Your horse lives by his ability to chew. Badly chewed food leads to poor absorption of the critical calories, minerals, and elements your horse needs to maintain weight, keep a balanced metabolism, have energy, and stay healthy.
Your horse's teeth "erupt," or grow, approximately 2 to 3 mm per year well into his 20s to replace the tooth length that wears away while he eats. He has two groups of teeth: (1) incisors and canine teeth; and (2) wolf teeth, premolars, and molars.
Incisors are the nipper teeth across the front of the horse's mouth. They're used to bite off grasses and hay, and help in the chewing process.
Canine teeth are a prehistoric throwback and basically serve no function.
Premolars and molars are the larger teeth at the back of the mouth used for crushing and grinding food.
Wolf teeth—also a prehistoric remnant—sit right before the premolars. Some horses have them and some don't.
Signs of Dental Problems
While horses can exhibit many different symptoms of mouth/dental pain, some horses are very stoic animals. They can have moderate to severe dental or oral problems without showing any signs.
Minor dental problems may begin with mild signs that can change completely as they become moderate to severe disease, so you might think the problem has resolved itself.
Also, many dental problems manifest as issues in other areas. For example, disease on the right side of the mouth can show up as left hind lameness.
Signs of dental disease include head shaking/tossing or head shyness; feed packing; creating hay wads; facial/jaw tenderness and/or swelling; bad breath or a foul smell from the nose; problems with bridling, or chewing the bit while riding; reluctance to give to the bit; reluctance to eat or not eating at all; dropping food while eating; weight loss followed by no weight gain when more food is added; foamy, frothy mouth and excessive salivation; colic symptoms and impactions of the throat (choke); undigested grain in feces; nasal discharge and/or nose bleeds; and sinusitis.
If your horse has exhibited any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with an equine veterinary dentist right away.
The Dental Exam
Equine dentistry begins with a good dental exam. "A proper dental exam includes both looking deeply into the horse's mouth and feeling what's going on inside, even all the way at the back," states Scott Marx, DVM, IAED/C, a veterinarian in Parker, Colorado, whose practice is exclusively equine dental care.
Dr. Marx sedates the horse, supports his head, inserts a mouth speculum, and uses a very bright light to do a visual exam. He then feels inside the mouth for additional problems and/or to assess the degree of correction needed.
"Since preventive dental maintenance is still evolving in the horse world, virtually every horse I examine still needs some correction. Hopefully the day will come when I can look at a horse's teeth and not see anything wrong, but we're not at that point today," notes Dr. Marx.
Research the knowledge and experience of anyone you hire to work on your horse's mouth. Don't be afraid to ask for credentials and references before you let anyone near your horse. Even if you're planning to ask your regular, long-time veterinarian to look at your horse's teeth, inquire about his/her dental training.
Begin regular dental exams and correction from the time your horse is a foal. By having this done regularly, from a young age through his geriatric years, you become the champion of excellent dental and general health for your horse.
Jenny Sullivan is a freelance writer and horsewoman based in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.