Study: Hooks on Horse Teeth an Age-Old Problem

Study: Hooks on Horse Teeth an Age-Old Problem

The horse this hooked tooth belonged to was buried between 1300 and 1500 AD in what's now Levänluhta, Ostrobothnia, Finland.

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Suvi Viranta-Kovanen

The way people cared for their horses in different times and cultures across history is often a mystery. But clues come in all forms: ancient texts, drawings, bones, and even teeth. Case in point: Researchers just made an important archaeological discovery about horse management in the form of a hook—specifically, a medieval equine tooth hook.

“The medieval hook is just one piece in a puzzle to understand medieval horses and the equine husbandry of that time,” said Suvi Viranta-Kovanen, PhD, of the University of Helsinki Faculty of Medicine, Anatomy, in Finland.

“The presence of a high hook tells us that the horse was taken care of and provided enough high-quality feed to survive with a compromised mastication,” she said, referring to the horse’s ability to eat despite chewing challenges stemming from that hook.

Unlike human teeth, horse teeth keep growing throughout their lives, Viranta-Kovanen said. This is probably an evolutionary adaptation that allows horses to continue to have functional chewing surfaces despite their teeth eroding regularly on rough materials from grazing. As such, it’s the grazing on rough materials that maintains a balance with the growth. The teeth get eroded little by little as they grow. If, however, the horse has a diet low in roughage or if he has dental misalignments, the teeth won’t get eroded the way they should. The result is overgrowth, often a long section of tooth called a hook.

Viranta-Kovanen and fellow researcher Kristiina Mannermaa, PhD, of the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies/Archaeology, also at the University of Helsinki, discovered the hook in a horse buried between 1300 and 1500 AD. The horse came from an excavation site in a spring deposit in Levänluhta, Ostrobothnia, Finland. It is the first reported mandibular hook in a medieval horse.

The horse, who was probably about 7 years old when he died, probably suffered from an underbite, Viranta-Kovanen said. And his medieval diet composed primarily of soft foods probably didn’t help keep that hook from growing.

“Without regular floating, both conditions would easily lead to the development of high hooks,” she said. “So this archeological horse would have needed his teeth attended to.”

The research team’s current and previous work has revealed that medieval horses in this part of the world consumed very little hay, straw, or even fresh grass, especially in winter, Viranta-Kovanen said.

“They were fed mainly soft fodder, at least for part of the year,” she said. “Because of the Northern climate, there was no opportunity for grazing during the winters, but horses were probably not provided even much of abrasive forage, such as hay or straw, to wear the teeth evenly.”

Owners fed these pony-sized horses grains and leaves … whatever was available in the season. And that would surely have affected their dental health, just as it would horses today. “When horses chew soft fodder, they do less back and forth movements between their jaws promoting the development of hooks,” said Viranta-Kovanen. “As Leväluhta horses ate more grain and leaf fodder and less hay and other forage, the development of the hook in the underbite horse was pronounced.”

While it might make it sound like the medieval owners weren’t choosing the best diets for the horses, they probably took very good care of them, in reality, the researchers said. They fed the horse well enough for him to continue living despite this hook that probably made it difficult for the horse to chew food properly, Viranta-Kovanen added.

This is consistent with other findings from their research, which indicated that medieval owners developed strong attachments with their horses.

“Historic records reveal that horses were valued beyond the value they might have had as working animals,” Viranta-Kovanen said. “The Leväluhta horses were buried in the pond where there were human bones from the Iron Age. People put their deceased horses in a grave of humans.”

The study, “A tall rostral hook in a medieval horse premolar tooth,” was published in the International Journal of Paleopathology

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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