Equine Dentistry: It All Hinges On The Jaw

Many horse owners may not be aware of the importance of equine dental care, yet it ranks right up there with hoof care. It's not "all riding on the hoof", because the jaw is equally as important. But what exactly is equine dentistry, and why is it so important? And how does one find a qualified equine "dentist"?

We all know that the basis of sound health is proper nutrition. But behind every square meal is about a cubic foot of bone, sinew, and soft tissue that gets the nutrient-rich food to its destiny in the proper form - chewed and predigested with saliva. If the mouth were to malfunction, all the food in the world would do nothing, if the horse were unable to eat it.

With a fully functional mouth, the horse can chew and eat efficiently, and in comfort. Without a fully functional mouth, the horse will suffer, your relationship with him will suffer, the risk of ill health will increase, and the veterinarian and feed bills will surely increase. Nutrition and bodily function can be severely impaired if the mouth is neglected.

Equine dentistry is the profession or science of maintaining the proper function of the horse's mouth. Equine dental technicians are individuals who are skilled in the prevention and treatment of problems and diseases, injuries, and malformations of the horse's teeth, jaws, and mouth, to ensure maximum health and well-being of the horse.

Few people realize how important and specialized equine dentistry is. Most owners have their horses' teeth floated, or rasped, to smooth them, once a year, and for some horses, that may be sufficient. For many performance horses, however, four times a year may be the usual, along with other, more specific, procedures. Top competitors insist that regular fine-tuning makes a significant difference in performance, and keeping the mouth in perfect shape is well worth the effort and expense.

Left, a tooth from a 40 year old horse shows just how little tooth was remaining when it became loose. Right, dental cap, or temporary tooth, from Equinox, a 2 ½ year old Chincoteague pony.

Which is better for your horse? Probably something in between would be most beneficial, but it depends on your horse and his particular situation. The job demanded of him, the feeding and maintenance practices of the farm, and the degree to which his mouth can maintain itself, all need to be considered. Let's take a look inside the equine mouth, and see what goes on.

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Where does it all begin? Teeth begin developing early. In the fetus, at about six weeks, the dental sac begins to form. At birth, foals have a set of milk teeth that begin to erupt during its first week of life, some of which remain until 4 years of age. At approximately 10 months of age, the adult or permanent teeth begin to emerge, molars first. Gradually, permanent teeth replace the temporary teeth by pushing them out of the gums, and by 5 years all the permanent teeth are in place. At this age, the horse usually has the maximum amount, and length, of tooth.

Equinox; note the shorter tooth that recently lost its cap.

Surprisingly, much of the tooth is living tissue. Each tooth is composed of vertical layers of differing hardness: the enamel, dentin, pulp, and cementum, which subsequently wear down at differing rates. The teeth in the front of the mouth, called incisors, are the ones that rip and tear off the grass. The teeth in the back of the mouth are called cheek teeth or molars, and they do the chewing and grinding, preparing the food for the stomach. Up and down and side to side, the jaws move in a balanced, circular motion, doing their job of getting nutrients into the body and ultimately back to themselves.

Slowly and gradually, the upper and lower jawbones grow, filling in the tooth sockets, and pushing the permanent teeth out as the tooth surfaces are worn down from chewing. Proper occlusion (contact of the upper and lower teeth) keeps the teeth at a constant level, with the tooth surfaces opposing each other evenly, and, for the most part, keeping each other in check. However, if occlusion is imperfect, or a mouth is not functioning properly, uneven tooth wear results. This causes sharp edges and non-flat grinding surfaces, affecting jaw movement and the ability to chew and eat, and creating problems and pain for the horse.

By the age of 25 to 30 years, if he's made it this far, the horse begins to use up what's left of the tooth's pre-established length. Roots work their way out of their firm sockets and approach the jaw surface. The teeth gradually become loose and may fall out, making it difficult for the horse to chew. At this point, the horse's chances of survival, especially for the wild horse who gathers his own feed, are slim.

