It's almost impossible to know what's going on in your horse's mouth without the help of an equine dental technician or vet, so in this article let's look at some of the more common issues and questions horse owners have about their horse's teeth.
Why get your horse's teeth checked?
Horses' teeth erupt (not grow) constantly throughout their lives at a rate of around 2-3mm each year. They continue to erupt until the age of 18-20 when the process slows or ceases.
Horses' teeth act as a self-sharpening mechanism, allowing them to break feed down to an appropriate size for efficient digestion. For this system to work effectively, the rate of eruption should be equal to the rate of wear, which, in a natural environment, out in the field on coarse grass, can take place efficiently.
However, because of the way we keep our horses, this isn't the case. For example, grass in a natural habitat is far more abrasive and higher in silica than the farmed pasture on which we graze our horses, so it's much more difficult for domesticated horses to wear down their teeth as they would in the wild. A combination of soft grass, soft hay and easily broken down hard feed, coupled with the fact we use bits in our horses' mouths, has resulted in the need for regular checks by an equine dental technician or vet.
How often should teeth be checked?
It's recommended that a horse in work and stabled, below the age of 18, is checked every six months. A horse out at grass, such as a broodmare or horses over the age of 18, should be checked every 12 months. As with any other condition, it's important that your horse has his teeth checked if he shows any signs of discomfort or any abnormal behavior, which could be connected to his mouth.
What to expect during a routine dental check:
When your EDT arrives, the first thing he or she is likely to do is to ask questions to establish the medical history of your horse. This will help to indicate any possible problems.
They may ask:
- Is your horse's behavior normal?
- Have they dropped any condition?
- Are they reluctant to eat or showing any signs of having difficulty eating? For example, are they dropping food?
- Is your horse's performance normal? For example, does he headshake, resist the contact, perform better on one rein, rear or buck?
Your horse will be visually examined to determine his condition and general health. Your EDT will consider his attitude, weight, posture, condition, coat condition and eyes.
Fitting a speculum
For your EDT to perform an oral examination safely, they need to use a speculum to hold open your horse's mouth. It may seem a little strange at first but most horses aren't bothered by it at all. They may mouth and play with it, just as a young horse might play with a bit for the first time.
This is completely normal and just an indication that the horse is feeling what's in his mouth. The speculum will be used throughout the oral examination to hold open the mouth, but regular breaks should be given by closing the speculum, especially with younger horses to allow them to rest, as a reward.
The oral examination
Your EDT will then examine your horse's whole oral cavity, which includes the soft tissue surrounding the teeth and tongue. They'll initially examine the mouth by feeling the arcades, creating a picture of any abnormalities or problems and, using a torch, visually check the oral cavity.
Before the examination, they may wash the horse's mouth out with what looks like a big syringe. This removes any feed in the mouth - and most horses enjoy a good rinse and spit.
You'll see the EDT rubbing their hands along the inside of the lower arcades and the outside of the upper arcades, checking for sharp edges. They'll also run their hand down the surface of the teeth checking for hooks and ramps.
An examination of the tongue and soft tissue is necessary to check there's no ulceration or damage as a result of dental abnormalities.
The EDT will then proceed to float your horse's mouth, removing any sharp edges, hooks or ramps, etc, using a number of specifically designed rasps. The rasps vary in head angle and the length of the shaft depends on which teeth they're working on.
Practical examination (external)
Following the visual examination, your EDT will closely examine your horse's whole head. They'll be looking for any external lumps and bumps that may indicate problems inside the mouth.
They may check if there's any discomfort in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) which is where the lower jaw joins the upper jaw. Any discomfort could indicate dental problems resulting from the restricted movement of this joint.
they'll also put pressure on the major muscles of the head, used by your horse to chew. Once again, any pain or discomfort of these muscles could suggest dental problems.
What if my horse needs treatment
Most treatment, such as the removal of sharp edges, can be done there and then by a qualified EDT. On some occasions, sedation may be required if the abnormalities are severe and use of motorized equipment is necessary, or if the horse is very nervous or aggressive. In this case, you'll need to arrange for your vet to come out to sedate your horse.
What's the difference between motorized and hand tools?
Hand tools, such as rasps, are used on a day-to-day basis for check-ups and addressing minor abnormalities. But there's always the risk that some abnormalities will be too severe to treat using rasps alone. If using motorized equipment, your EDT will need your horse to remain very still, which will generally require sedation by a vet.
Is there anything I need to do before the appointment?
There's nothing you need to do ahead of your appointment, but it's important to ensure that there's an appropriate area for your EDT to work in when they arrive.
- A stable provides a safe, enclosed environment for your EDT to work in; lighting may be required in winter.
- Your EDT may need a power supply, so if one isn't available, make them aware of this before the appointment.
Will my horse be able to eat immediately after treatment?
Every horse is an individual who reacts differently to dental treatment. At worst he may quid his hay for a few hours, but most will tuck into their feed straight away. A horse will benefit if he's turned out at grass immediately after.
Is there anything I can do to prepare my horse for his appointment?
In terms of preparing your horse for the EDT, it helps if an EDT has examined your horse as a foal - not necessarily performing any treatment but just putting a rasp in his mouth to familiarise him with the taste and texture. It's not recommended to start sticking your hands in your horse's mouth as accidents can happen.
Can I do anything to maintain my horse's teeth and gums?
One thing you can do is to ensure that no feed is getting trapped between your horse's incisors. A stiff toothbrush can be used to remove this, which will ensure healthy gums, increase the stability of the incisors and reduce gingivitis This is especially helpful to older horses who'll also benefit from a quick flush with clean water from a hose or large dose syringe - if they'll let you.
What are the signs something is wrong?
In the stable
- Dropping feed
- Quidding hay
- Drinking during feeding
- Increased time to eat food
- Poor digestion of feed (apparent in droppings)
- Rubbing teeth against hard surfaces
- More seriously - choke and colic
In the school
- Resistance to work in an outline - for example, over-bending
- Rearing or bolting
- False or fixed contact
- Reluctance to move forward into the hand
- Resistance to one rein
Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.