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A Horse's Teeth - Understanding and Caring For Your Horse's Teeth

Updated on March 5, 2013

A Horse's Teeth

Horses actually have very interesting teeth. At the front of the mouth, an adult horse has three pairs of incisors. At the back, he has no less than twelve premolars and twelve molars. That's a lot more teeth than we have.

In between the two, there is a gap called the 'bars' of the horse's mouth. When a horse is wearing a bit, the bit rests against the bars.

Most male horses also have small canine teeth that are set just behind the incisors. They have one pair of these. Some mares also have canines, but most do not. Some horses also have what are called 'wolf' teeth. These are small premolars that are more common in the upper jaw and are about halfway down the bars. Wolf teeth are vestigial and lack deep roots, rather like deciduous teeth. As they almost inevitably interfere with the action of the bit and serve no purpose to the horse, they are normally extracted when present.

Horses do have baby teeth, although they do not have baby molars. Their first baby incisors erupt at about two weeks. Most horses have all of their adult teeth by the age of five, but I have seen horses still 'teething' at six. Horses do not seem to suffer as much discomfort during teething as many animals, but young horses may still chew fences, branches, etc when teething.

Don't Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

This saying comes from the fact that it is possible to make a reasonably decent guess as to a horse's age by looking at its teeth. A free horse might well be being given away because it is old.

Aging a horse by its teeth is accurate until about fifteen years of age, but can also be affected by diet and by cribbing or wood chewing.

Several things are taken into account. In young horses, aging relies in part on the fact that a horse's deciduous teeth are lighter colored and have a well-defined 'neck' at the gumline. A horse's central pair of permanent incisors appear at three, the next pair at four and the final pair at five.

When the teeth erupt they have indentures in the center. These are called cups. As the cups disappear with wear over time, they are often used to determine the age of horses between six and eleven. At the same time, yellow lines appear in front of the enamel ring. Teeth also change in shape with age.

At about ten, a groove appears at the gum margin of the upper corner incisor, called Galvayne's groove. At fifteen, it is about halfway down the tooth and at twenty is all the way down. It then starts to disappear.

Open Roots

Horse's teeth have open roots, unlike human teeth, which have closed roots. This means that the teeth continue growing throughout the horse's life (unless they are lost, which is not uncommon in aged horses).

Because of this, you don't have to worry about your horse getting cavities. Any such damage will grow down to the point of the tooth and wear off. However, because a horse's teeth keep growing, they can end up becoming too long (rabbits in captivity) can have similar problems. Excessive growth is more common in stalled horses and ones kept on very good grazing. Because of this, horses need to regularly have their teeth 'floated'.

Equine Dentistry

Horses require regular dental checkups. For adult horses, this generally means between one and two years apart, depending on how fast the individual animal's teeth grow. Young horses are generally checked every six to twelve months to ensure that their teeth are developing normally. Aged horses also need to be checked more often.

The most common dental care needed by a horse is 'floating', called 'rasping' in the UK. The dentist or veterinarian will use a wedge to hold the horse's mouth open and then gently file off any sharp points or edges that might have developed, and balance out any uneven wear. A horse that suddenly refuses to take the bit or starts misbehaving may have pain in the mouth caused by these edges or points and should be checked.

The dentist may also adjust the shape of the back of the rear incisors or of the canines if present and the front of the molars in order to help make the bit fit better. This is called 'bit seating'.

Many, but not all, horses require sedation for floating. Although the procedure doesn't hurt any more than a professional dental cleaning hurts you, some horses definitely consider it unpleasant. It's also important that the horse stays still during the procedure.

At the same time, the dentist will check the horse for other tooth problems that may occur.

Tooth Problems and Tooth Loss

Other than the afore mentioned tendency for uneven wear and uncomfortable sharp edges, horses get dental problems both similar and different from our own.

Cavities are not a common problem, and even if a horse does get one, it will wear off as the tooth grows. However, horses do get root infections and abscesses. In some cases, an abscess may require that the tooth be extracted. Horses may also have a tooth break as a result of an accident or getting kicked in the face.

However, if the horse is young, it is not uncommon to mistake the normal shedding of baby teeth for a broken tooth. Unlike humans, horses don't have their baby teeth fall out before the permanent ones come in, but the permanent tooth actually pushes the baby tooth out. The baby tooth can sit on top of the permanent tooth for some time and then fall off, alarming inexperienced horse owners...the horse can even bleed a little when this happened.

Broken teeth are sometimes filled, depending on the nature and angle of the break. As the horse's teeth keep growing, then a horizontal break will eventually grow out. A vertical break can be quite serious, and result in root infection that can cause tooth loss.

Horses can also get periodontal disease.

Finally, if a horse is fortunate enough to make it to the age of 35 plus it may outlive the capacity of its roots to produce new tooth material. I have seen a pony in his forties who had, at most, three nubs in its mouth. It is possible to keep old and toothless horses healthy and happy, however.

A horse that has lost one or more of its teeth will need more frequent floating as the unopposed tooth may keep growing and then come into contact with the gum, causing bleeding and pain.

Teeth And Elderly Horses

One common myth that circulates throughout the horse world is that aged horses (25+) are inevitably thin. The most common reason for weight loss in old horses is tooth problems. Some very old horses may lose all of their teeth.

A horse that has lost a significant number of its teeth will have problems grazing and eating normal forage. Because of this, a senior horse that is starting to have tooth problems should be put on a special diet.

This means that the horse should be fed soaked hay or hay pellets. Most feed manufacturers also produce senior feed that is designed to be easier to chew and fulfill the specific nutritional needs of older horses. Such feed or grain may also be soaked to make it more palatable. Traditionally, old horses were often fed bran mashes.

As an older horse will also have problems eating cookies, apples or carrots, then they will appreciate treats suitable to their age. Two that work well are grapes or watermelon with the rind removed. You could also buy or make soft cookies.


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