Your Horse's Mouth and Teeth - Why It Is Important To Have Your Horse Say Ahhhhh! Routinely

Laughing foal with healthy teeth shows why making horse dental health a priority is important.
Laughing foal with healthy teeth shows why making horse dental health a priority is important.

Routine dental care is essential to your horse's health. Periodic examinations and regular maintenance such as floating, are especially necessary for three important reasons:

  1. The horse's diet and eating patterns have been greatly modified through domestication and confinement.
  2. More is demanded from horses beginning at a younger age especially those that are involved in performance and competitive showings.
  3. Breeding animals are often selected without regard to dental considerations.

As many horse owners recognize, proper dental care has its rewards. Horses are more comfortable and will utilize feed more efficiently when routine dental checkups and treatments are a priority. In addition, horses may perform better and may live longer when their mouths and teeth function properly.

Since horses evolved as grazing animals, their teeth are perfectly adapted for that purpose. The forward teeth, known as incisors, function to shear off forage. The cheek teeth, including the molars and premolars with their wide, flat, graveled surfaces, easily grind the feed to a mash before it is swallowed.

Like humans, horses get two sets of teeth in their lifetime. The baby teeth, also called deciduous teeth, are temporary. The first deciduous incisors may erupt before the foal is born. The last baby teeth come in when the horse is about 8 months of age.

These teeth begin to be replaced by adult teeth around age 2 1/2. By age 5, most horses have their full complement of permanent teeth. An adult male horse has 40 permanent teeth. A mare may have between 36-40, because mares are less likely to have canine teeth, also known as bridle teeth.

Veterinarians recommend that dental examinations should begin at the first wellness exam for a newborn foal. Your veterinarian will perform a brief visual and digital examination to check your foal's bite. A normal bite will help ensure that your foal's mandible and maxilla and their teeth will grow and develop in a healthy fashion.

Identifying an abnormal bite at an early age, for example parrot mouth, sow mouth or other malocclusions, will allow you and your veterinarian or equine dentist to provide the appropriate care to minimize the impact of these conformation defects from impacting the quality of your horse's life.

As your horse grows into a yearling, a 2-year-old and on to become an adult horse, bi-annual dental examinations are normally performed.

During dental examinations, your veterinarian or equine dentist will use a bright light source to examine your horse's oral cavity. Depending on your horse's temperament, it may be necessary to use a mild sedative to perform a comprehensive dental exam.

Should your veterinarian suspect that your horse has any potential problems based on his eating and medical history, your horse's physical appearance or what the veterinarian or equine dentist are able to ascertain from their physical examination, a device called a speculum will be used to hold your horse's mouth open for a more intensive examination.

Signs that your horse has dental problems:

  • Difficulty in chewing, with food dropping from the mouth
  • Excessive salivation
  • Undigested grain and food particles in manure
  • Loss of weight
  • Not wanting to have face or muzzle handled
  • Resisting having the bridle put on
  • Head tossing and difficult handling when riding
  • Facial swelling
  • Mouth odor
  • Unpleasant nasal discharge

Age of horse affects frequency of dental care required

  • Foals should be examined shortly after birth and periodically during the first year to diagnose and correct congenital dental abnormalities (existing from birth).
  • Yearlings have been found to have enamel points sharp enough to damage cheek and tongue tissue. Floating will make them more comfortable.
  • Horses going into training for the first time, especially 2- and 3-year-olds, need a comprehensive dental check-up. Teeth should be floated to remove any sharp points and checked for retained caps. Caps should be removed if they have not been shed. This should be done before training begins to prevent training problems related to sharp teeth.
  • Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dental exams than older horses. Deciduous teeth tend to be softer than permanent teeth and may develop sharp enamel points more quickly Also, there is an extraordinary amount of dental maturation during this period. Twenty-four teeth will be shed and replaced by 36 to 40 adult teeth. To prevent mal-eruption problems, twice-a-year examinations are appropriate for young horses from birth to 5 years of age.
  • Mature horses should get a thorough dental examination at least annually to maintain correct dental alignment and to diagnose dental problems as early as possible.
  • Senior horses (17 years old or older) are at increased risk for developing periodontal disease. This painful disease must be diagnosed early for a successful treatment. Also, it is important to maintain a correct bite plane during a horse's teens in order to ensure a functional grinding surface beyond 20 years of age. Beyond the age of 20, the tooth surfaces may be worn excessively and/or unevenly, and dental alignment correction may be impossible.
  • Horses over 20 years of age should receive a dental evaluation and nutritional counseling at least annually to maintain their conditioning and quality of life. With routine dental care, many horses will maintain a functional dentition into their third and fourth decades of life.

Developing greater awareness of the need for dental care

  • If a horse starts behaving abnormally, dental problems should be considered as a potential cause.
  • Abnormalities should be corrected and teeth should be floated and maintained as indicated.
  • Wolf teeth are routinely extracted from performance horses to prevent interference with the bit and its associated pain.
  • Sedatives, local anesthetics, and analgesics can relax the horse and keep him more comfortable during floating and other dental procedures. Such drugs should be administered only by a veterinarian.
  • Most equine dental procedures, including basic floating, irreversibly change the horse's teeth and therefore are most appropriately performed by a veterinarian or an equine dentist.
  • If your equine practitioner finds a loose tooth, he or she may extract it. This may reduce the chance of infection or other problems.
  • Canine teeth, usually present in mature geldings and stallions, may be rounded and smoothed. This procedure is performed to prevent interference with the bit and to reduce the possibility of injury to the horse, the handler and other horses pastured or stabled with the horse.
  • Depending upon the condition of your horse's teeth, more than one visit from your equine practitioner may be required to get the mouth in prime working order.
  • It is important to catch dental problems early. Waiting too long may increase the difficulty of correcting certain conditions or may even make correction impossible.

More serious dental ailments in horses

Serious dental conditions can develop, such as infections of the teeth and gums, extremely long hooks or overgrowths on the cheek teeth, and lost or fractured teeth. These conditions may require advanced dental care and/or extraction by a qualified veterinarian. Your equine practitioner can recommend the best treatment or refer your horse to a dental specialist if indicated.

Consider this:

Horses' mouths and teeth are unique to their species and require regular maintenance. Routine dental examinations are essential to your horse's overall health, well-being and comfort. In general, our equine friends should have dental exams two times a year (or more, if deemed necessary by a veterinarian).

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.