Regular Dental Care is a Crucial Part of Horse Care

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Readers of this blog and of Horse Journal magazine have frequently heard me beat the drum of annual equine dental care (specifically in the form of power floating). But last month we had an absolutely shocking experience remind us, once again, that the message of the absolutely critical nature of equine dental care remains too often ignored.

So I'll say it again: Regular dental care plays a very important role in any horse's health, comfort and performance.

This summer, one of our adult amateur students needed a new horse. For her, the ideal horse couldn?t be too big and needed to possess a superlative temperament. For students on a budget, We've had a lot of success buying stock horses who haven't been 100-percent successful in their jobs but become perfect junior and adult amateur mounts for eventing and dressage. They are almost always kind, broke, smart and can ?take a joke.?

Heather is great at finding diamonds in the rough, and soon she?d found a candidate horse. She and our client went off to look, and, although the horse didn't prove to be suitable, the trainer had a mare who had arrived just days before for her to sell. The 10-year-old Paint mare had done some showing and stock work, and had had a foal or two. The trainer couldn?t tell them much more about the mare, but she seemed very quiet, broke and kind.

Heather and our client both tried the mare, and she seemed very much the right type, although she was a bit fussy in the mouth. The trainer commented that she tended to ?dump her right shoulder? and didn't have a very reliable rein-back. Since the trainer hadn?t had a chance to ride her out of the ring yet, they made arrangements to let her do that, and went back the next week for a second ride.

The mare passed her second ride with flying colors, and arrangements were made for a pre-purchase exam to be done at a well-known veterinary clinic near the seller. The mare passed the pre-purchase well, with the vets telling Heather, ?Oh, the mare needs a dental.?

The mare arrived at our Phoenix Farm in early August, and we subsequently made the first available appointment with our normal veterinary dentist (Horse Journal?s own Dr. Grant Miller) for mid-September. In the meantime, we started to work the mare, the owner taking lessons on her while we started to retrain and strengthen her.

Luckily, as it would turn out, the mare was extremely unfit, so our rides were light and focused on fitness rather than heavy-duty schooling. The mare had a few flushes of extreme mouthiness?a small spook that turned in to a big reaction when she hit the bit, but in general she was as sweet and tractable as she?d initially seemed.

The appointed day came, and you can't imagine our shock when Grant put the speculum on her, opened her mouth, and went, ?Wow! This is one of the worst cases I've ever seen.? (Never something you want to hear).

The mare had, for lack of a better word, fangs. It turns out her jaw is slightly misaligned, and she had never, in her 10 years of existence, had her teeth done. So the top first molar, and the bottom last molar, on each side had grown unabated. Although the fang-like front teeth were the most eye-catching (and made me cringe to think about how uncomfortable bridling and riding her must have been!), the back molar was actually the one doing the most damage to her gums. In addition, the height of the back tooth had prevented the normal movement of food in to the pocket in the corner of the jaw. Therefore, she was unable to chew normally in a way that would keep food clear from the area?the wall of tooth had blocked its passage. And, of course, she also had significant hooks and points through out the rest of her mouth, and ulcerated tissue in her gums.

Grant had so much work to do that he gave her a break in the middle of it and then told us to keep her on anti-inflammatory drugs for a few days, two things He's never done with the dozens of our horses He's done dental work on (although he almost always gives them an injection of Banamine when he finishes working).

We expect her to be a new horse, although she was already pretty awesome. She had no reason to be remotely cooperative with us?and yet she was. After seeing that horrible mouth, I couldn?t have blamed her if she?d been extremely disobedient (rearing, bolting or more), but she wasn?t. She just tried to do her job around what must have been rather serious pain, and I feel bad for even asking her to do anything. What a wonderful work ethic and kind temperament she has!

Grant warned that she'll probably chew funny for a awhile as she relearns how to eat in a way that will keep moving food out of the back of her mouth now that the back tooth is no longer a wall.

If just once, during those 10 years, one owner had taken the time to have her teeth looked after, even if it was just once (which isn?t really good enough, but in this case might have meant that the fangs were half the size) that mare may have been saved significant pain and discomfort. it's no one?s fault that her jaw is slightly misaligned, she was born that way, but it shouldn't have been her fourth owner who was the first to discover it.

I suspect there a few readers are saying quietly to themselves, ?Well, what do you expect buying a low-end horse from a Western barn.? But truthfully, we haven't bought a horse for a client or ourselves in the last decade or so that hasn?t immediately needed dental care. it's just a matter of how badly they need a dental appointment. We've bought horses out of the biggest, most professional barns, where they have no idea when or if the horse has ever had a dental. I can't think of the last time we had a pre-purchase exam in which the phrase ?needs dental? didn't appear in the report.

So clearly, the message about the importance of dental care isn?t getting out. I'm talking about an annual float, preferably a power float, with some horses needing it every six months. A dental appointment will usually cost $100 to $150, but it's truly cheap for the benefit. So many behavioral and training problems can be directly correlated to a horse with an uncomfortable mouth, and they can immediately become sounder, more tractable, and just all-around better. it's truly the cheapest training-and-vet-fix you can buy.

If remembering to schedule things is a problem, make it part of your normal spring shots regimen. But, please, think about your horse and make a commitment to his or her annual dental care. you'll both be much happier.