While the expression may hold that you never look a gift horse in the mouth, this is often exactly what you should do. Equine dentistry has been around for a long time, with farriers usually offering their services with a hand rasping to help horses maintain some level of contact between their teeth.
Occasionally, I run into a new horse owner who hasn’t stopped to consider all of the health needs of horses. Horses can be complicated animals to care for. I care for over 70 horses at the stable I run. I have been involved in dentistry with the horses in my care, and I often assist our qualified equine dentist and observe his work. It is an incredible experience to see him help horses with horrendous mouths chew again.
Do horses need dental care? Horses need to receive equine dentistry services to keep their molars in contact and their incisors at the right length to ensure even chewing and better digestion. Having their teeth rasped and filed regularly helps ensure your horse is able to move their head correctly and grind their feed effectively. But having your horse’s teeth done is about so much more than just chewing.
Horses chew in an oval manner, grinding feed and roughage between their back molars. If there are any sharp points that catch, they are unable to complete the slightly oval grinding pattern when they chew. This means they are uncomfortable and unable to fully chew and masticate their food.
If a horse is unable to properly chew their feed, it will worsen their dental problems as they will create uneven wear patterns such as ramps, hooks, and waves on their teeth, which will severely impact their health and eventually lead to weight loss and ill health.
How often should a horse have its teeth floated? A horse needs to have their first dental check-up when you start riding them or by the age of three, whichever comes first. When they are in their pre-teens (younger than 10 years old), they need to have checks and floating every six months. At this age, the dentist examines their mouths for any abnormalities and balances the teeth with a rasp or with power tools that rasp the teeth. That’s because their teeth are still erupting (pushing up from the jaw) and there are more changes that happen in the mouth. Once they are 10, you can get them checked and rasped or floated once a year.
Cost and Purpose of An Equine Dentist Visit
I got a chance to watch Steve Clark, an equine dentist at work. While he worked on my horses’ teeth, he showed me the advanced tools, including power tools and rasps that he uses to balance the back molars and make sure they are in good contact.
One of the main purposes of an equine dental visit is to ensure the front teeth are slightly lowered to drop the back teeth down into contact when chewing. People often ask him why domesticated horses need their teeth floated and wild horses don’t.
Domestic horses need their teeth floated because they don’t eat the same foods as wild horses do. Therefore, the wear pattern on their teeth is no longer natural. While their molars wear down, their incisors don’t keep track and need to be filed or rasped back into line to ensure an optimal grinding surface.
Before modern equine dentistry, farriers and vets used to hand rasp the incisors to help balance the horse’s mouth, but there is so much more to the dental process than just focusing on the incisors.
A qualified dentist will sedate the horse to allow precision work using power tools that allow them to safely work on the whole of the horse’s mouth. The whole dental session will be explained in more detail later.
While each dental session is determined by the amount of work and the level of sedation required, an average dental session costs $100-$150 for youngsters up to six years. A session for horses up to 12 years old costs from $125-$175. Dental work for older horses from 13 years and up costs from $125-$250+ and this is dependent on the kind of work their teeth require. By ensuring your horse has regular maintenance work, you can avoid being shocked with a higher bill because of an unforeseen dental issue.
How Often Does Your Horse Need to See a Dentist?
Sadly, some people will usually wait to give an equi-dentist a try until their horse’s health compels them to seek an equine dentist. Failing to provide dental care for your horses can result in two common problems:
- A horse loses weight no matter how much they feed them
- A horse starts experiencing serious behavior problems during ridding.
If you have waited to provide regular dental care for your horse, you may be surprised at the big difference you see in your horse once it’s teeth are regularly cared for. Professionals recommend horses be placed on a maintenance schedule that includes a dental exam and their teeth floated every six months for a youngster. Older horses, 10 years and older, need once a year exams.
Dental issues such as wolf teeth, fractured teeth, missing or rotten teeth, cavities, and other dental concerns or malformations can be treated, improved upon, and even eliminated by your horse’s dentist. Briefly:
Horse Teeth Maintenance
Horses didn’t evolve eating the same way they do domestically. They are also not really equipped to be ridden with a metal bit in their mouths. Domestic feeding and bridles and bits make critical and unnatural changes to a horse’s mouth and teeth. That’s why you should check and fix your horse’s teeth as needed. The dentist will ensure there is an even wear of the teeth to help them chew better.
