Do you know what’s going on inside your horse’s mouth? Most people don’t, and they really shouldn’t feel guilty about that. For most horses, their mouths are personal space, and they are not usually thrilled with someone poking around in there. Horses, as a species, are very secretive about what’s going on in their mouths. They often will not exhibit any noticeable symptoms of dental disease or mouth pain, so the only way to really know what’s going on inside is to have a thorough dental exam done. Regular dental exams and treatments will identify existing problems so they can be treated and help prevent future problems. A complete dental care program does not stop with floating, however. In doing a thorough dental exam, other abnormal conditions of the mouth can be identified and treated. Periodontal disease, fractured or otherwise damaged teeth, abnormal alignments or overgrowths (often called malocclusions), foreign bodies, and masses are all problems that can affect the horse’s overall oral health and comfort. As is usually the case, early detection and treatment are key in promoting the best outcome, so those regular dental exams are very important.
In general, adult horses should have dentals on a yearly basis to maintain optimal oral health and comfort. Outwardly, it is very difficult to determine whether or not a horse has dental disease or needs routine work done, such as floating. Ideally, a horse owner should stick to a regular schedule for dental exams and treatments. Having routine exams and treatments done will keep your horse’s teeth comfortable, and as healthy as they can be.
A normal adult horse has between 36-44 teeth, which includes some teeth that are “optional” – specifically, the canines and wolf teeth (which may or may not be present in some horses). The most important job for all those teeth is, as you might guess, to process food material. Eating is a vital activity for a horse, and they spend a lot of time doing it. Their digestive tracts are designed to handle large amounts of food, but spread out over an extended period of time. Horses have been observed to graze for 16-18 hours out of the day. Considering how important eating is to them, and the amount of time they spend doing it, the condition of a horse’s mouth is vital.
Horse teeth have some special characteristics that make them different from a human’s teeth. A horse’s permanent teeth are fully formed in the first few years of life, but most of the tooth is below the gum line. As the horse eats, the chewing surface of the tooth gets worn away (like a grinding stone), and the “reserve crown” slowly emerges (erupts) from below the gum line to take its place. In this process, the tooth is not truly growing, in the sense that new tooth is being formed, but is continuously erupting. The tooth will erupt until all of the reserve crown below the gum line is exhausted. For most horses, this is usually around 20-25 years of age.
Unfortunately, most horses don’t wear their teeth down evenly; this is largely because of the anatomy of the equine skull. The horse’s upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw, which means that the outside of the upper teeth (along the cheek surface) and the inside of the lower teeth (along the tongue surface) usually don’t make full contact with the opposing tooth. Therefore, these edges don’t get ground down; instead, they can develop into sharp points. These areas can be quite painful, and can even cause ulcers or cuts on the cheeks and tongue, resulting in a very unhappy mouth. Imagine trying to chew with a mouth full of thumb tacks, and you’ll get the picture. These “enamel points” can irritate or even cut the cheek and tongue. The points should be filed down on a regular basis to prevent damage to the mouth, this process is referred to as “floating” the teeth. Since sharp points are continuously forming due to the chewing process, floating should be done on a regular basis (annual to bi-annual) to keep the horse comfortable.
Now, if sharp enamel points were the only thing that could happen to a horse’s mouth, equine dentistry would be pretty simple. But, there’s a lot more to it. Since horses chew in an elliptical motion (side-to-side, and smaller amount back-to-front), if their molar surfaces are not fairly level, the motion will be interrupted. If a horse can’t properly chew his food, esophageal obstruction (“choke”) or colic can arise. An overgrown cheek tooth is the most likely cause for this motion to be disturbed. At the back or the front of the mouth, this overgrown molar is called a “hook” or “ramp”. If a tooth is fractured or lost, the opposing tooth will not be ground down properly, and as it grows long we call that a “step”. Another common abnormality in older horses is a “wave mouth”, where the entire grinding surface rises and falls in a wave pattern.
