Dental Care for Young Horses

Laughing foal showing teeth.
Laughing foal showing teeth. Emma Holmwood

Many horses are kept in artificial conditions, eating grain and hay rather than grazing at pasture, and may not wear their teeth normally. You can't assume a horse has good teeth just because he's not old. Young horses can get sharp points, too, and some have problems when shedding baby teeth.

In fact, young horses often suffer more tooth problems than adult horses during the transitional process when temporary baby teeth are being replaced with permanent teeth.

It's easy to see the incisors (front teeth) and witness shedding and replacement with larger ones, but not so easy to examine the back teeth--and these cause the most problems in the young adult. The temporary back teeth usually come up through the gums during the foal's first month of life. These baby teeth remain in place until they are pushed out when permanent teeth come in.

The 2 to 4-year-old is in the process of losing those baby teeth, which are often called caps. These are normally shed in sets of four. In textbook order, the first set of caps is shed when the horse is about 2 1/2 years old, the second set at 3 years, and the final set of caps comes off at about 3 1/2 to 4 years of age.

Retained baby teeth - a common problem for young horses

Not all young horses follow the textbook schedule and sometimes there are complications. In humans, baby teeth come loose as permanent teeth come in, but in horses the baby teeth deteriorate as the new permanent teeth start to erupt. The old teeth become hollow and sometimes these caps do not detach from the gums as they should.

This is called a retained cap, and can cause inflammation of the gums, a painful mouth, and sometimes a sinus problem--if the retained cap is in the upper jaw. If it is not removed, the retained cap may cause the new tooth to grow in at an improper angle, or become impacted.

A young horse may resist use of a headstall that might press against loosening caps. The caps may move and irritate the horse, and may also provide a site for infection. If a cap must be removed, most veterinarians or equine dentists remove the opposite one as well, so the mouth will match (top and bottom), to encourage proper eruption of the permanent teeth, and to avoid uneven wear.

Sometimes foreign objects get caught in the mouth or teeth, causing pain when the horse eats. Get foals accustomed to having someone checking around in their mouth or putting fingers in the corner of the mouth when they are young. Then they are not as leery about having the mouth checked, or a bit put into the mouth during training, and don't resist so much if medication needs to be given orally, or teeth floated.

If a horse has a mouth problem, the observant horseman can have it examined by a veterinarian or equine dentist - and initiate proper dental care to head off trouble or prevent training resistance due to a sore mouth.

Tooth pain caused by a bit may make him throw his head, or he may become hard to bridle. The horse may perform poorly; he can't concentrate on training when his main attention is focused on pain in his mouth. Even in a normal youngster, sharp edges may form because of teeth being shed and coming into wear at different stages.

The mouth goes through many changes before the horse is 5 years old, and some of these changes cause problems in certain individuals. When a horse is shedding baby teeth (age 2 to 4) and growing permanent ones, his mouth should be checked frequently.

Tooth bumps - don't worry, it's normal

Sometimes a young horse between 2 to 4 years old will develop bony protrusions on the lower jaw as the permanent cheek teeth come in. It's not uncommon for the first and fourth molars to pinch the second and third molars as they emerge, temporarily inhibiting their upward growth - especially if the horse has a narrow lower jaw.

This impaction creates bony lumps on the bottom of the lower jaw. These "tooth bumps" are fairly common in 3-year-olds. Usually the impacted teeth will gradually force their way up and the problem corrects itself.

The second grinding tooth usually comes in when the horse is three, and the third one emerges at age four. After they come into their proper places, the bone protrusions on the jaw smooth out and the lumps are usually gone by the time the horse is 5 or 6 (though sometimes as late as 7).

Occasionally the impaction won't correct, and the obstructed teeth must be surgically removed. Radiographs may be needed to see if the teeth should be taken out.

Wolf teeth - a dental problem waiting to happen

Late yearlings, 2-year-olds, and sometimes 3-year-olds occasionally have problems with wolf teeth, especially when the horse is started in a bridle. Wolf teeth are technically the first premolars, and located in front of the upper second premolars. They usually appear about 6 months of age. About 20% of horses (both male and female) have these residual teeth.

Wolf teeth should not to be confused with canine teeth, which occur in a different location and which most commonly occur in the male horse.

Some horsemen routinely have wolf teeth extracted before the young horse goes into training. Most wolf teeth are easily located and extracted--a simple procedure that can be done by a veterinarian or an equine dentist. Wolf teeth cause problems if a bit comes into contact with them; the bit may irritate, loosen, or even break the tooth. A wolf tooth may also lacerate the flesh of the cheek that is pulled back with the bit.

An un-errupted wolf tooth can also cause trouble. It is beneath the gum and can't be seen, nor easily felt, but it may be irritated when the bit is pulled. The flesh covering the tooth can be bruised, and sometimes the action of a bit may break the tooth even though it is still beneath the gum.

If a horse experiences pain from bit pressure on an un-errupted wolf tooth, he may tuck his chin toward his chest to avoid contact between the bit and the wolf tooth, or may carry his head to one side if he has only one wolf tooth. He may also carry his head abnormally high, mouth open, to try to avoid bit contact.

A horse that tries to carry a bit low in his mouth to prevent bit discomfort should be examined for un-errupted wolf teeth. Your veterinarian can extract it, making an incision through the gum.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.