If you've been involved in the horse world for a while, no doubt you've read and heard that horses need to have their teeth floated on a regular basis. "Floating" means removing and/or repairing any irregularities that may have developed to make it easier for your horse to chew his food.
In the past, if you had your horse's teeth floated every few years as he became an old guy, you were being a conscientious horse owner. But as long as he wasn't losing weight, making hay wads, or dropping grain out of his mouth, there really wasn't any reason to worry. Why would you need to have your horse's mouth examined regularly or dental work done?
In the last 15 years, many species have benefited from a preventive dentistry revolution that equates general good health to oral health. Many owners are creating better lives for their horses by more closely monitoring their dental condition.
The Plain Truth
Horses live by their ability to chew. Badly chewed food leads to poor absorption of the critical calories, minerals and other elements a horse needs to maintain weight, keep a balanced metabolism, have energy and generally stay healthy. He's also at risk for many other health problems resulting from the condition of his teeth and mouth.
Say you have a gelding who's missing a molar and has a number of hooks and points along his upper and lower teeth that hamper his ability to close his jaws all the way and move them from side to side. He likely can't adequately chew his hay or other grain supplements to break down the food he eats enough for proper digestion.
Horses have two groups of teeth: Incisors and canine teeth are in one group, and wolf teeth, premolars and molars are in the second.
Incisors are the nipper teeth across the front of the horse's mouth. They function to bite off grasses and hay, and help in the chewing process. Canine teeth are a prehistoric throwback and basically serve no function in the equine mouth now. 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 horses don't.
Male horses generally have 40 teeth by age 5, while female horses have between 36-40 at maturity, since not all mares develop canine teeth. A horse's teeth "erupt," or grow, approximately 2-3 mm (about the width of a Q-Tip) a year well into the horse's 20s to replace the tooth length that wears away while he eats.
Signs of Dental Problems
Horses exhibit many different symptoms of mouth and dental pain. However, horses tend to be very stoic animals, and they can have moderate to severe problems without showing any signs at all. So just because your horse seems to have good body condition and is performing well doesn't mean that you shouldn't have his mouth checked on a regular basis.