Know Your Horse’s Dental Needs

by Dr. Robert Hunter, DVM

Domestication of horses and the feeding protocol that come with living in captivity has resulted in different chewing patterns and the necessity of dental care.  Knowing how to manage your horse’s dental needs could make their life longer, and certainly happier.

Your horse’s teeth were built to graze on tough grasses for up to fourteen hours per day.  Not only does the modern horse spend less time chewing, but the type of dense feed they consume can alter the wear on their teeth.  The same features that make the cheek teeth ideal for a life of free-ranch grazing can produce problems in the domesticated animal.

Understand the Anatomy

The cheek teeth of the upper jaw are set wider than those of the lower jaw and with the altered pattern of chewing, sharp points can develop on the outer edges of the upper cheek teeth and the inner edges of the lower cheek teeth.  These can rub and catch against the cheeks and tongue causing ulcers.

In addition to the effects of an altered diet on the domesticated horse, horses that are asked to carry a bit, ride in collection and be responsive to cues must have oral comfort.

Horses also live much longer in captivity.   It is  not uncommon for them to outlive some of their teeth, and routine dentistry in older horses and ponies focuses on preserving good tooth function for as long as possible.

Use A Professional To Keep Your Horse Safe

It is not recommended that the owner examine their horse’s teeth or use a rasp to remove sharp edges.  The equine dental practitioner has the ability to use sedation when needed, and a speculum to safely keep the mouth open.  Some use motorized equipment that requires training to avoid over-heating, over-reduction of the teeth, or laceration of soft tissues within the mouth.  Your veterinarian, or a dental practitioner they recommend, will be able to diagnose any abnormalities and address your horse’s dental needs.

Make Dentistry Part of Your Horse’s Health Routine

Routine dentistry should start between 18 months to 2 years old.  Young horses can have very sharp teeth that can impact their behavior when their training begins.  Horses will shed 12 cheek teeth caps and 12 incisor caps, and erupt 36 or more permanent teeth before the age of 5.  Checking a young horse every six months is advisable.  For senior horses, it is important not to be too aggressive when rasping in order to preserve what grinding surface area remains in the mouth.  For this reason, management of old horses may only involve checking for loose or diseased teeth.

For more detailed information, view my Equine Dentistry Guide.