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By Cynthia McFarland

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Proper Equine Dental Care: More Than Just "Floating" Teeth

Whether you've had horses for years or you just recently became a horse owner, you've likely been told that horses need to have their teeth "floated." "Floating" refers to smoothing or filing the horse's teeth to remove the rough edges and smooth the chewing surface. The term was originally used in masonry to describe the process of leveling a row of bricks, and a "float" is also a tool used to smooth concrete. Equine dentists use a metal file, or an electric instrument known as a float, but proper equine dental care is about more than just smoothing sharp or rough edges of teeth. Horses have different dental needs at different stages of life, but the most important thing to remember is that all horses should have an exam once a year by an equine dental care provider.

horse dental exam

Exam Basics

Each tooth is examined and evaluated during a proper dental exam. In addition to the teeth, the horse's head, eyes, ears, nostrils and tongue are examined during a routine examination. The dental care provider should always use a speculum (a device that holds the horse's mouth open) and a light to conduct the exam. A mirror and dental picks are also commonly used.

"Just like at a human dentist, there should be a dental chart that maps every tooth, and the provider should explain any issues or problems," notes Bess Darrow, DVM, a veterinarian and certified dental technician based in the densely horse-populated area of Ocala, Florida. Darrow has had an equine dentistry exclusive practice since 2000.

A Closer Look at Equine Teeth

Foals are typically born without teeth, but baby teeth appear within the first weeks. Young horses gradually lose their baby teeth, 

starting at around 2 ½ years of age. By the time a horse is considered an adult at the age of five years old, those baby teeth have been shed and replaced by permanent teeth. Those permanent teeth are referred to as "hypsodont" teeth, which means they are constantly erupting and are gradually worn down through the chewing process.

"Horse teeth are more similar to rodent teeth than human teeth, because they are continuously erupting," says Darrow.

Equine teeth erupt at an average rate of 2–4 millimeters per year. This eruption occurs until the horse reaches his twenties and his molars have "expired" or run out of reserve crown — the part of the tooth above the gum. At this point, the teeth can fall out or be worn down almost even with the gumline.

And no, all horses don't have the same number of teeth.

Adult horses have anywhere from 36 to 42 teeth, depending on the sex of the horse, with males generally having a higher number.

There are 12 incisors (front teeth), which are used for nipping off grass — and for biting.

Most male horses have four canine teeth behind the incisors. "Canines are for fighting and are more like a tusk,” says Darrow. “Mares rarely have canines, and if they do, their canines are very small.”

Most horses of either sex have two small wolf teeth in the upper jaw. Because these teeth are generally located in the part of the mouth where a bit rests, it's routine to remove wolf teeth before the young horse starts breaking and training.

In the back of the mouth, all horses should have 24 molars, six on top on each side and six on the bottom on each side.

"I've lost count of how many people have looked in their horse's mouth when I'm working and said, 'Wow, I didn't know they have teeth that far back!'" says Darrow. "If you look at the side of a horse's head, their teeth go back as far as their eyes."

Dental Care Needs

Consistent dental care — starting at a young age and continuing throughout the horse's life — is an important aspect of caring for your horse. Young, middle-aged and geriatric horses each have their own issues.

If you're fortunate enough to have a horse from birth, the foal should be examined at a young age to check for anomalies, such as overbite ("parrot mouth") or underbite ("monkey mouth"). Corrective treatment on foals with such issues can begin in the first few months of life.

Between the age of two and five years, horses are shedding their baby teeth, so it's recommended to have a dental exam every six months during this timeframe.

From the age of five onward, an annual exam should be sufficient and should continue throughout the horse's entire life.

"If you start a horse on a regular program of preventative maintenance when it is young, it will have well-balanced, healthy teeth, which will function properly as it ages," says Darrow.

If you buy a horse and have no idea of his dental history, an exam is called for just to get a baseline of his oral health and to make sure there aren't any potential dental issues brewing.

Signs of Dental Issues

"Not all horses with dental problems will show signs that something is wrong," says Darrow. "I see many horses showing no clinical signs who have significant issues upon examination. This is why the annual exam is so important."

Indications of dental problems may include:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Bad breath
  • Excessive salivation
  • Cuts/ulcerations on the cheek or tongue
  • Dropping feed while eating
  • Making unusual movements with the mouth/head
  • Resistance/sensitivity to the bit
  • "Quidding" (dropping clumps of feed or balled-up hay)

Any of these signs indicate that your horse should be examined by a dental professional.

Many horse owners think a clear sign of dental issues is if a horse drops food while eating. Darrow says that that's not always the case and that it's more important to know whether this action is new or if the horse has always eaten this way.

