Australian Equine Dental PracticeTM
© Peter Borgdorff 1984-2007
DENTAL CARE GUIDE
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1.  Introduction
2.  How many teeth does the horse have?
3.  Why do the horse's teeth require regular filing?
4.  How do I know if the horse has teeth problems?
5.  When do "caps" need to be removed?
6.  My horse spills more feed and has a lot of undigested oats in it's manure. What causes this?
7.  How often should the horse be checked or treated?
8.  What causes swelling of the gums behind the upper incisors?
9.  What sort of feed is bad for the horse's mouth?
10. What should I expect when I ask an Equine Dentist to treat my horse?
11. Why do horses get gum disease or lose teeth?
12. How do I select a bit?
13. Copyright Questions
14. About the Author
15. E-mail the Author

1. Introduction
The horse's mouth forms a very important part of the digestive system and also forms the vital link between the horse and it's rider or driver. In order to be able to become more aware of what problems occur and what treatment the horse requires, this leaflet will answer the most commonly asked questions.  You may click on the pictures to see more information. 
2. How many teeth does the horse have?
Between 36 and 42 teeth consisting of: 12 incisors (front teeth) which are used for tearing the feed off or grasping it; all twelve incisors erupt as milk teeth and are later replaced by permanent incisors; 24 back teeth (molars) of which the first 12 erupt as milk teeth. The molars are used to finely grind the feed before it is swallowed; 4 canine teeth located between the incisors and the molars; they are commonly called the bridle teeth; these erupt at about 5 years of age in the male horse but are usually absent or very small in the female; 2 wolf teeth positioned just in front of the upper molars; they are very small and are extracted by the Equine Dentist when ready because they cause a lot of problems with the bit; occasionally these teeth can be found in the lower jaw. 
Click to view more details about Normal Bite
3. Why do the horse's teeth require regular filing?
Unlike our teeth, the horse's teeth continue to grow during most of its life. The upper molars (grinding teeth) are wider than the lower molars and because feed is much different today, this means that the teeth wear differently and the outside edges of the upper molars and the inside edges of the lower molars get very sharp. These sharp edges need to be correctly filed to prevent damage to the cheeks and tongue. Additionally, where there is the common problem of abnormal wear this can be improved by regular filing. 

Click to enlarge cross section


 
Click to view more details about Overbite   4. How do I know if the horse has teeth problems?
In many cases you cannot tell whether your horse has dental problems. Gum disease, step mouth and wave mouth, for instance, are often present at a young age when there are few symptoms but become major agonising problems when the horse gets older. However, it will help if you routinely observe the horse when it is ridden (or driven) and when it is eating. Look for: head shaking, head tossing, pulling to one side, hanging, being hard to turn, blood on the bit, spilling feed whilst eating, opening the mouth and at the same time "screwing" the jaws, excessive saliva production, bad appetite, bad smell from the mouth, colic, undigested feed in the manure, gagging and many other symptoms. 

5. When do "caps" need to be removed?
Between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years of age the horse loses 24 milk teeth or deciduous teeth, which are also called caps". The Equine Dentist will remove them when due as the stable fed horse will often have trouble losing these and can develop abnormal dental wear as a result. 

6. My horse's teeth have been filed but now my horse spills more feed and has a lot of undigested oats in it's manure. What causes this?
In an effort to file the teeth, some people file too much roughness off the grinding surfaces especially off the bottom teeth. This results in a condition called 'smooth mouth' where the horse has no ability to grind the feed properly as it cannot be retained between the chewing surfaces. See examples of a normal upper molar chewing surface  and a lower molar chewing surface .  The raised enamel edges are clearly visible in these pictures.  Excessive filing will remove too many enamel ridges and cause feed spillage.  If done repeatedly in one area it will also cause wave mouth. 

Click to enlarge cross section

7. How often should the horse be checked or treated?
Follow the Equine Dentist's recommended period for the horse concerned, otherwise:
Paddock fed horse 4 or younger - every 6 months
Paddock fed horse 5 or older - every 12 months
Stable fed horse 4 or younger - every 3-4 months
Stable fed horse 5 or older - every 6 months
It is harmful to file the teeth excessively; your Dentist will only render the necessary treatment. 

8. What causes swelling of the gums behind the upper incisors?
This swelling usually occurs when a young horse is getting some new permanent incisors, It also occurs when the horse bites or rubs with its gums on foreign objects. In either case it is essential to seek treatment. 

Click to view more details about Wave Mouth
Click to view more details about Step Mouth 9. What sort of feed is bad for the horse's mouth?
Wild barleygrass seeds in the feed must be avoided at all times. These seeds can do quite a lot of damage to areas under the tongue and lips, as well as beside the upper molars. It is most important to avoid these grass seeds both in dry feed and in the paddock. Crushed oats has a furry coating underneath the husk and these "hairs" can cause ulcerations. Whole oats does not present this problem. It should not be necessary to crack or bruise oats as proper dental treatment will normally eliminate the problem of undigested oats in the manure. 
10. What should I expect when I ask an Equine Dentist to treat my horse?
- Professional handling of the horse.
- Thorough examination of the horse's mouth; to investigate the symptoms you have observed and routinely look for gumdisease, injuries, irregular wear and other abnormal conditions.
- Professional treatment with hygienic stainless steel equipment designed for the best results.
- Assessing the effect of the bit used and advice which bit suits your horse.
- To follow up patients by giving free advice to clients who ring or write with questions; this allows persistent problems with the behaviour or condition of your horse to be resolved. 
Click to view more details of Parrotmouth
Click to view more details of Serrated Bite 11. Why do horses get gum disease and why do they sometimes lose their teeth, especially when they get older?
One of the most common causes is the packing of feed between the teeth. A bad bite can cause such packing of feed which results in irritation and often disease of the gums. It is often followed by disease around the root of the tooth causing it to become loose. The horse will typically be prone to colic. Shortening of the roots, decay and tartar build-up are contributing factors to periodontal disease. Front teeth (incisors) often have feed lodged between them and this is worse if these teeth are not aligned properly. 

12. How do I select a bit?
Keep in mind that the area between the incisors and the molars where the bit rests is very sensitive and the bit rests only on two very narrow edges of the jaw. A bit should be light, smooth and of correct width (size). It is important not to tighten the bridle too much nor have it adjusted too loosely; the bit must fit neatly in front of the first bottom molars. Do not to use ring bits and long levered western bits as they will cause a whole range of other problems. Problems with bits can often be prevented by consulting the Equine Dentist.

PROPER dental care is essential
WATCH your horse for unusual behaviour.
REPORT any relevant symptoms to your Dentist.
ASK any questions you may have

13. Copyright questions are answered here in plain language.
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14. The Author of this page is Peter Borgdorff. All text and illustrations are his original work.
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