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The Horse's Teeth Explored

Updated on February 9, 2015

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The horse’s digestion starts in his mouth with his teeth. If his teeth aren’t healthy, he doesn’t eat well, or perform well. Poor dental health can lead to malnourishment and behavior problems. Every horse owner should care about the health of their horse's teeth and gums.

What is a Horse's Tooth Made From?

The equine tooth is made up of enamel, dentine, and cement.

Enamel is the hardest substance in the body and contains no cells. It is a colourless, dead substance that cannot be replaced. At only 4% water, it is extremely brittle.

Dentine makes up the main part of the tooth. This substance is alive and sensitive. In humans, it can differentiate between heat and cold; however, horses seem unable to do this because floating (the term used for the procedure when a vet files the sharp edges off a horse’s teeth) creates a lot of friction and heat, but doesn't seem to bother the horse. The dentine is made up of little tubes. These are filled with Secondary Dentine near the chewing surface. Secondary Dentine can repair itself if it is worn down or broken off. It also protects the body from bacteria and infections. The pale, creamy colour of dentine is what makes the teeth appear white.

Cement is the softest material of the tooth and is yellow. The structure is similar to bone, except that it is rather flexible. This substance anchors the tooth into the socket.

Sockets hold the teeth in place and keep them healthy. This attachment is flexible to allow continuing eruption. Cement is constantly breaking down and rebuilding to keep a stable connection between the socket and the tooth as the tooth erupts.

The visible part of the tooth is called the Crown. The piece between the root and the gum is called the Reserve Crown. Deciduous or 'baby' teeth have a narrower crown around the gum. The crown is made of enamel, dentine and cement. Of course, the majority of the tooth is comprised of dentine, coated in enamel and held in place by the root. The root consists of dentine and cement and isn't covered in enamel.

The Pulp is the very middle of the tooth and is the nutrient supply source for the tooth. Each tooth has at least one pulp canal, the molars have two or three. The molar roots have finished developing by age two, but the pulp canal continues to develop until the horse is five or six. As a horse gets older, the pulp canal moves up the tooth and would eventually be an open highway for infection, if it wasn’t kept closed by developing secondary dentine.

Current feeding practices and putting bits in horse's mouths makes them subject to many different dental issues. A horse's chewing surface usually wears at a rate of 2-3mm per year, but this depends on the horse's feed. Horses eating hay in a stable will usually chew for thirteen hours a day, whereas a horse eating poor grass on pasture will probably chew for 16 hours a day. Fresh grass usually requires twice as much chewing as hay.

Signs of Dental Problems

If a horse is fighting his bit, even subtly, his teeth should be checked for sharp edges. With a quiet horse, the owner can easily do this. A horse should not be tied up to have his teeth checked, because it may spook and pull back. Ideally, a helper should hold the horse, while the owner examines it. To check the teeth, gently open the horse’s mouth and pull his tongue out to the side. The horse won’t bite down on his tongue, and the free hand can be used to reach back in the horse’s mouth and feel the teeth for sharp edges. A horse that isn’t as cooperative will need to be sedated and examined by a veterinarian.

Consequences of ignoring dental health include weight-loss, pain, and behavior problems. It is estimated that most problem horses have some sort of soreness influencing their behavior. Yes, this could be lameness, or back pain, but the reality of dental pain is, that most horses that are pulling/bracing against a bit because of sharp teeth, are causing themselves chiropractic problems. Highly trained horses, such as racehorses or reiners are most likely to show pain.

Teeth should be floated, or at least examined by a vet or equine dentist before putting a bit in a horse’s mouth for the first time. If you grab the reins of a sharp toothed horse, it will cause him pain, and may make him brace his neck and back, which could cause a chiropractic problem. More than likely, even after the problem is corrected, he’ll remember the pain and react the next time you want to direct him with a bit. Horses that are ‘cold backed’ when being saddled or mounted are usually suspected as having a saddle fit problem. Often they have a teeth problem that is masquerading as a back problem.

Horses need their teeth examined more often as they age. Eventually, they will wear off all their enamel and be chewing with dentine and cement only. Without the protective coating of enamel, their teeth will wear extremely quickly.

Other Anatomy Features Affecting Dentistry

The Parotid Gland is the largest salivary gland and measures 20-25cm in length. It usually opens next to the lower canine teeth, which may explain why there can be extra lime scale buildup on the canines.

Some people believe that horses’ need to be fitted with bits the promote salivation. This is because of the location of the mandible salivary gland. They believe that if that gland is full, the horse will have difficulty flexing at the poll. If he has a bit that promotes chewing, salivation or a ‘wet mouth’, the gland won’t fill up, and he’ll tuck his head better.

Wolf Teeth are small pointed teeth that develop just in front of the first functional cheek tooth in many horses. It has very little root. In Zebras, it is a fully functional tooth, but in domestic horses it is only anchored in the gum and is simply a nuisance. Young horses who have wolf teeth erupting can become suddenly hard to bridle or have other behavior issues because of the tooth rubbing against the bit and causing pain.

Remedies for Dental Problems

The only thing a horse owner can do to prevent dental problems is to have their horse’s teeth regularly floated by a veterinarian. However, they can observe their horse so they know when to call the vet for a dental appointment. Visual signs of dental problems include, dropping feed while eating, whole grains in feces, soaking hay in water, nostril discharge, facial tenderness or swelling, sudden behavioral problems such as head tossing, difficult to bridle, and other sudden unexplained issues.

Heath, nourishment and performance all begin at the horses' mouth. The most important thing an owner can do is be aware of the issue that could arise, and be in tune with their horse. No owner wants their horse to be in pain, and everyone wants their horse to perform at it's best. As the saying goes, 'No Hoof, No Horse', but I believe we should also be saying, 'No Teeth, No Horse'. Maintain your horse's dental health, and it will thank you.


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