When was the last time you visited the dentist? For many, it was within the last six months to follow the widely accepted twice-a-year check-up schedule.

Does that rule also apply to your draft horse?

“All horses, including drafts, should be checked every six months,” said Meredith Barlow, EqDT, IAED/C, licensed by the Virginia State Veterinary Board to perform Equine Dentistry, and certified by the International Association of Equine Dentistry. “Routine dentistry should occur at least annually.”

During regular dental exams, the horse’s mouth is examined for sharp points and malocclusions. Malocclusions are defined as an imperfect positioning of teeth when the jaw is closed. “Draft horses often have less major dental issues than smaller breed equines. This is likely due to the large size of their heads. More simply put, their teeth fit in their heads,” she said.

Routine exams

As herbivores, horses are naturally grazing animals. Before humans domesticated and confined them, they grazed nearly 16-18 hours each day. Positioned with their heads down, snipping blades of grass and chewing in a circular motion, a horse’s chewing action naturally wears teeth evenly.

Most horses today do not have the opportunity to graze for hours at a time, thus leading to increased opportunities for dental problems. Limited access to grass, combined with rations of grain and hay fed at regulated intervals and from elevated racks or nets, contribute to changing the angle at which a horse chews and consequently, changing the natural wear patterns of their teeth, resulting in sharp edges.

Regular dental check-ups can identify and even correct uneven dental wear. “A basic examination includes an oral palpitation and should be done using a full mouth speculum and a head lamp,” Barlow said. “Sedation, by a licensed veterinarian, may be necessary to perform a complete and thorough exam.”

A sedative keeps the horse quiet, limits head tossing and helps reduce anxiety that the horse may experience.

At the start of the exam, a speculum is slid into the horse’s mouth that is designed to gently open the horse’s jaw and hold it open. Barlow explained that during an initial examination, a veterinarian will look for issues including periodontal disease, loose or diseased teeth, open pulps, or fractured teeth. “This is why the three part exam is so important, the speculum, light, and palpation,” she said.

Depending on the horse’s age and frequency of dental check-ups, it’s likely he will need his teeth floated to remove any sharp or uneven edges. “Drafts, like all equines, should have their teeth floated,” Barlow said.

Floating is the process of removing sharp edges that can injure the soft tissue in a horse’s mouth. A rasp or file is used to smooth out uneven edges. “Floating also reduces equilibrated, defined as overlong teeth, and brings them to an appropriate level,” she added.

After a dental exam and or procedure while under sedation the horse should be kept in a stall or confined area to avoid any injury while groggy. Feed and hay should also be withheld until the horse is fully alert, and there is no risk of choke.

Common dental problems

The list of dental abnormalities is long. Some of the most common dental problems are listed as follows.

Excessive transverse ridges

Teeth with excessive transverse ridges look like an old-fashioned washboard. Although normal and desirable for teeth to have ridges, if ridges become too pronounced they can affect the movement of the mandible and temporal mandible joint. Routine dental procedures can smooth out extreme ridges.

Hooks

Hooks develop from a misalignment of the molar arcades, commonly caused by an overbite (parrot mouth) or under bite (sow mouth). All herbivores require tooth opposition to wear teeth evenly. The portion of the tooth not in contact with an opposing tooth will become longer, causing extreme discomfort. Left unattended, hooks can lead to weight loss, choke, and potentially colic.

Incisor dental conditions

Incisor dental conditions are caused by various situations, including retained deciduous teeth, traumatic injuries, and even vices like cribbing or wind sucking, and inherited abnormalities. Emergency situations like a kick to the face are treated on a case-by-case basis. Uneven wear from vices can be corrected by a veterinarian or equine dentist and by altering the horse’s environment to limit cribbing and wind sucking.

Parrot Mouth

A horse with a parrot mouth has upper incisors that protrude or hang over the lower incisors. Horses with a parrot mouth also tend to have large upper hooks and large lower hooks on the molar arcades.

Ramps

Ramps are similar to hooks, but more gradual in slope. Ramps on the lower cheek teeth can cause pinching of the soft tissue and will limit movement of the mandible.

Sharp enamel points

Nearly all horses develop sharp enamel points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the inside of the lower cheek teeth over time as the horse’s teeth erupt. Regular dental check-ups and routine care can eliminate sharp points on teeth.

Wolf teeth

Wolf teeth can interfere with the bit and are often removed. In horses under 3 years old, wolf teeth can easily be completely removed. Extracting wolf teeth in older horse can become problematic as the teeth become firmly attached to the bone below.

Symptoms

Aside from scheduling routine dental exams, there is little horse owners can do to maintain healthy teeth. “Owners should always keep a close eye on their horse’s eating habits and remember that keeping up with annual maintenance and biannual checks is the best thing they can do for healthy teeth, and a healthy horse,” Barlow said.

Dental problems not only cause discomfort in your horse’s mouth, but can also affect the horse’s movement, and musculoskeletal structures of the neck and back, causing pain, stiffness and inflammation. A combination of physical and behavioral changes can suggest there is an issue with your horse’s teeth.

It’s often impossible to see when a horse is in the early stages of dental problems. “Horses are prey animals and do all they can to hide pain and discomfort,” she said.

As dental problems progress or an acute problem develops, they may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

Physical

  • Dropping grain while chewing
  • Weight loss
  • Excess salivation
  • Foul breath
  • Facial swelling

Behavioral

  • Head tossing with the bit
  • Tilting of the head
  • Grabbing the bit
  • Uncooperative while working

Wrap-up

Because the symptoms of dental problems may also be signs of other issues, it’s important to work with a veterinarian to determine the true cause of discomfort. Schedule dental exams for the same time as other regular scheduled barn calls to be sure checkups aren’t forgotten throughout the year.