Essential Dental Care for Horses

Learn to Care for Your Horse's Teeth

Veterinarian examining teeth of a horse in stable
A vet can check your horse's teeth.

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Does Your Horse Need Dental Care?

Throughout its life, your horse will need to have its teeth cared for. Most horses will have to have their teeth floated at least once per year.  Floating is the practice of filing off any sharp edges or hooks that may form on the edges of the teeth. Horse’s teeth grow and change throughout their lifetime. This is why you can tell a horse’s approximate age by its teeth. As they chew, they wear the tooth surface away slowly, but new tooth material slowly grows up to provide a new chewing surface.If the wear is uneven, the teeth may form sharp edges.

 Many people think that the teeth grow throughout the horse’s life. This is not true. The teeth themselves have a life span that may actually be shorter than the horse’s life. Many old horses have gaps made by teeth that have fallen out, making it very difficult for them to chew.

Just like you might run into dental problems throughout your life, your horse might too. While you will be able to say in words that you’re having discomfort caused by your teeth, your horse will not be able to indicate exactly what is bothering it. Sometimes discomfort due to dental problems is mistaken for bad behavior. Head tossing, inability to go or stay on the bit, bit chewing or tongue lolling can be just a few of the signs that your horse has tooth problems.

Dental Care for Young Horses

When your horse is young, it will lose its milk or deciduous teeth. This is rarely a problem, although you might be alarmed to find a tooth lying on the ground, or notice a gap in your horse’s mouth where a tooth used to be. This tooth loss is perfectly normal. Occasionally, a tooth doesn’t come out the way it should, and this can cause painful problems that can lead to infection. When a baby tooth sits lodged over a mature tooth, it’s called a cap. The back teeth are usually the ones involved, and they are difficult to see. Some indications that there is a problem are:

  • Carrying the head to one side
  • Drooling or foaming
  • Bad odor
  • Head tossing
  • Spilling grain while eating
  • Spitting out little cuds of grass or hay (quidding)
  • Head shy
  • Odd way of chewing or holding jaw and tongue

If you notice any of these signs, it’s time to call an equine dentist or veterinarian. They can remove the capping baby tooth (or teeth) and check that all is well inside your horse’s mouth.

Dental Care for Mature Horses

As your horse matures, other problems can occur. Most commonly horses form sharp edges and hooks on their teeth. Domestic horses don’t chew as much roughage as horses in the wild. While grazing, a wild horse may ingest a bit of soil as it chews, and grass is filled with silica, which wears down the tooth surface. Horses that have a diet that includes much softer material like alfalfa and grain may not wear down their teeth as quickly. The sharp edges that form may cut into the horse’s cheek or tongue, causing painful lesions. This can result in any of the indications I’ve mentioned above. Regular dental check-ups are essential and most horses benefit from at least yearly floating. Some, depending on the conformation of the mouth may need more frequent check-ups.

Occasionally, a horse may have problems with wolf teeth or tushes. These extraneous teeth might prevent a horse from carrying a bit comfortably. They can be removed by your veterinarian or equine dentist. A bit seat may be recommended to help your horse more comfortably carry a bit.

Senior Horse Dental Care

Senior horses may start to lose their teeth, and this can make it very hard for the horse to chew properly. The horse will also be difficult to keep in good condition.

Signs that your senior horse may have dental problems include those in the list above with cudding or quidding, poor condition, spilling grain and drooling the most likely evidence of lost teeth. One senior horse I owned for a short time drooled in a pathetic way. Beet pulp and hay cube mashes kept her in good condition. This is the time to feed special easy to chew senior feeds and keep a careful eye that the horse is getting its share of pasture time or time at the hay feeder. You may have to feed softened mashes to keep the senior horse in good condition. Your veterinarian is the best advisor for keeping your older horse happy and healthy.