Willow Creek Veterinary Service created this article to help you understand the anatomy and physiology of the equine mouth. By understanding the importance of the horses’ mouth we can improve our care of the their dentition creating a more comfortable horse that is more feed efficient and eliminate behavioral and performance problems associated with dental abnormalities.
Normal adult horses have 36-44 teeth, which replace the 24 baby teeth. Adults have 12 incisors, 6 upper and 6 lower, and 24 pre-molars and molars, 12 upper and 12 lower which are often referred to as the cheek teeth. Male horses have upper and lower canine teeth that erupt between the incisors and cheek teeth. Mares are less likely to have canine teeth, but occasionally have small, less developed ones. Some horses will have additional premolars that erupt just in front of the first large cheek tooth anywhere between 6 and 18 months of age, known as wolf teeth. Wolf teeth are adult teeth that serve no useful purpose. While the cheek teeth are very large and have deep roots making them very stable, wolf teeth are significantly smaller and have very short roots. If present, wolf teeth are located where the bit rests, and they can be a source of discomfort as they come into contact with the bit. Horses can have up to 4 wolf teeth, but it is most common to find 2 uppers if any at all. It is recommended that wolf teeth be removed prior to starting a young horse in training to eliminate oral discomfort as a cause of behavioral issues when bitted.
The horses’ mouth is ever changing; the deciduous (baby) teeth erupt and are lost within the first 5 years of life replaced by the permanent teeth. The shape and alignment of the horses’ teeth change over time as the horse ages. This gradual shift is different in every horse and is impacted by the angle of eruption, the type of feed ingested, the environment, including time spent on pasture, and the forces of mastication (chewing).
Horses have continuously erupting teeth that that are slowly worn down over time. As a horse becomes geriatric tooth loss is common because the entire length of the tooth has erupted and the root is exposed and then lost. Incisors are used for cutting or shearing of forage (picking up bites of hay, grasping and cutting grass). They should line up symmetrically and level. Pre molars and molars are used for grinding the feed before swallowing. The upper jaw, maxilla, is anatomically wider than the lower jaw, mandible. This difference in alignment leads to the formation of sharp enamel points that do not get worn down on the outside of the upper teeth and inside of the lower teeth.
A great question we hear a lot is “why does my horse need dental floating so often, when wild horses have no dental care”. To answer that we have to compare the two. Wild horses spend up to 18 hours a day grazing and grinding rough forages. This causes a lot more even and consistent wear on their teeth unlike most domestic horses that are stabled and fed a few times a day with much of that being grain or cut and dried forage. The other major factor is natural selection. When horses in the wild reproduce, it is generally the strongest and healthiest individuals that do so. Domestic horses are bred for other qualities such as temperament, beauty, and athletic potential. These qualities make for great pets and athletes, but often leave them needing additional support from their owners to keep them healthy. This is why routine dental exams and floating are so important in maintaining your horse’s overall health.
Oral exams should be an essential part of an annual physical examination by a veterinarian. Every dental exam provides the opportunity to perform routine preventative dental maintenance. Mature horses should get a thorough dental exam at least once a year, and horses 2 –5 years old should be examined twice yearly. During the exam, sedation and a full mouth speculum is often required to visualize the entire oral cavity. The mouth is evaluated for symmetry and function and all areas are assessed for abnormalities, including; ulcers, masses, foreign bodies, periodontal disease, swellings, scarring, and tooth number and morphology.
It is important to catch dental problems early. If a horse starts behaving abnormally, dental problems should be considered as a potential cause. Waiting too long may increase the difficulty of remedying certain conditions or may even make remedy impossible. Look for the following indicators of dental problems from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to know when to seek veterinary attention for your horse:
The anatomy of the equine mouth coupled with the natural physiology provides the basis on which our dental exam is based. Understanding the dentition and taking preventative measures can elevate performance, lengthen the horses’ lifespan, provide comfort and improve overall quality of life. We encourage you to seek expert veterinary care when it comes to your horses’ dental health. Modern equine dentistry is creating a healthier population of horses that are living longer than ever before.
A dental exam is included is included in all of our comprehensive physicals.
Call today to have your horses mouth examined, 330.410.4899
3578 Hamlin Rd. Medina, OH 44256 | 330.410.4899
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