"Some horses are just messy or distracted eaters; others are being fed in too small a bucket, so they take a bite, lift their head, look around and drop feed," she says.

Interestingly, lack of appetite doesn't tend to be a sign of dental issues. "Horses with dental problems are still hungry, so they will find a way to eat," notes Darrow, adding that she's worked on many a fat horse or pony who had severe mouth/teeth issues, but their owners swore they'd "never missed a meal."

Keep in mind that if you wait until your horse is showing signs, he may already have a serious dental problem. When you are in the routine of annual exams, your dental care provider can identify and correct problems before they become advanced.

Common Dental Issues

Dental care providers see many problem areas inside the equine mouth, but the most common issues include:

  • Sharp edges (also called "enamel points") that can cause ulcerations on the cheek and/or tongue
  • Teeth that don't match up evenly and result in uneven wear patterns and overgrown teeth (like hooks, ramps and waves)
  • Missing or broken teeth

Sharp edges and uneven teeth can hamper the horse's ability to chew properly and digest feed. Several issues can develop when teeth on the top and bottom don't meet evenly.

"Wave mouth" is unevenness of wear that causes high and low spots in the horse’s mouth, preventing the opposing teeth from meeting properly. "Hooks" that resemble an eagle's curved upper beak are long protuberances that form on part of a tooth on the upper jaw when it isn’t worn properly by the opposing tooth. "Ramps" that look like a ski ramp occur when a lower tooth develops a sloping angle because it isn't worn properly by the opposing tooth. Both hooks and ramps can interfere with the horse's natural circular, side-to-side chewing motion.

Such problems are remedied by floating and "occlusal equilibration." According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), floating removes the sharp enamel points, while "occlusal equilibration is the term now used to describe smoothing enamel points, correcting malocclusion (misalignment of teeth when jaws are closed), balancing the dental arcades and correcting other dental problems."

"I say 'float and balance' because we are floating off the sharp edges and balancing the teeth," says Darrow, explaining that it is somewhat similar to a farrier shaping and balancing the hooves front to back and side to side.

A dental care professional may use power equipment or hand floats to address the issues in your horse's mouth. Whichever technique is utilized, make sure that the person using the tools is a qualified practitioner.

It's common for the horse to be given a mild sedative so dental work can be done properly. Not only does sedation help the horse relax and stand quietly, it keeps him from clenching his teeth.

"The shape of a horse's head and inherited poor mouth conformation can make some horses have a propensity for dental problems," notes Darrow. "For example, dental problems are common in minis because their heads are so small, even though their teeth aren't, so there's a lot of overcrowding and teeth out of correct position."

In her two decades as a certified equine dentist, Darrow has found that horses with long, narrow faces, like Tennessee Walking Horses and standardbreds, tend to have more room in their mouths for their teeth and therefore have fewer issues with overcrowding and malocclusion than those with shorter, wider heads, like Arabians and quarter horses.

Finding a Dental Care Provider

Many veterinarians offer dental care, but if yours doesn't, ask him or her to recommend a qualified individual. Only licensed veterinarians are legally permitted to administer sedatives, which is why a dental care provider needs to either be a veterinarian or work with one.

"You want to use a qualified dental care provider who performs a thorough dental examination, not just someone who does a quick hand float without ever looking inside the mouth," notes Darrow.

Before entrusting your horse’s dental care to someone, ask for certification. The Academy of Equine Dentistry and the International Association of Equine Dentists (IAED) are both reliable sources of certification. You can visit their websites and search for a certified equine dentist/dental care provider in your area.

Another option is to check with equine hospitals and university veterinary schools in your vicinity, as they often have someone on staff who does dental work.

Did You Know?

You've no doubt heard that the condition of your teeth and mouth are closely related to your overall physical health. The same applies to your horse. Routine care can avert many common problems and help keep your horse healthy. An annual dental exam by a qualified provider should always be part of your horse's health care, whatever his age. Your horse may not need dental work every year, but the exam is crucial, and regular care becomes more important as horses age.

When Chewing Is an Issue?

Sometimes an old horse's molars become so worn down they can no longer properly chew hay. If this is the case, you'll likely need to make changes in the feeding program to ensure your senior horse receives adequate nutrition. For example, instead of hay, you may want to offer hay cubes soaked in water to form a "hay mash." You may be advised to switch over to a complete senior feed, which is easier for the horse to chew and digest. All feed changes should be made gradually to avoid gastric upset. Talk with your veterinarian and dental care provider to come up with the best plan for your individual horse.

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