Naturally, the horse's mouth is an essential part of his body. Equine dentistry is the necessary ingredient in horse care that can ensure a healthy, happy, functioning mouth. Using special instruments, the technician can remove sharp points (in even the hardest to reach areas), smooth and level uneven surfaces, and restore proper occlusion and jaw movement. It takes a qualified equine dental technician to do the job well, and with proper dental care, the correct shape and function of the teeth can be maintained. Happy mouth, happy horse, happy owner.

Tillie accepts the speculum and stands quietly for her exam.

What can go wrong?

A variety of equine dental problems confront horse owners. Some of the more commonly encountered ones are:

Tooth surfaces typically wear unevenly. The vertical layers of the tooth vary in hardness, and without optimum jaw movement, they will wear down at differing rates. This creates sharp points and razor-sharp edges, especially on the molars, that can cut the horse's cheeks and tongue, and further inhibit jaw movement. Left untreated, points always compound themselves - they never get better on their own.

For domesticated equines, typical feeding and maintenance are different from nature. Lack of grazing and limited availability of bark, roots, and forage prevents natural wearing-down of the teeth. For instance, grazing, tearing off tough blades of grass, hour after hour, day after day, contributes to natural incisor reduction, keeping the wear of the front teeth even with that of the grinding molars, allowing all the tooth surfaces to meet freely and easily. Feeding hay, which does not need to be ripped from the ground, allows the incisors to get longer than the molars, and the jaws must press harder, stressing the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), to allow the collective molar surfaces, or tables, to meet. (It's like trying to close your jaw with a pencil between your front teeth.)

The natural feeding stance of the horse is also important. Grazing (and drinking) from ground level allows for a natural head position and optimum jaw movement while feeding, and stretches the back. When a raised receptacle is used, the head is raised, taking away this natural position and freedom of movement.

Opposing teeth may erupt at differing rates. This can cause uneven tooth length and reduction in the jaw motion while chewing. Pelleted and soft feeds, while they are useful in certain situations, require little grinding, and less circular motion of the jaw. Lack of this necessary motion creates uneven wear, causing points on teeth, uneven grinding surfaces (known as wavy tables or wave-mouth), and altered musculature.

 

 

Various instruments used in equine dental work - rasps, files, speculum.

Caps, the remainders of baby teeth that are supposed to fall out when the permanent teeth erupt, sometimes don't. The permanent tooth may erupt around the cap, emerging out of line with the rest of the teeth. Or, the permanent tooth, as it erupts, may be forced back down into the jaw, where it may be seen as bumps on the jawbones.

Wolf teeth may be present. Not all horses have wolf teeth, but if they are present, they usually need to be removed, to prevent discomfort if the horse is going to wear a bit in his mouth. Sometimes wolf teeth are present but not visible, because they lie beneath the surface of the gum. Removal is usually still necessary, and is a more difficult procedure in this case.

Jaw deformities exist. When breeding, by looking for color, size, and other traits, one may overlook an unsound and improperly constructed jaw. Any jaw deformities, or tendencies toward dental problems, in an equine, may well be genetic, and breeding such animals causes problems to continue in offspring. Breeders and owners may forgive, adapt, and perpetuate, but nature doesn't. For the horse in its natural, wild state, an unsound jaw would mean premature death, with little chance of passing along the defect to subsequent generations; thus nature ensures the survival of the fittest.

Food gets trapped in places. Though cavities as we know them are rare, trapped food can cause impacted gums, infections, painful abscesses, resulting health problems such as colic, and tartar buildup.

Mouth malfunction affects the body. Where there is discomfort, there are attempts to alleviate the discomfort. To avoid the poke from a sharp tooth, a horse may adjust the way he holds his jaw, affecting his head carriage and posture. Mouth problems thus can cause uneven musculature and development, and unsoundness.

Accidents happen. Injuries can affect the mouth and teeth, especially in the case of cracked and/or missing teeth. Cracked teeth can be painful and get infected. Missing teeth create the opportunity for the opposite tooth (because it is not being worn down) to super-erupt, or become longer than the rest of the teeth, thus inhibiting jaw movement.

 

What can you do?

First, observe your horse, and know what to look for.

Though various problems can occur for many reasons (always consult your veterinarian), the following problems often point to the mouth. Many on the list indicate that a problem has been developing for some time.

