Equine Dental Care: Painful Points and Uneven Arcades

Equine Dental Care: Painful Points and Uneven Arcades

Horses might not show signs of dental pain until fitted with bits and headgear.

Photo: iStock

Dental issues that can impair equine performance

Your usually soft-in-the-mouth, responsive gelding has started throwing his head in the air when you pick up the reins or ask him to collect. While the behavior might be frustrating for you as a rider, it could be just as frustrating for him: His teeth might hurt. Anytime a horse shows a sudden change or resistance when working with a bit in his mouth, you should have your veterinarian check his teeth.

A horse’s teeth are crucial not only for proper chewing and nutrition but also for proper performance. Dental problems can be quite painful and, in turn, can cause horses to exhibit certain performance-inhibiting behaviors. Often these problems are subtle or not even recognized as related to the teeth. So in this article we’ll list some of the dental issues to watch for and how they are corrected.

Sharp Enamel Points

Mary Delorey, DVM, of Northwest Equine Dentistry, in Seattle, Washington, says most dental problems that translate into performance issues are conditions that cause pain. The most prevalent one injures the soft tissues of the mouth.

“Normal wear of teeth can lead to sharp points,” she says. “These are probably the most common problem, since the lower jaw is about 30% narrower than the upper jaw.” Because of this disparity, the outside edges of the upper teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth don’t wear away as fast as the rest of the surface during chewing, leaving very sharp points of enamel. 

“Horses need a certain amount of exposed enamel to grind up food,” Delorey says. “In the wild, those sharpened projections don’t create much problem, but when we put tack on the horse’s face and a bit in the mouth, this changes things.” 

Headgear such as bits, nosebands, and cavessons can place direct pressure on soft tissues that wouldn’t otherwise be subject to them. 

Delorey says sharp points particularly affect horses that hold tension in their jaw muscles, either when ridden or stabled—similar to people who habitually clench their jaw. Thus, veterinarians perform routine dental care with two goals in mind: maintain dental health and provide comfort for the horse. 

“Routine dental care involves floating (rasping), smoothing off those sharp points,” says Delorey. “Sharp top teeth can lacerate the cheek tissue; sharp bottom teeth can lacerate the tongue. The horse’s tongue is huge and long, nearly filling the oral cavity when the horse’s mouth is closed. There is no place for that tongue to go to get away from … sharp points on the teeth if the mouth is being held closed by tack.”

Regular dental care to remove sharp points can help eliminate resistance behaviors such as mouth-gaping, jaw-moving, or sticking out the tongue when being ridden, she says. 

Learn more about dental problems that can impact your horse’s performance in the June 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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