Most horse owners realize the importance of regular farrier visits to keep their horse’s feet trimmed and properly shod, as well annual or semi-annual visits from their veterinarian for overall health checks and to ensure their horse is up to date on immunizations. But another consideration is often overlooked – an annual checkup of your horse’s teeth, as proper care of the teeth is just as important for your horse’s overall health and condition.
As with humans, some horses have well-aligned teeth and rarely need extra dental work done. Others have uneven or poor “bites,” poor cranial conformation or bad chewing habits resulting in the necessity for more dentistry.
Our mare Morgan has always had pretty well-aligned teeth and only needed an annual check-up, but due to unforeseen circumstances with scheduling, it had been a while since she had her teeth checked. One day I noticed some cigar-shaped wads of chewed-up hay below her hay bag and realized she was quidding!
Quidding is when a horse is unable to chew its hay or food properly due to pain in its mouth or loose or missing teeth. The horse stores a wad of food or ball of hay in the side of its mouth, then spits it out. A sign I noticed in our aged mare Sabrina through the years that indicated she was storing food in her cheek was a sweet-smelling, slightly fermented odor coming from her mouth. If you notice this, or find any wet, saliva-covered quids of hay around your horse’s feeding area, it’s time to call the dentist.
Although vets are capable of examining and working on your horse’s teeth during a regular check-up, if your horse needs extra dental work an equine dentist will give a more complete examination and dental services.
A horse’s teeth will continue to grow over its lifetime and will continually be worn away by chewing. Equine teeth are wider at the chewing surface than at the root. As a horse ages, its teeth continue to grow and push farther out from the root or base of the jaw. By the time a horse is about five years old, all its teeth have erupted and are “in wear” – meaning that the entire tooth surface, outer and inner enamel, is “level.”
Three molars and three premolars in the rear of the horse’s mouth form a six-tooth “table” which fits against the “table” of the set above or below. The lower molars are narrower than the uppers and sit about a half-tooth-width inside the edges of the uppers.
When a horse chews, food is ground between these teeth as the lower jaw moves down, out to the side, up and in again. This elliptical motion occurs several times in one direction, then is repeated several times in the other direction – like a symmetrical figure 8 pattern.
Depending on the horse’s diet, the teeth will wear at different rates. A horse grazing in a pasture will have a faster rate of wear, as grass and grit grind down teeth faster than hay pulled from a net or manger. Pelleted feed will wear down the teeth even less, which is why many horses of advanced age are given a diet of pelleted feed, to preserve the teeth they have left (or to provide nutrition when those teeth are gone).
If a horse wears its teeth down irregularly, the teeth along its cheek may become so unevenly worn that they will form a sharp ridge that can actually cut into the sides of its cheek or tongue. To avoid that painful area in chewing, the horse will drop those tell-tale wet hay wads, and may even bolt down its feed, resulting in indigestion or even colic.
It is this wear of the teeth that is so important for horse owners to be aware of. Unlike any other large animal, the horse’s teeth are designed more like those of a rodent – such as a beaver or rabbit – that continue to grow and wear away over the course of their lives. Horses may wear their teeth unevenly, especially those that have a habit of “cribbing” or chewing wood, or those that have an under- or overbite. The type of pasture your horse grazes on, such as grass grown on sandy soil, or forage with large amounts of silicates, will also influence wear, and a horse with dental irregularities that go untended will have major problems as time goes on.
In most cases, horses that have regular check-ups of their teeth won’t have these problems. Your vet or equine dentist will examine the teeth, checking for uneven wear. If necessary, they will “float” the teeth, making them level so that they can better grind their food.
Commonly used is the instrument called a “float,” which is a file or rasp with a long handle that makes it easier to reach far back into the horse’s mouth and access all the teeth.
The dentist or veterinarian will also use an oral speculum, a metal device attached to a headstall, which keeps the horse’s mouth held open to better be able to examine the teeth, cheeks and tongue. The examination will reveal what needs to be done, whether filing off sharp edges of the teeth or even cutting off overly long teeth.
Depending on the horse, its temperament and the degree of work that needs to be done, the floating process is often done using just a halter and lead or cross ties to keep the horse from moving away, as we did last week. Most of our horses seem to not be bothered at all by the floating or rasping process.
It’s important to observe your horse’s eating habits and watch for signs that may indicate a problem with chewing. If you notice whole grains passing through in the manure, or notice a fermented odor coming from your horse’s mouth or the presence of those cigar-shaped wads of partially chewed grass or hay in the stall, it’s a good idea to contact your vet or an equine dentist. These are signs that there is a sore cheek or tongue or a tooth problem that needs to be examined.
In addition to eating disorders, a horse that is reluctant to take a bit or shakes its head or refuses to back when being ridden should be suspect.
Plan to have your horse’s teeth checked at least once a year. A good awareness of its eating habits and keen powers of observation, coupled with regular exams by your veterinarian, will provide an excellent regimen for keeping the horse healthy and in the best of shape.
by Judy Van Put
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