Dentistry`s Limits

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A study from the University of Saskatchewan College of Veterinary Medicine investigated a possible relationship between the morphology (shape, alignment) of the surfaces of the cheek teeth and the digestibility of three different types of hay in 17 horses of various ages and breeds.

The investigators took samples from the stomach and colon or rectum of the horses, but they were unable to find a connection between the condition of the teeth and either the particle size in stomach/manure or how well the horses digested the diets.

The lead author, Dr. James Carmalt, has been interested in scientifically proving or disproving many of the things we assume to be true about dental care in horses, but which have never been correctly tested.

In a 2006 study, 16 dressage horses were divided into two groups. The first group consisted of 11 horses with a full speculum examination and dentistry using motorized equipment. The other group of five had no dental work. The horses performed an identical dressage test before and two days after dental work. Riders and judges did not know which horses had been tested. There was no significant difference between scores.

In fact, a literature review turns up several similar studies, looking at feed digestibility before and after dental floating, and none were able to document any improvements.

Bottom Line: No one would dispute that dental conditions that cause pain to a horse when eating might influence how much the horse eats or how well they chew, or that anything that causes pain related to the bit when a horse is being worked can lead to performance problems.

However, these studies do challenge the widely held belief that routine dental care is important to weight maintenance and digestibility of the diet. Aggressive dentistry may make the horse’s teeth look better but may not be doing much to make it actually function better.

Our horses are living longer than ever before. Their teeth wear down over time and once gone can’t be regrown. It may be time to give serious thought to how aggressively we grind away at the horse’s teeth, accelerating the loss of enamel.

Stayed tuned for practical information on working with your dentist to understand how dentistry problems translate to performance difficulties, when Performance Editor John Strassburger investigates this possibility.