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20 Things Your Horse’s Teeth are Telling You

20 Things Your Horse’s Teeth are Telling You

By Scot T. Gillies

Brush up on your equine oral health knowledge with these facts about dental anatomy, issues, and exams.
If your eyes have glossed over while reading about, say, the genetics of Class II malocclusions, or the meticulously clinical evaluation of hooks, ramps, steps, and waves, you’re likely not alone. Equine dentistry coverage usually focuses on particular conditions and is presented as a highly technical review of specific research. For a more straightforward approach, we collected insight about the equine mouth from veterinary dental provider Tom Daugherty, DVM, of Advanced Equine Veterinary Practice in Georgetown, Ky.

Following are 20 fun, useful, or otherwise interesting equine oral health facts.

1. Tooth Types

Equine oral anatomy is complex, but knowing a few basics will make it easier to understand your veterinarian’s description of what he or she observes while conducting an exam. Three material components form the tooth: dentin, cementum, and enamel. Each has differing density levels, with the enamel, found in vertical columns throughout the tooth, the hardest of the three. Within the tooth’s body is the pulp, which extends into the root. The pulp carries the main blood and nerve supply of the tooth.

Three general classes of teeth developed for specific functions:

  • Canines: Found in male horses and some mares; also known as “fighting teeth.”
  • Incisors: These front teeth are designed to bite off forage. Once the incisors’ work is through, the tongue moves forage back to the cheek teeth.
  • Cheek teeth: Premolars and molars, collectively called cheek teeth, grind the bolus (chewed mass) and move it to the back of mouth for the horse to swallow.

2. Bits and Bitting

The bit you use when riding should not affect your horse’s teeth. “The bit should never contact the cheek teeth,” Daugherty asserts, although it does make contact with the bars, corners of the mouth, and the horse’s tongue. “The role of the bit to control a horse should put pressure on the mouth, never on the teeth.”

3. The Multicolored Mouth

Knowing what a healthy mouth looks like makes it possible to recognize discolorations indicative of potential problems. The top of the tongue can be stained brown or black from plant pigments and dirt. The inside of a horse’s mouth and lips are generally pink, but can have black pigmentation, giving some areas near the front of the mouth a spotted appearance. Gingiva (tissue immediately surrounding the base of the horse’s teeth) should be pink; redness and inflammation indicate abnormal pathology. Teeth are not pearly white; instead, they should be cream-colored with darker streaks or areas, mostly from plant pigments.

4. Tooth Eruption

Forty thousand chews per day cause substantial tooth abrasion. Teeth erupt (move out of the bone) about 1⁄8 inch per year throughout a horse’s lifetime to compensate for normal attrition (wear).  According to Daugherty, geriatrics begin to lose some of their teeth in their late 20s if the teeth become overly worn.

5. Waves and Slopes

Horses’ chewing surfaces are not level. The upper and lower cheek teeth meet at approximately a 10- to 15-degree slope, which facilitates the strong grinding forces necessary to pulverize fibrous feed. The incisor teeth, which are not used for grinding, meet in a flat table surface. Abnormal wear patterns limit chewing efficiency. “Waves (the wavelike configuration of the premolars and molars from front to back), ramps, and hooks (both overgrowths of the teeth) all come into play,” says Daugherty. His gold standard for routine dental care “is to keep the dental arcade balanced, where the incisor table stays flat and molars have the desired slope with no excessive hooks or ramps.”

6. Specialized Tools

Some of the most common specialized tools used for dental maintenance include:

  • Speculums: These instruments hold open the horse’s mouth during an exam, enabling visual access to the cheek teeth and allowing a more complete assessment of the oral cavity.
  • Headlamps: The distance from a horse’s lips to the cheek teeth is as long as 18 inches; therefore, headlamps are essential for a comprehensive exam.
  • Floats: “Floating” (filing or rasping) is a term borrowed from masonry. Veterinary dental providers use manual and powered floats to smooth sharp enamel edges from the teeth. These instruments come in many lengths, and the type and angle of the blade are specialized for different parts of the mouth.
  • Forceps: This tweezerlike tool pulls debris from between teeth.
  • Dental exploration mirror: Similar to tools used for human dentistry, the oral mirror has a slightly larger head and a much longer handle.
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