  • Tilting of the head while eating
  • Deviation from the normal, circular, chewing motion
  • Bumps on underside of jawbones, or facial bones
  • Sensitivity when handling his head or bridling him
  • Fussing with the bit in his mouth
  • Excess salivation while eating
  • Discharge from nose
  • Bad breath
  • Quidding (wads of feed, generally hay, dropping from the mouth while eating)
  • Loss of weight
  • Undigested grains in the manure
  • Colic problems
  • Performance problems
  • Behavior problems
  • Abnormal posture or crookedness
  • Choke problems
  • Uneven development of forehead and cheek muscles
  • Short-lived results from chiropractic or massage
  • Any bleeding from the mouth

 

Second, contact a qualified equine dental technician for a thorough exam.

If your horse has, or has had, any of the above problems, or even subtle versions of them, his mouth should be examined. There are many skilled dental technicians, and a good way to find one in your area is to contact the certifying organizations (see below) for a list. Certified technicians have met the rigorous requirements, written and practical, of these organizations.

Your qualified equine dental technician will be a valuable source of information on caring for your horse's mouth. With the full-mouth speculum safely holding the mouth open, he or she may encourage you to look and feel for yourself. He or she may also show you a safe way to check the mouth periodically in between appointments. A major part of dental care is prevention of problems, not just treating them.

Keep in mind that dental care, like hoof care, is not a once-and-done deal. It is an ongoing maintenance process, because the teeth erupt continually. There may also be follow-ups to procedures, because gradual adjustments may be required.

The purpose of dental care is to keep the mouth functioning properly, while providing maximum life to the teeth. Regular maintenance should not be neglected, but it should not be overdone, either. There is a fine line between doing too much and not doing enough. Because the tooth is a pre-established length, any shortening of the tooth shortens its life span as well - rasping too often, and too much, can take away years. A skilled technician will know how to find a proper balance to keep the mouth functioning while maximizing the life of the teeth.

There is always a need for regular exams. In the rare occasion that your horse does not need any correction, the exam will still have been beneficial, because your horse will have had the good experience of an easy exam, and will feel more at ease the next time.

Third, make some changes in your horse-maintenance practices.

  • Provide as much access to grazing and turnout as possible.
  • Allow your horse to eat at ground level rather than from a rack.
  • Provide appropriate foods for his condition and age.

 

Within this vital area of the equine body, nature had set in motion a sequence of events that was meant to sustain itself, without outside interference. But we have come too far from the natural setting intended for our horses, and we do need to intervene.

As humane caretakers, we must provide our equines with dental examinations, on a regular basis (at least twice yearly), to keep the horse's system working efficiently. Along with sensible maintenance practices and total, complementary health care (massage can also be very helpful after dental adjustments), regular dental care will maximize function, improve performance, and promote total well-being.


To find a qualified equine dental technician in your area, contact the IAEDT, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of high standards in the art and science of equine dental maintenance.

International Association of Equine Dental Technicians, Inc. (IAEDT)

2207 Concord Pike - #501

Wilmington, DE 19803-2098

Phone: 1-500-776-6095

Fax: 1-500-776-6096

E-mail: iaedt@IAEDT.com

Website: http://www.iaedt.com/index.html

 

Florida Association of Equine Dentistry (FLAED)

E-mail: info@amscheqdentistry.com

Website: www.amscheqdentistry.com/FLAED/

DEFINITIONS

enamel - the hard, shiny white layers within the tooth (it is the hardest substance in the horse's body)

pulp - the inner, soft part of the tooth which contains the blood and nerve supply (it helps the teeth form and develop)

dentin - the tooth layer lying between the pulp and the enamel (it makes up the largest portion of the tooth)

cementum - bone-like tissue surrounding the tooth

tables - the upper and lower flat, but angled, grinding surfaces in the horse's mouth, made up of the molars (upper jaw is wider than lower jaw, so upper teeth overhang the lower)

speculum - special halter equipped with a metal device to hold the mouth open

occlusion - contact of the opposing teeth of the upper and lower jaw

 

 

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