If you are riding, your dentist will also ensure your horse’s bit seats are updated. These are the areas where the first top and bottom molars meet. It is where the bit will sit in your horse’s mouth. When these teeth have sharp edges, it can pull the sides of the cheeks and flesh of the gums into the area between the teeth and the bit, pinching and possibly cutting your horse in their mouth.
With properly maintained bit seats, your horse will feel comfortable and happy to have a bit in their mouth, which can reduce or remove headshaking, issues with stopping, and many other behavior concerns you may be having when you ride.
Wolf Teeth Cause Riding Issues Equine Dentists Can Correct
Wolf teeth are the first molars (premolars) young horses grow. They erupt when a horse reaches 5-7 years. They are remnants of evolution and no longer have any function. Wolf teeth can be compared to the usefulness of a person’s wisdom teeth. Don’t confuse them with the canine teeth that are located behind the incisors.
Wolf teeth are a problem for horses that get ridden as these vestigial teeth are located exactly where your horse’s bit fits in their mouth. As a result, your horse can experience pain if they are still in place.
Your dentist will extract these, ensuring your horse is able to properly accept the bit. By removing these, you may find that problems like head shaking, rearing, bucking, and refusing to stop may be eliminated entirely.
Fractured Teeth Can Cause Long-term Health Issues
Your horse may fracture a tooth for a number of reasons. These reasons include biting on a stone, being kicked, and having uneven pressure in the mouth due to poor wear patterns. When they suffer a fractured tooth, your horse will experience difficulty chewing properly and sharp pain.
Over time, the tooth may begin to rot into the root or pulp chambers, causing an abscess to form or even infection into the nasal cavities or jaw.
Fortunately, if a fractured tooth is removed at a young age, your horse’s remaining teeth have the opportunity to fill the gap and ensure they continue to enjoy healthy chewing.
Rotten Teeth: Painful and Difficult
Like humans, horses can also have rotten teeth. This can be a huge problem for them and for you (if you end up struggling to ride your horse). Whether from a kick or from being fed a diet containing too much sugar, your horse may have teeth rotting in their mouth.
Rotten teeth can cause your horse to only chew on one side. It also causes not being able to work properly on the bit. Finally your horse may become sick or be in pain due to the resulting abscesses.
Your equi-dentist will remove the rotten tooth, or if possible, they will grind the rotten surface away, ensuring the horse a longer life due to still having their teeth.
Genetics play a huge role in your horse’s teeth quality. Your equine dentist can be a lifesaver when your horse has issues caused by genetics. My horse, pictured below, has a genetic predisposition that causes her incisors to have a “smile” in.
While this may look cute and friendly, it is not natural for horses and means she has uneven pressure on her back teeth. She also locks her jaw, making her hard to stop when riding.
Steve Clark provided correction to her teeth and a more natural mouth. In the photo above, he carefully files her incisors back into a more natural shape, balances the molars, and ensures there is a better grinding surface with nothing that can lock her jaw.
This is a genetic condition that she has passed on to her foals, so regular dental work must be done to ensure they remain healthy. Needless to say, she had weight issues her whole life. But, since she began receiving regular dental work she has maintained a healthier body weight and is a pleasure to ride.
There are other dental issues your horse’s dentist can help with. These issues include parrot mouth, having too many teeth, skew teeth, excess tooth growth, baby teeth caps that haven’t come out, and adult teeth that are not erupting normally in younger horses.
Hand Rasping Is Not As Effective As Power Tools
Many people I have spoken to about getting dentist work for their horse have the mistaken idea that simply rasping the incisors will fix all teeth problems. Yet, maintaining and fixing problems is not possible without the correct dental equipment, sedation, and the services of a knowledgeable equi-dentist.
Power tools help the dentist perform precision work on the whole of the horse’s mouth, removing as little build-up and growth as possible while ensuring the horse’s mouth is balanced.
Hand rasping uses manual files on the incisors. Many equine dentists will use both hand rasps and power tools. Some horses prefer the incisors being touched up with hand rasping. Most horses are quite happy with power tools though.
Power work uses a range of tools to rasp the incisors for a level eating surface. Note in the photo below how the tools enable a much more precise and safe rasping to be implemented.
What to Expect During An Equine Dental Session
During your horse’s first dental session, you can expect the dentist to evaluate the horse’s mouth, then administer the sedation. This is calculated on your horse’s weight and temperament.
