Did you know a horse’s digestive health starts with their teeth? This is because digestion of any feedstuff (feed or forage) begins in the mouth with mastication, better known as chewing.

Mastication involves the mixing of saliva with the feedstuff and begins the actual digestion process. This process lubricates and reduces feed particle size to allow the feed to be swallowed and digested properly.

Horses masticate, or chew, in a side to side motion. Much of this chewing is centered around the horse’s molars and premolars, which are often called “cheek teeth”. As the horse chews, the upper and lower cheek teeth slide against each other.

Horses have evolved to graze continuously for most of the day. Their teeth have also evolved to match this behavior and continually grow (erupt) to handle the continual wear of grazing. However, since horses have been domesticated, we have altered their diets and feeding patterns. In response, horses have changed their chewing patterns, which has led to the potential for tooth abnormalities.

Whether it is feed (concentrate) or forage, over time this side to side chewing motion causes the cheek teeth to wear down unevenly. The upper cheek teeth are set wider than the lower cheek teeth and this can amplify the uneven wear pattern. This wearing down process can be enhanced for horses that eat dusty hay or eat off the ground. Here they can pick up additional dirt or earth that act as an additional, abrasive grinding surface.

Consequentially, the grinding down of individual teeth can result in the formation of sharp edges, hooks, or ridges. These can either cut or lead to sores on the tongue or cheeks of the horse, which can make eating and chewing painful. This, in turn, can lead to the horse eating less, which could further lead to malnutrition and other health problems.

Signs that your horse may have problems with their teeth include:

  • Reduction in feed eaten
  • Lack of appetite, refusing to eat
  • Feedstuffs falling out of the mouth when chewing
  • Struggling to chew or chew properly
  • Swelling of the face or cheeks
  • Bad breath

Thankfully, routine equine dental care can prevent distress to your horse. A dental exam can uncover any abnormalities in the cheeks or tongue. More importantly, an expert can identify anything on the cheek teeth that may need to be removed.

The process of removing or filing down any sharp points, hooks, or ridges by an equine dentist is called “floating”. This is named after the large file-like tool used to do this, called a float. An equine specialist may use all different sizes of floats and may even use motorized equipment. Prior to the use of a float or any other dental equipment, a speculum is used to open and keep the horse’s mouth open. The specialist would then identify any occlusions. These would then be removed by gently rasping them down. Most horses tolerate the rasping of their teeth. This is because the surface of the teeth has no nerve endings. However, under certain conditions or with excitable horses, sedation may be required.

It is highly recommended that each individual horse has an oral exam at least once a year by either a veterinarian or licensed equine dentist. For horses under the age of 5, it is generally recommended their teeth are evaluated every 6 months due to their faster growth. Conversely, horses over the age of 20 may need more frequent exams at a 6-month interval to ensure they are maintaining proper dental health.  

Whenever in doubt about the health of your horse, it is always recommended you speak to your veterinarian. This is especially true when discussing dental health.

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.