to slow him, he needs to bend at his poll, which means his mandible must be free to slide forward.

Bitted horses, particularly horses that are ridden on contact, might also be more comfortable when the first upper and lower cheek teeth are slightly rounded. This is commonly referred to as a bit seat. While the bit should not contact the teeth, pulling on the bit can push the cheek against these teeth; this can cause discomfort if the teeth have sharp edges that can hurt the cheek.

Extracting wolf teeth before a horse is bitted is another common practice. While some question whether this is necessary in every horse that is ridden, wolf teeth can cause discomfort if loose or if they are sharp and come in contact with the cheek. In any case, wolf teeth need to be removed in order to put a bit seat on the first cheek tooth (second premolar). Lower wolf teeth, while rare, should always be extracted in a bitted horse.

How will I know if my veterinarian is comfortable with this kind of dentistry?

The best way is to ask. Remember, since small dental abnormalities can cause a change in your horse’s performance, your veterinarian needs to be using a speculum to open your horse’s mouth to perform a thorough exam. This requires both feeling and looking in your horse’s mouth. Because many veterinarians have special areas of interest, not every equine veterinarian is going to have the experience or the instruments for this kind of dentistry. Most veterinarians who don’t focus on dentistry are happy to refer you to someone who can meet your horse’s needs.

How often should I have my horse’s teeth checked?

This will depend on his age and dental history. Horses less than nine years of age can redevelop sharp enamel points in less than a year, so a biannual exam might be warranted. If your horse has abnormalities such as a large wave, ramps, or periodontal disease, it might need to be seen several times a year until the problem is corrected. Many middle-aged horses do well with yearly exams. Your horse’s dental care provider will be the best judge of when to schedule the next exam.

About the Author

Claudia True, DVM

Dr. Claudia True, DVM, joined Woodside Equine Clinic, Ashland, Virginia, in 1987. Dr. True has an interest in equine dentistry and has taken several continuing education courses to advance her knowledge in this field. She is currently on the dental committee of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. In addition to dentistry, Dr. True also enjoys preventative medicine and equine reproduction. Dr. True lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband, Scott Inge, and daughter Meredith. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, riding, current events, and the joys,and sometimes frustrations, of dealing with a two-year-old.

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