For many owners, keeping a horse can feel like an endless list of appointments. You basically become your horse’s personal assistant! Between the farrier, the vet, and the physiotherapist, we can easily spend many hours and many hundreds of pounds each year just trying to keep them healthy. His dental care is yet another appointment on that expensive list, so why is it so important?
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Horses are hypsodonts (and brachydonts)!
So, just like in humans, horses should have regular dental check-ups to make sure there’s no sign of any nasties like caries developing. However, this is only one part of the story. Horses are hypsodonts, this means that they have huge teeth with very long enamel crowns that extend way down below the gum line. This is called the reserve crown. Over time, the surface of the teeth is worn away by chewing. More of the tooth below the gum line erupts to maintain the normal tooth length; they erupt at a rate of about 2mm per year. Over the length of the life of the horse, the crown can get used up leaving no further to erupt. So older horses can suffer with problems like loose teeth, tooth loss, and malocclusions as a result.
The hypsodont teeth are the incisors and the cheek teeth. But the canine teeth and the first premolars (sometimes called ‘wolf’ teeth) are brachydont (just to confuse us all). Just like our adult teeth, these have a fixed, formed root and crown, and can’t erupt further.
The horse’s mouth
The horse’s upper jaw is wider than its lower jaw. This is important for chewing long grasses and hay efficiently. But it can mean that overgrowths of enamel form in the areas where there is less contact between the teeth.
The adult horse has 12 incisors, 2 canines (mares don’t normally have these), and then the numerous cheek teeth which are split into 12 premolars and 12 molars. The first premolars are called ‘wolf’ teeth – something many horse owners are familiar with – sometimes these are present and sometimes not. If a horse had all four of its first premolars, then it would have a total of 16 premolar teeth but that’s quite unusual.
What happens during the dental exam?
During the dental exam, the horse’s head will be examined first for symmetry and lumps or bumps. And you’ll be asked about his eating habits, exercise behaviour, diet, any nasal discharge, and so forth. The incisors, lips, and jaw movement are assessed first, and his mouth is rinsed with water. Your horse may also be given some sedation. This is advisable to make the whole process easier, safer and less stressful. Then, a mouth gag is placed to help keep the mouth open and prevent any injuries. This also gives us good visualisation but it’s pretty dark in there so we normally need a head torch too!
With the gag in place, his head is supported and we can look inside. We examine again the lips and gums, looking for any ulceration, bleeding or trauma, which could indicate problem teeth. We assess the occlusal surfaces of the teeth with respect to their opposing teeth so make sure everything meets as it should. And check for any signs of problems like caries, tooth fractures or gaps between the teeth where food is getting impacted. The cheek teeth are super important, these are felt and examined to see if there are any enamel overgrowths or ‘points’ that need treatment. They tend to form on the outer surfaces of the upper cheek teeth, the inner surfaces of the lower cheek teeth, the front part of the first upper cheek teeth, and the back part of the last lower cheek teeth…although they can form in other areas.
Any rasping or floating treatment is carried out to reduce these overgrowths as needed. The dental chart is updated, the mouth is rinsed again and the gag removed before allowing the horse to recover quietly in his stable.
Reduction of sharp enamel points (SEPs)
You might see SEPs written on your horse’s dental chart. This refers to those enamel overgrowths we mentioned, and that’s what we feel for on the cheek teeth. Reduction of these points is a key part of the dental exam; an electric float or hand floats can be used to gently and gradually rasp the teeth to remove these points down so they can’t injure your horse’s tongue or gums. These enamel points are the key reason for needing regular dental exams. The horse’s teeth constantly erupt over time, allowing SEPs to form, which then can lead to discomfort and ulceration. Keeping the horse’s mouth healthy is essential. Not just for eating, but also because it plays such a key part in ridden work.
Feeding roughage and grass can help slow the development of enamel points. This is because they require a lot of grinding, this helps keep a well occluded mouth in shape. However, many riding horses (and especially sport horses) often get a lot of concentrate feed, and some horses may have malocclusions. Both of these factors mean that the SEPs form faster. And more regular dental treatment is needed to keep on top of them. This is why we recommend a dental exam annually as a minimum. But some horses need one every 6 months or even less, especially as they get older.
There are many other things that can go wrong inside the horse’s mouth, make sure you’ve got your horse’s next dental check-up booked in to make sure his teeth stay in top form.