Why should we look after horses’s teeth? Many people would argue that horses have evolved over millions of years and that they are perfectly adapted to eat grass without any interference from us.
True, they have evolved over millions of years, however the domesticated horse (Equus Caballus) has already been interfered with by our breeding practices and as a result its mouth and tooth structure is slightly different from the original wild horses.
Remember that feral horses such as the brumbies and mustangs are still from domesticated bloodlines and that the only true wild horses that modern-day people have seen are the Prezwalski horse, which lives today in Mongolia, and the Tarpan that became extinct nearly 100 years ago.
Even though the domesticated horse’s teeth are not as strong as those of wild horses, the majority of problems come from the way we look after our horses.
It starts with the type of food we provide, the amount of pasture time the horse is given to eat grass, the diversity of grass species, removal of the wolf teeth to avoid infection, not overcrowding paddocks to avoid injuries from other horses and, most importantly, only using a qualified equine dentist or equine veterinarian to look after your horses teeth. (See also ‘Feed and Pasture’ and ‘Digestion’.)
A horse's mouth is made up of incisors, molars and the tongue. At the front, the incisors nip off the grass. The tongue then moves the grass or feed to the back of the mouth where the molars grind the food using a rotating side to side motion as you can see in the animation here which shows how it's jaw works.
While the molars are grinding up the food into a fine material, saliva is added to make it easier to swallow and digest. If a horse develops problems due to either our management or an existing physical problem, it may find it hard to nip grass off or grind its food properly. Both these problems will lead to poor nutrition and, in many cases, painful cuts on the gums or cheeks. Remember that the mouth and therefore teeth are the first part of a horses digestive system, so if it cannot eat properly it cannot digest the nutrients it needs to live, grow and work. Below you can see some photos showing the wear and tear on the teeth of a 30-year-old horse.
When horses are young, until they are about four to five years old, they should be seen by a dental specialist every six months. The specialist will make sure that the horse’s teeth are developing well, that the milk caps that cover the permanent teeth fall off when they should, and that the wolf teeth are removed before a bit is put in its mouth. From then on the horse should be seen by the specialist every year, to make sure that the teeth are wearing evenly and also to do any work that is necessary to remove sharp edges, hooks and ramps.
The kind of problems you can expect to see if a horse has dental problems are:
Reluctance to eat, does not finish food or eats slowly
Dull coat, weight loss and condition
Quidding (drops partially chewed food while chewing)
Chewing with mouth open
Turning the head to the side while chewing
Excessive saliva and blood in saliva
Foul smell from the mouth and nose
Abscesses draining from the jaw (can also be Strangles)
Discharge from one nostril
Undigested feed in manure
Colic (can have many causes)
Head tossing when ridden
Tilting the head or difficulty bending when ridden
Bucking (can also be a back pain from a badly fitted saddle)
If you see any of these problems call your vet or equine dentist. Never let an unqualified person do any work on your horses mouth. The results can be terrible.
More about teeth
Like you, a horse’s teeth appear in stages; from their milk teeth soon after birth, to a full set of adult teeth by about five years old. This is why we can get a reasonable idea of a horse’s age by looking at their teeth. Although individual horses can vary, the animation below shows the general order in which their teeth break through (just click on the arrow to play it)…
At about 4 to 5 years of age a horse will have all its adult or permanent teeth. It will have 12 incisors ( 6 on the top and 6 on the bottom at the front of the jaw), 12 premolars ( 3 on the top and 3 on the bottom, on each side) and 12 molars ( 3 on the top and 3 on the bottom, on each side).
A young adult horse has teeth that are about 10 to 13cm long (4 to 5 inches). Only a small amount of tooth appears above the gum line (this is called the crown) the rest sits below the gum in a tooth socket. Throughout the horse’s life its teeth keep pushing up out of the gum as the horse grinds its food and wears the tooth down. When the horse reaches old age there is very little crown left above the gum and nothing to replace it.
A horse’s teeth are incredibly well adapted to eating grass. The grinding molars are made up of folded Dentine in the middle, surrounded by Enamel which is encased in very hard Cementum. This has evolved over millions of years to produce teeth that can grind cellulose and grit without cracking and breaking.