Horses have evolved teeth to eat rough, varied forage that wears down the teeth. However, many domestic horses today eat a diet which is low in abrasive minerals and materials and so their teeth don’t wear down as they would in the wild.
Just because our horses are now living in stables, paddocks and fenced-in fields doesn’t mean that their teeth have changed and they need a little help from us in order to stay healthy.
Your horse’s teeth are always growing
Your horse’s teeth grow over decades. They slowly erupt from the gums as the top layer wears off.
The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw and so ridges and points can form as a result of the teeth not having anything to wear down against.
Your horse depends on her teeth because the food she eats is tough to chew and digest. She chews her food in a side-to-side rotary chewing motion (just like a camel) and any uneven points or ridges in the teeth will quickly cause her pain, poor chewing and dropping of food.
Horses with uneven, neglected teeth will often chew in an up-and-down motion (like humans) instead of side-to-side. This unnatural way of chewing increases the risk of gastrointestinal problems, colic, choking etc.
Regular care is necessary
Just like her hooves, your horse’s teeth need regular maintenance. Your vet or equine dentist can check the mouth regularly to determine when the teeth need to be filed down – called floating – to give your horse an even chewing surface.
At the same time, they will check for other problems such as infected teeth, wolf teeth, cracked or broken teeth etc.
Signs of problems with the teeth include discomfort when wearing a bit, recurrent colic, dropping food or refusing food and quidding (where the horse will store food in the side of the mouth and then drop it).
Horses that are kept in box stalls and are given scheduled meals that consist of other feed than just forage will often grow their teeth to adapt to their diets.
Horses that are being managed in a way that is most reminiscent of their breed-specific lifestyle – that of wild horses – may need less floating.
A horse at pasture, eating species-typical feed and eating continuously, might need less maintenance to the teeth – bar split or infected teeth etc.
The teeth should still be regularly checked but if the horse is wearing them down by itself through an appropriate diet, don’t take unnecessary action to fix something that might not need fixing.
However, if your horse has ongoing problems due to the shape and size of her mouth, she may need more frequent checks.
When your horse’s teeth get checked, her age will be taken into consideration since problems such as hooks, caps and points are related to age.
Your horse may need a bit seat or even have some teeth removed completely.
When your horse gets old and starts having problems with chewing her food efficiently, your vet will guide you in the best kind of diet for your horse.
Your equine dentist will be able to tell you how much follow-up and how many visits will be required to keep your horse’s teeth in good working order.
Your horse’s dental anatomy
Horses have between 36 and 44 teeth. They have differently shaped teeth for performing different tasks.
The 12 incisors at the front of the mouth cut grass and other food, are used to attack or in self-defence to bite, as well as to groom each other in order to strengthen social bonds.
The incisors are the easiest to see and it’s from the incisors that we tell the age of a horse.
Behind the incisors is the interdental space where no teeth grow and where the bit sits in the mouth. The bit sits just before the pre-molars.
Last come the 12 pre-molars and 12 molars, which are used to chew food before swallowing. Very rarely, a horse may have an extra molar.
Pre-molars and molars are very deeply rooted in your horse’s jaw bone. In the lower jaw, these teeth extend to the bottom of the bone.
These teeth grind the food before it’s gathered into a bolus (a ball-like mixture of food and saliva) at the back of the throat and swallowed. They convert fodder, like grass and hay, into smaller pieces, about 1,5 cm or 1/2 inch long.
If you see pieces of grass or hay in your horse’s manure that are longer than that, it could be a sign of dental problems that are making it hard for your horse to chew her food properly.
All of her teeth will grow about 0,5 cm or 1/6 inch per year. How much your horse’s teeth wear down depends on the type of soil she is grazing on and the type of fodder she gets, as well as her health, habits, and genetics.
What are wolf teeth on a horse?
Some horses can also have canines, also known as wolf teeth. Wolf teeth are vestigial pre-molars and can occur in both mares and stallions or geldings.
A horse can have up to five canine teeth and they are more common in stallions and geldings than mares.
They are more common in the upper jaw and can be removed. There are many factors that decide whether wolf teeth need to be removed, such as position, size, movement, damage and many more.
The important thing is to make sure that the horse suffers no pain, that it can work and perform normally without the wolf teeth interfering with sensitivity or response, and that the wolf teeth aren’t in a position that prevents the dentist from caring for the teeth.
How to tell the age of a horse from the teeth
Learning how to tell the age of a horse by the teeth is an art that humans have been practising since ancient times. You can develop this skill and become quite accurate in your estimate when you’re looking at a young horse.
As a horse ages, the likelihood of error grows and you will be making educated guesses from around the age of 10-14.
Stabled horses will typically appear younger in their teeth than they really are, whereas those grazing in sandy areas will appear relatively older than their age due to the wear on the teeth.
Horses vary considerably in well-being and durability but will have passed their physical peak around age ten. From this point on, the chances of unsoundness increase.