In general, as horses age and their teeth continue to erupt, their molar roots shorten. Molars may shift, become loose or be lost entirely. Loose teeth sometimes need to be removed to increase the horse’s comfort while eating. Teeth that have shifted may create gaps between the teeth, which packs with feed material, causing periodontal disease or pocketing.
So, as you can see, there can be a lot going on in a horse’s mouth! That’s why it’s recommended that each horse have a thorough oral examination once yearly, regardless of age or use. Most horses need to have their teeth floated once a year, but there are exceptions: some horses with very good mouths can be done every other year, while older horses with “wave mouths” or loose teeth are better done twice yearly. To fully evaluate a horse’s mouth, we always use full-mouth speculum. This device fits into the horse’s mouth, over the incisors, and when opened keeps the jaws of the horse apart so that we can insert our hand, a mirror, and our equipment without injury to ourselves or the horse. We use bright lights and a dental mirror and probe (as well as our fingers!), to fully examine all surfaces of the teeth. Without a speculum, we can peak at a horse’s mouth, but we really can’t see everything.
Before any corrections are performed, we perform a full oral examination, using a bright light, mirror and picks. Loose or shifted teeth are evaluated to see if any extractions are necessary. Incisors are evaluated, and corrections made if necessary. Diastema or periodontal pockets are probed and evaluated, flushed and packed as necessary. Enamel points are reduced using our Powerfloat equipment, and teeth that are longer than normal (causing a step, ramp, hook or wave) are reduced to normal level *if possible*. Some teeth are so overgrown that they can not be removed during one visit, and we will take them down as a staged process, and float the tooth again in 3 months.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some of the concerns we sometimes hear regarding motorized dentistry include: it can be unsafe, take off too much tooth, overheat the teeth, etc. If motorized equipment is used by untrained individuals, those are absolutely valid concerns. The reasons we love motorized equipment are exactly the same things that allow it to be abused: it is quick, and teeth can be removed with relatively little physical effort. With improper training, it is absolutely possible for someone to remove way too much tooth, or heat a tooth to the point of damaging it. We take pride in our experience using this dentistry method. We know how to use the equipment safely and effectively. Used properly, motorized equipment can actually be less traumatic to the mouth than traditional handfloats.
So, how do you know your horse might need a dental? The signs may be very subtle or very obvious. Some horses will drop feed, “quid” their hay (meaning they spit out partially chewed wads of hay), or even hold their mouth open awkwardly when they have a dental problem. But more often, very slight behavioral changes are noticed, such as an attitude change, or resistance to the bit or flexion of the head and neck during riding. Weight loss or increased fiber length in the manure are sometimes noticed. Occasionally, severe abnormalities are found without any symptoms of discomfort such as foreign bodies or oral tumors.
Why should a veterinarian float my horse’s teeth? This is a great and sometimes controversial question. There are lots of people out there calling themselves “equine dentists”, with varying amounts of training, and many people are confused by this term. This term generally refers to someone who floats teeth but is not a veterinarian. They may go by the title “Certified Equine Dental Technician” or something similar, since they are not legally allowed to refer to themselves as a “dentist”. Unlike veterinarians, “Equine Dental Technicians” are generally not regulated by the government or any national board. Because they are legally unable to sedate horses, many do not use an oral speculum, so they are unable to visualize and feel the back of the mouth. Without a speculum they can only reduce enamel points (often towards the front of the mouth only), but they are not usually able to address hooks or waves, especially in the back of the mouth. Legally, they cannot sedate, prescribe medications, administer nerve blocks, or provide pain relief. Without sedation and appropriate pain medicine, extractions should not be performed. Only a veterinarian has the appropriate training to identify and treat all of the various dental abnormalities that can affect a horse’s mouth. We have the ability to safely sedate the horse to allow for a full and complete examination, and a calm dental procedure. We are able to perform extractions if necessary, and prescribe antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs.