|The teeth of a horse have been specially designed by nature to allow for continual pastoral grazing – the front incisors shear off the forage, while the wide, flat molars in the cheeks grind it up into a mash ready for swallowing. The teeth are continually growing to compensate for the wear and tear of the constant grazing and chewing.
Just like humans, horses have all sorts of dental problems during their lifetime, including loose, broken or very worn teeth, infected teeth and gum disease. Also just like us, horses have two sets of teeth – baby teeth until around the age of five, by which time their full set of permanent teeth is usually in place (44 for a stallion, and around 40 for a mare).
It’s difficult to pick up dental ailments early in horses, because most of them don’t show any obvious signs. A change in behaviour could be an indicator of discomfort or dental pain; it is better to stay on the safe side and make sure your horse has a routine dental check by an equine dental technician at least once a year.
A dental check should include the procedure known in the equine world as “floating” – filing down the sharp points (enamel cusps) that develop on a horse’s cheek teeth. These cusps develop because the ever-growing teeth are worn down irregularly. Such points can cause sores, lacerations and ulcers on the cheeks and tongue, making it painful for the horse to chew. A sure sign of a problem is if the horse spits out half chewed balls of hay (called ‘quidding’). Horses that spend a lot of time confined are more likely to have painful cusps develop, because they are not chewing forage and grinding the teeth down as nature intended.
You should definitely suspect a dental problem if your previously passive horse starts fighting the bit or resisting the bridle, tilting or tossing his head, bucking and refusing to stop or turn. Check the manure – large undigested wads of food could indicate a dental problem. Other signs are more obvious indicators of a tooth problem, like bad breath, nasal discharge, a swollen face, difficulty chewing, excessive salivating or bleeding from the mouth.Young horses - between two and five years of age - can suffer serious "teething" problems, so ideally their teeth should be checked frequently. The shedding of milk teeth to make way for permanent teeth can be painful, resulting in quidding and head tossing. The milk teeth sometimes break off and can become infected, causing cysts in the jaw.
If you don’t attend to dental problems as soon as possible, the horse will lose weight and condition and become a very unhappy animal!
Some of the common dental conditions that can arise in horses are:
- Wolf teeth - short cone-shaped teeth with a root far longer than the crown - grow (mainly in the upper jaw) in an awkward position that might interfere with the bit. These are usually removed, which is easier to achieve in young horses before the roots become embedded to the jawbone.
- Hooks (overgrown teeth at either end of the molar arcades) develop if the horse has an underbite or overbite, leading to misalignment of the upper and lower molars. The hooked tooth will grow because it has no contact with an opposite tooth to wear it down, causing interference with the lateral grinding movement of a horse's jaw when chewing. The discomfort can be severe if the hooks are not dealt with.
- Ramps are similar to hooks, but not as pronounced. They cause problems especially for horses that are ridden because they can cause the soft tissue to be pinched when the reins are used.
- A Step is a cheek tooth that is longer than the rest in the row. It occurs usually if the tooth opposite it in the other jaw is missing, or impacted, meaning the step tooth will grow to fill the gap. It is a problem because it interferes with the lateral chewing movement, and needs to be floated regularly.
- Dental caries affects horses just like humans. Their teeth - particularly in old age - can develop disease or infection due to abnormal wear or trauma. Infection can spread to the sinus where the deep roots of the teeth reside. Horses can have fillings to conserve the diseased teeth if the caries is in the middle of the tooth.
- The set of 12 incisors - the teeth at the front of the horse's mouth - are prone to all sorts of troubles. This is down to the fact that domestic horses spend too little time using their incisors for the purpose intended - nipping and ripping up grass. Horses fed on hay in the stable use their incisors far less than when they are on grass, so their teeth are not being worn down at a constant rate. The incisors, however, keep growing as normal. This causes a variety of malformed "bites", like the "smile" curvature where the teeth curve up at both sides - or the opposite "frown" curvature. These malformations need to be corrected regularly with floating.
Anyone who loves a horse owes it to him to make sure his teeth are kept in good condition. It's all part of ensuring you have a happy horse!