‘Squirt’ is pacing her stall a lot. ‘Max’ is raking his teeth on the boards in his stall. ‘Belle’ has a wound on her face that just won’t
heal, despite antibiotics. ‘Sharkie’ doesn’t seem to be eating well lately. ‘Jake’ suddenly started bucking with gait transitions.
‘Elvis’ is tossing his head when his rider takes up the reins. ‘Bud’ doesn’t want to take the second barrel. ‘Sugar’ seems to be
losing weight and dropping feed. What do all these horses have in common?? That’s right – tooth problems.
Most people associate eating problems with their horse’s teeth, but don’t really think about them with riding issues other ‘vices’.
However, this is often the case. Let’s go over some of the above examples. Squirt – her owner thought her pacing was just a
nervous habit. She’d had the teeth looked at on her regular yearly exams, and nothing was seen to be abnormal. However, with
careful examination, it was determined that Squirt actually had a dead tooth. Once this tooth was removed, she stopped her
pacing! Max – is a show horse who spends a lot of time in his stall. It was believed that his ‘stall raking’ was related to boredom.
Upon examination, it was noted that he had several incisor fragments (from his baby teeth or ‘caps’) imbedded in his gums.
Once these fragments were removed, the stall raking stopped. Belle – she had a chronic wound on the side of her face, that just
wouldn’t heal up. A trip to the university, and surgical debridement (‘cleaning up’) of the area did not improve things. One year
later, we took radiographs of the skull, and saw that she had an apical root abscess, commonly known as a bad tooth. After
extraction, the wound healed up immediately. Sharkie – suddenly stopped cleaning up his feed. He had had a complete
dentistry within 6 months, but we elected to re-examine him. We discovered that he had fractured off portions of 2 of his canine
teeth – presumably from chewing on chain cross-ties. After ‘floating’ or smoothing the teeth, his eating improved. Jake – this
horse had gotten dangerous, and his owner was desperate. Upon examination, it was noted that he had several excessively
‘high’ teeth, which were causing his jaw to lock. He also had very severe oral ulcers, causing him a lot of pain. After a complete
dentistry, which restored movement to his mandible (or lower jaw), and removed his sharp points (that were causing his ulcers),
his owner reported a ‘changed horse’. She was back to riding and showing. These are just a few examples of how a horse’s
behavior can be related to his teeth.
Equine dentistry involves the care and treatment of healthy and unhealthy teeth. Because horses are ‘hypsodonts’ – which
means that their teeth continue to erupt over the course of their life, they need regular dental care – every 6 to 12 months,
depending on their age and other factors. Dental care should begin around age 2 – prior to training, unless there are issues
that show up earlier. Older horses that have not had good dental care are often at risk for cracking or losing teeth, and can
exhibit a variety of signs, including weight loss, dropping feed and slow eating. Horses are a commitment, and – like routine foot
care and health care – regular dentistry is necessary to maintain the health of your horse.
by Diane Febles, DVM
Young Horse Dentistry – this refers to the dentistry needs of horses under the age of 6. Between birth and the age of 5, young
horses will shed a total of 24 baby teeth, commonly known as ‘caps’. Twelve will occur in the incisors – or front teeth – and
twelve in the molar arcades (large grinding teeth). When the deciduous or baby teeth come in, they are teeth with significant
roots. If removed early, the extraction can be difficult and complicated. However, the adult teeth normally erupt above the baby
teeth (below them in the lower jaw). The pressure from the permanent tooth, coupled with the pressure of the opposing tooth,
causes a thinning of the baby tooth until it is only ¼” thick. This is then called a ‘cap’ – and should be shed uneventfully during
normal chewing, etc. However, there are times when these caps may fragment or become retained - causing pressure, pain and
other issues. Intervention is needed to remove these teeth and their fragments. Typically, the owner will notice a change in
riding behavior. Occasionally, horses will have a foul odor from the mouth, or they may begin raking their mouth over the stall,
chewing on buckets, etc. Young performance horses will be very unhappy in the bridle – regardless of the discipline (dressage,
hunter jumper, barrel racing….). The first caps will usually shed at approximately 2 ½ years of age. It is important to begin
routine dentistry by this time, and every 6 months until the age of 6. After the caps are shed, the adult teeth will come into
occlusion. The adult teeth are very sharp in order to help break through the gum. If these teeth are not floated after they come
into occlusion, painful oral ulcers will form. In my practice, I see oral ulcers in approximately 80 % of horses under the age of 6.
Another issue that needs to be addressed at this time are wolf teeth. Wolf teeth are small, single rooted teeth that lie in front of
the large premolars. A horse may have anywhere from 0 – 4 wolf teeth, with the vast majority having 2 upper wolf teeth. They
typically erupt around the age of 1, and should be removed during the first dentistry. Since they are usually located in front of
the premolars, they are often in contact with the bit, causing discomfort to the young horse. They serve no function whatsoever
in the domesticated horse. Often, people confuse the canine teeth (found predominantly in male horses) with the wolf teeth.
