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Published on Thu, 02/05/2015 - 2:42pm

Taking care of your horse's yearly dental exam

Tough weather months—when you’re cooped up in the barn and unable to ride consistently—are a prime opportunity to take care of those equine chores on your ‘to-do list.’ One key to-do item I like to save for winter months is a visit from the equine dentist, something I consider as basic as vaccinations or deworming procedures.

If you’re new to horse ownership, you might be wondering why your four-legged friend needs a yearly dental exam—it’s not like he needs a technician to remind him to floss.

Why call the dentist?
It’s a valid question. After all, mustangs survive just fine without anyone poking around in their mouths. However, just as with hoof trimming, filing—or floating—a horse’s teeth regularly is critical to help them deal with domesticated life.

In the wild, a horse’s entire diet is grass, and they’re out on pasture 24/7. The grinding action they use to chew grass does a better job of wearing teeth down uniformly than the action used to chew grain, which does not use the whole tooth surface. The mineral content of free range grasses is also said to be stronger than that on many of our seeded pastures, creating a rougher forage that wears teeth down more aggressively.

Even horses who live outside should have their teeth examined regularly to check for sharp points or disease.

Domesticated horses also live longer than most wild horses, and dental disease can sometimes accompany old age. Besides regular floating of your horse’s teeth, your dentist can check for signs of decay or fracture to try to head off potential problems.

Veterinarians recommend having horses’ teeth examined and floated at least once yearly (more often for younger horses whose mouths are changing more rapidly).

How to choose a dentist
This is often a matter of personal preference. In some states, lay people may be licensed equine dentists, while in others only veterinarians may legally float or examine teeth. I know some horsemen who swear by their lay dentist, and others who wouldn’t consider using anyone without a "DVM" after their name. It’s generally a good idea to get recommendations from fellow horsemen or your regular vet (who may not be trained to tackle teeth).

Remember that the advantage to using a veterinarian—who might be a bit pricier than a lay person—is that they have quick access to the diagnostic tools or medications needed to treat a problem if one is detected during the exam.

Some practitioners use electric-powered tools to float teeth, while others use the more old-fashioned files. I’ve seen horses accept both with little concern, especially if they have had a mild dose of sedation (which is typical for dental exams) or if they’re wearing a calming device like The Stableizer, my acupressure headstall.

What are they doing in there?

Horses’ adult teeth are long—about four inches—and erupt through their gums constantly throughout their lives to compensate for the wear on the surface of teeth caused by the grinding motion of their chewing. However, that grinding can be uneven in spots, and as the tooth continues to erupt, it can leave pointy corners on the surface of the tooth that can damage the insides of horses’ cheeks. Those points can also cause added discomfort when the bit sits in the horse’s mouth.

Your horse’s dentist will locate and smooth those sharp points. Like your dentist, he’ll also take a look at the horse’s jaw for signs of muscle wasting, and the gums for signs of disease. He’ll also examine the surface of the teeth to check for cracks or other oddities.

In young horses, dentists will look for the appearance of wolf teeth, a set of small, peg-like premolars that are holdovers from the horse’s bygone wild days, which probably included fights over territory. Wolf teeth, which are present in about half of horses, come down around the spot in the mouth where the bit sits, and can cause discomfort for riding horses.

Older horses should also be examined for signs of dental disease as well as to help you learn what they’re able to chew and what foods might be a little tough for them to handle. Many commercial grainaries make feed geared toward seniors that is easier for them to handle.