By Ellie Riley
When was the last time you took a look inside your horse’s mouth? Does he have retained caps, wolf teeth or a low palate? If you couldn’t easily answer those questions, then it’s time for you schedule a dental check-up for your horse and make learning a few equine dental basics part of your horsemanship tool-box.
Horses are designed to chew and digest forage for 12-18 hours a day. Therefore their dental anatomy is designed to do an efficient job at masticating grasses and fibrous plant matter. When we watch a horse graze, we first see the lips of the horse investigate the grasses with extreme accuracy and sensitivity until the “good” grass is chosen. We’ve all seen that horse that can pick the clover leaves out of a clump of grass while leaving the unsuitable grasses completely untouched.
Next the top and bottom incisors grab the grass and rip/tear it from the roots, then it disappears with the back and forth motion of the horse’s mandibles (jaws), further up into the mouth. The molars and their wide flat surfaces grind the grasses and leaves with every chewing motion, mixing with saliva and enzymes that begin the digestive process until the green goo (we so often end up with on our shirts after a day at the barn) is swallowed to continue being broken down and digested.
It seems simple, but being a forage eater who chews from side to side for a lifetime can cause some interesting dental issues that we, as horse owners need to be aware of. Not everyone has access to an equine dentist, but your veterinarian can provide basic dental checks and should do so semi-annually in order to make you aware of any issues that need to be resolved by extraction, floating or filing of the teeth. The mouth of the horse goes much further back into the skull than one might think and convincing your horse to let you take a look is a job made much easier with your vet’s expertise and equipment.
Young horses, just like children lose their 24 deciduous (baby) teeth slowly up to around age four, as they are replaced by 36-44 adult permanent teeth. Sometimes, the worn down baby teeth (called caps) get stuck or retained on top of the new teeth as they erupt through the gum tissue and can cause problems like gingivitis and lead to symptoms like head tossing, rubbing teeth on buckets and fences, not accepting the bit or behavioral issues. Vets and dentists will often pop off the retained caps in order to remedy the problems uneven shedding can cause. If your young horse seems mouthy, fussy, head shy or isn’t eating well, the mouth is the first place to look.
In adult horses, the teeth are continually worn down through a lifetime of chewing. The incisors in some horses are misaligned causing uneven growth or wear and problems with grazing, eating hay and retaining grain in the mouth. The molars can wear in wave patterns or develop hooks which requires floating or filing in order to restore the proper symmetry for chewing. Cracked teeth, cavities or spaces that develop between misaligned teeth and hold feedstuffs can cause serious infections and must be addressed by a veterinarian. Head shaking and tossing, refusal of contact, sudden head shyness, leaning into the bit or head tilting are just some of the common symptoms of dental issues. Many times, riders and trainers think it’s a bitting problem, when in fact it’s a dental problem. This is why it’s so important to maintain a regular schedule of dental care for your horse.
Learning the dental anatomy and issues of each particular horse can make choosing the right bit much easier. For example, a horse with a lower palate (we often see this in Thoroughbred types) may not appreciate a single jointed snaffle that makes a triangle shape when contact with the reins is made and gouges them in the top of the mouth. A horse with a large thick tongue may not appreciate a large diameter bit even though they are sometimes incorrectly considered kinder than a thinner bit. Bitting is heavily dependent on the anatomy and size of the horse’s mouth and until you have seen and/or felt the mouth, tongue and lips of the horse, bitting decisions should not be made based on discipline alone.
Like most horse professionals, your trainer is likely to have an arsenal of bits to choose
from and you can decide on a well-fitting and effective bit by trying several on and seeing what is comfortable and appropriately sized
for your horse based on age, anatomy and your discipline of riding. Having a wide range of bits to choose from is important, as bitting is never a one size/style fits all endeavor. Horse Tack Company
has a wide range of horse bits to choose from after making sure your equine partner has a healthy and comfortable mouth.