The canines can be found in the bars of the mouth, and are easily seen. Canines are never removed unless the tooth is dead,
Between the ages of 2 and 5, most horses are in heavy training. If the dentistry is ignored, this can create a situation where
the trainer is constantly fighting with a basic pain issue. Training effectiveness can be delayed by months until this is corrected.
Many people don’t think about dentistry until the horse is in his teens or twenties. However, we can do a lot of prevention on the
young horse, that will keep him comfortable, decrease training costs, and save teeth when he gets older.
|Young Horse Dentistry
by Diane Febles, DVM
|Performance Horse Dentistry – this refers to the dentistry needs of horses that are being actively ridden – whether being shown
or not. These are the athletes of the horse world. Just like their human counterparts, our equine athletes need a team of
professionals to keep them ‘on their game’. This includes a good veterinarian, a qualified veterinary dentist, a knowledgeable
farrier and a well trained chiropractor.
Performance horses are asked to bend and turn, flex at the poll, collect when riding, perform flying lead changes and many
more maneuvers, all with the weight of a rider on his back. When a horse flexes and bends, the mandible – or lower jaw – must
slide forward (this is also true in humans, but not as noticeable because of the length of our jaw). If there is anything in the
dental arcade that is restricting this motion, the horse will resist the flexion/bend. He may open his mouth to release it, throw his
head or be heavy in the bridle. Some horses will begin to rear from frustration. If the problem is not addressed, the horse will
develop pain in the poll and TMJ. This unbalance can (and will) radiate to his back and pelvis.
The most common problems are hooks and ETR’s. Hooks occur when the lower jaw is slightly offset from the upper jaw. Usually
the lower jaw is a little caudal (or back) from the front. The last molar on the bottom and the first tooth on the top will develop a
‘fang-like’ point. The larger this grows, the more the jaw locks, and the more abnormalities develop. I have seen hooks so bad
that they were growing into the opposing gum tissue. Early on, the horse can open his mouth and ‘jump the hook’. However, as
it gets larger, this becomes impossible. I have had many horses that appear to have a significant overbite. However, when the
hooks are removed, and the jaw can return to its normal position, the overbite is greatly reduced or even eliminated. If a horse
has an overbite for a long period of time, the front half of the upper incisors (front teeth) will also grow longer. This then adds to
the restriction …which further encourages hook growth …which adds to the restriction….you get the picture.
The other common abnormality are ETR’s. This stands for Extra Transverse Ridges. Normal horse teeth are designed with
ridges to facilitate grinding and increase surface area. However, some horses will develop severe ridges which they look and
act like a gear. Remember, anything occurring on one arcade will have an equal and opposite affect on the opposing arcade.
So, if you have a series of horizontal ridges above, they will have mirror images below. These ridges fit together just like a gear
and totally restrict motion. A proper dentistry will not totally remove these ridges, but will reduce them to allow increased
movement. It may take two or three dentistrys for the ridges to be restored to normal.
Once motion is restored, the horse may need a chiropractic adjustment to address the painful poll / pelvis. Fixing the teeth will
not fix the other parts of the body, but it will help prevent those issues from returning.
Bit Seats. This is truly a misnomer. Many negative articles have been written about bit seats, and I would like to take a minute
to address this issue. A correct bit seat is a slight, and subtle rounding of the first premolars. The purpose is to have a small
space where the soft tissues of the cheeks can sit without being pinched, when contact is made with the bit. The negative
publicity has come from extremely aggressive bit seats. I personally saw one the other day that involved more than half the
tooth! This invades the pulp chambers and will eventually kill the tooth. Done properly, there are absolutely NO
contraindications or reasons for concern. All horses being ridden with a bit should have a properly done bit seat. It will greatly
improve their comfort and help to make them lighter in the bridle.
In the young horse dentistry article,I mentioned the need for removal of the wolf teeth prior to training. Wolf teeth are small
single rooted teeth in front of the first ‘molars’. Horses will often toss their head when riding when contact is made with the bit if
they still have wolf teeth.
The entire mouth needs to be balanced every 6 months for you to get optimum performance from your horse. This obviously
involves more than just ‘filing the sharp points’. While true balancing can be accomplished with hand instruments, it is my
opinion that a better, and less traumatic job can be done with motorized equipment – in the RIGHT HANDS!
Remember, it is illegal for a non-veterinarian to sedate or float a horse. It is imperative that you ask questions and get referrals
for your horse’s dental needs. The mere fact of owning a float does not imply the ability to use it properly. If sedation is
properly administered (by a licensed veterinarian), the risk is minimal, and the benefits are tremendous. Unless an extraction is
being performed, a proper float should not be ‘a bloody event’. Look in your horse’s mouth before and after the dentistry. Don’t
be afraid to ask questions. The more you are educated, the better owner you will be.
|Performance Horse Dentistry
by Diane Febles, DVM