“Do not look a gift horse in the mouth” is what we are told, but to get a good assessment of your horse’s health the mouth is one of the first places to look. This is why every veterinarian will examine the mouth of a horse as part of their routine physical exam. Through an exam they can estimate your horse’s age but more importantly assess for irregular wear patterns, missing or broken teeth, malalignment or poor apposition, hooks forming on the upper and lower jaws, sharp enamel points and discomfort caused from canines or wolf teeth.
A horse’s molars and incisors are very different from a humans and are made up of vertical columns of three different materials with only one of those being enamel. The other two are dentin and cementum which are not as hard. This design allows their teeth to wear down slowly when they grind course feed. Since the teeth wear down over time it a good thing that they continue to erupt from the gum. A permanent tooth is about 4 inches long and will erupt at a rate of 3-4 mm per year. In contrast a horse’s wolf teeth and canine teeth are designed like human teeth and do not steadily erupt and are completely coated with enamel.
Wolf teeth are rudimentary teeth and generally erupt before 9 months of age. They are located just in front of the upper molar arcades. They are sometimes confused with the much larger canines that are commonly seen in males which erupt much later in life ( 3.5- 5 years of age). Although wolf teeth are small teeth, they can interfere with the bit while being ridden and are recommended to be removed.
If a horse has not had a dental examination performed as a foal then it is optimal to have one before 3 years of age. At this time the teeth will be assessed for any sharp enamel points and for retained caps. A retained cap is when a deciduous tooth remains stuck onto the adult molar after it has erupted and is uneven with the opposite side. These retained caps are removed when necessary. Sharp enamel points develop on the outside edges (cheek-side) of the upper-row of molars and the inside edges (tongue-side) of the lower-row of molars because the span of the upper-row of molars is wider than the span of lower-row of molars. As the enamel points become sharper they cut into the cheeks and/or tongue making it uncomfortable to carry a bit and make it more difficult for the rider/driver to communicate with a horse with a painful mouth. When a horse becomes older it becomes increasingly more important for them to receive a dental exam and have their teeth floated.
Teeth floating is a veterinary procedure which is normally performed under sedation using a power or hand-float. Floating teeth is when a rasp is used to smooth down the hard enamel points. Horses in the wild will graze year round and spend over 18 hours per day doing it. During this time they are constantly picking-up grit and dirt which allows them to continuously wear down their teeth naturally. In contrast, domesticated horses that are fed processed grains or hay chew far less for their calories and as a result do not wear their teeth evenly. Depending on the performance level, age, diet, and teeth alignment, a horse’s mouth should be assessed and floated every 6-24 months as preventive care.
Horses have evolved to love eating and need to be under excruciating pain to stop eating entirely. Some of the clinical signs that could indicate their teeth need to be floated are dropping oats, losing weight, acting colicky and poor digestion. If you notice any of these please contact your veterinarian.