Some horses require only a light sedation to help them relax while they are being worked on, with other horses needing heavy sedation to prevent them from hurting themselves or the dentist. This is not because they are in pain, but rather because they are not used to having someone work in their mouths. Over several sessions, you will notice their behavior improving as they realize the dentist isn’t going to hurt them.
Next, the dentist will work on the incisors, smoothing any hooks or uneven wear patterns. The speculum or gag is then fitted, which operates on a pulley that helps your horse keep their head up. With the speculum, your horse receives some support to keep their jaws open, and it prevents them from biting the dentist or damaging their teeth if they should bite down on the rasps and equipment. The dentist can now access the back of the mouth, rasping all teeth precisely.
Once the top and bottom molars are rasped, the speculum is removed and the mouth is rinsed. The dentist will then check for any hooks or uneven contact to produce a good occlusion by moving the horse’s jaws across each other in the same manner as they would when chewing naturally. If there is some final work required, the dentist may do free-hand rasping with power tools if the horse allows this or even use hand rasps to finish up.
Following the sedation, your horse will be quite sleepy, so be sure to remove all hay or feed from their stable for the next three to four hours as they may choke on this. Once they are fully awake and alert, feed and hay can be given as usual. If there was substantial work done such as removing wolf teeth or heavy rasping, you may want to give your horse a few days off before riding them again.
The Benefits of Having Your Horse’s Teeth Floated
There are many benefits to having your horse’s teeth checked regularly, and surprisingly, saving money is one of them.
Dental Exams Save Money
While many people balk at the thought of forking out what seems like a hefty fee for an equine dentist, the reality is simple: If your horse has only 30% molar contact, they will only be able to digest 30% of their feed. As a result, you are flushing away 70% of your feed bill! And your horse will require more feed to maintain their condition when they can’t chew properly.
When you regularly maintain your horse’s teeth with equine dentistry, you will feed less, saving money every day. Potentially, the savings in your feed bill could end up paying for the dentist if you have a hard keeper who usually guzzles several bags of feed a month.
This was the reality with one of my horses. She ate buckets of feed, but always looked skinny and sickly. She now eats a third of her normal feed because of regular dentistry, and the savings actually pay for her annual check-ups and maintenance sessions.
Improved Horse Health
We are only now starting to realize just how involved the horse’s body systems are. When your horse’s teeth are out of alignment, their whole body suffers, not just their weight. Crooked or broken teeth can lead to a horse that develops poor muscle tone on one side, and they can begin to experience other health-related conditions, such as ulcers and laminitis.
Your horse will also live much longer when they can eat better. So, investing in their continued health with regular dentistry is essential. This can also return on your investment. For example, a breeding stud or stallion can potentially earn much more the longer they are healthy and can continue breeding. A healthy and balanced competition horse can earn more winnings.
Greater Precision and Better Riding
Have you ever had aspirations of being a dressage star or reining champion? A horse with problem teeth will struggle with turning, stopping, and carrying themselves effectively. They could be in pain, and it will show.
When their teeth have been balanced, your horse will be able to round onto the bit, collect, stop better, turn sharper, balance better in circle work, and be a much better and happier athlete too.
Can an Equine Dentist Tell How Old My Horse Is by Looking at Their Teeth?
One of the ways in which people have traditionally determined a horse’s age has always been to look at their teeth. Most horse sites and books will only tell you to look at the Galvayne’s groove as a means of telling age.
Galvayne’s groove is a brown line that starts on the upper third incisor of a horse’s teeth at the age of 10. By the age of 15, it should be halfway down the tooth, and by 25 years of age, it should be all the way to the edge of the tooth. By age 30, the groove has become so shallow that it essentially disappears.
While this has traditionally been the measure to tell age, it is not always effective as it can be influenced by the horse’s health, breed, and living conditions
My equi-dentist, Steve Clark, explained how dentists age a horse based on their teeth: When looking at the chewing surface of the incisors, you will notice whether they have an oval, trapezoid, or rectangular shape.
Young horses have oval-shaped teeth, and when they enter their teens, the shape becomes more trapezoidal or triangular. When they are in their late teens and early twenties, the shape will change to being more angular or rectangular. Combining this with a reading of Galvayne’s groove will provide a more accurate view of your horse’s age.
You should ensure your horse sees an equine dentist to help you manage their health and physical soundness to work and be ridden. Teeth health is intrinsically linked to horse health and can cause both underweight and overweight horses.
When your horse’s teeth are in need of quality and precision rasping, their health will eventually begin to suffer if you don’t consult an equine dentist. A problem fixed is a problem averted.