By Heather Smith Thomas
Your usually soft-in-the-mouth, responsive gelding has started throwing his head in the air when you pick up the reins or ask him to collect. While the behavior might be frustrating for you as a rider, it could be just as frustrating for him: His teeth might hurt. Anytime a horse shows a sudden change or resistance when working with a bit in his mouth, you should have your veterinarian check his teeth.
A horse’s teeth are crucial not only for proper chewing and nutrition but also for proper performance. Dental problems can be quite painful and, in turn, can cause horses to exhibit certain performance-inhibiting behaviors. Often these problems are subtle or not even recognized as related to the teeth. So in this article we’ll list some of the dental issues to watch for and how they are corrected.
Sharp Enamel Points
Mary Delorey, DVM, of Northwest Equine Dentistry, in Seattle, Washington, says most dental problems that translate into performance issues are conditions that cause pain. The most prevalent one injures the soft tissues of the mouth.
“Normal wear of teeth can lead to sharp points,” she says. “These are probably the most common problem, since the lower jaw is about 30% narrower than the upper jaw.” Because of this disparity, the outside edges of the upper teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth don’t wear away as fast as the rest of the surface during chewing, leaving very sharp points of enamel.
“Horses need a certain amount of exposed enamel to grind up food,” Delorey says. “In the wild, those sharpened projections don’t create much problem, but when we put tack on the horse’s face and a bit in the mouth, this changes things.”
Headgear such as bits, nosebands, and cavessons can place direct pressure on soft tissues that wouldn’t otherwise be subject to them.
Delorey says sharp points particularly affect horses that hold tension in their jaw muscles, either when ridden or stabled—similar to people who habitually clench their jaw. Thus, veterinarians perform routine dental care with two goals in mind: maintain dental health and provide comfort for the horse.
“Routine dental care involves floating (rasping), smoothing off those sharp points,” says Delorey. “Sharp top teeth can lacerate the cheek tissue; sharp bottom teeth can lacerate the tongue.