It takes practice to be able to tell the age of a horse from the teeth. Start by looking at horses whose ages you already know before moving on to horses you don’t know the ages of.
If you ever have any questions about the teeth of your horse or you see something unusual in the mouth, consult your vet and/or equine dentist.
As your horse ages, the length, shape, colour and markings on her teeth change. By learning how to recognise these distinct signs, you’ll be able to tell how old a horse is just by looking at the teeth.
The baby teeth
Your horse will go through two sets of teeth in her life, one temporary and one permanent. A set of baby teeth, known as deciduous or milk teeth, erupt after birth and are later replaced by the permanent teeth.
The temporary incisors tend to erupt in pairs at 8 days, 8 weeks and 8 months of age.
Sometimes, a young horse may need help shedding her baby teeth. The caps may not fall out as they should and may have to be manually removed by your vet or equine dentist.
The permanent teeth
Permanent teeth are larger, longer and darker in colour than milk teeth, and do not have the well-defined neck joining root and gum that temporary teeth do.
The four centre permanent teeth appear – two above and two below – as your horse approaches three, the intermediates at four and the corners at five years of age.
A horse is said to have a “full mouth” when all the permanent teeth have erupted.
A young horses’ age can be estimated by looking at the pattern of the teeth in the mouth and looking at which teeth have erupted.
There are differences in how different breeds and individuals develop the teeth, so there is no one right answer when it comes to teeth, only general guidelines.
The older a horse gets, the longer the teeth get. The surfaces of the teeth also wear down and change shape with time and use. Dental cups appear and then disappear; the number of cups and the condition they are in is an easy way to estimate age.
Another clear indication of age is something called Galvayne’s groove – which can be seen in the picture below at ages 10 and 20. It begins to form at 10 years of age and continues to grow longer; at age 20 it will have grown to cover most the length of the tooth.
Common problems and dental care
Horses are prone to several types of tooth problems. They can cause weight loss, poor health, problems with wearing a bit as well as problems with behaviour or performance when ridden or driven.
Your horse’s teeth will become yellowish or brownish in colour and this is normal. The pearly white teeth of foals begin to change as they eat more hay and grass, which stain the teeth.
The gums should always appear a healthy pink and any change in the colour can mean there’s a problem with the health or teeth of your horse.
Your horse’s teeth can crack, become loose or even break in an accident. Some baby teeth may not shed properly and need to be corrected by your vet or equine dentist.
Uneven wear of your horse’s teeth can cause sharp edges or hooks that need to be filed down in order to prevent irritation of the tissues on the inside of the mouth and cheek or even the tongue.
Your horse can also have a misaligned jaw and have an under-bite (sow mouth) or an over-bite (parrot mouth). Having the jaw out of alignment, meaning that the upper and lower jaw don’t line up evenly, causes unever wear and chewing problems.
Your horse’s teeth can also become infected and debris stuck in the mouth or plaque buildup on the teeth can cause abscesses.
Some of the roots of the molars sit close to the sinus cavity and can cause infections and problems that look like sinus problems instead of dental problems.
12 signs your horse needs to have his teeth checked
How often your horse’s teeth need to be checked by your vet or dentist will depend on your horse.
Generally, you can expect to have a checkup every six months and floating (rasping) every 12 months.
Your horse will always show when he needs to have his teeth checked, but his signals can easily be mistaken as bad or odd behaviour.
You may put a noseband on or you may change the bit, put gear designed to keep your horses head in place, such as martingales or tie downs.
You may even change your routine or your horse’s environment, but still may see your horse acting out because he’s experiencing discomfort or pain.
Learn the tell-tale signs that it’s time to get your vet or equine dentist in for a visit.
Sign #1 Being head shy
If your horse is suddenly very sensitive about having his head touched or handled it can be a sign of dental issues.
If he doesn’t want you touching, grooming or putting the bridle on when he’s normally very cooperative, you should check if you can identify a specific are of the head that seems sore and check for other symtpoms.
Sign #2 Fussing with the bit
Dental problems can make it uncomfortable or painful for your horse to hold on to the bit and your horse may react strongly when he has to take the bit into his mouth.
If your horse has wolf teeth that are getting in the way, they may need to be removed. Often, finding a better fitting bit that your horse prefers is a better solution and creating a bit seat to force your horse to take a bit he doesn’t like.
Sign #3 Tossing the head
There are other reasons why your horse will toss his head when riding or driving and it isn’t necessarily always dental issues causing it.
If you notice your horse tossing the head, you should have the teeth checked as well as improving your riding and checking that the bit is a good fit.
Sign #4 Bolting & spooking
Regular dental care is important because horses are all individuals who respond differently to pain. Some horses have a very low threshold for pain and will act out by becoming defiant and refusing to do anything.
Other horses will become spooky and bolt at every opportunity. And some may even become very quiet and unresponsive, quietly putting up with a lot of pain.
Sign #5 Sinus discharge
A small amount of clear or slightly milky fluid from your horse’s sinuses is normal. Dry weather and a dusty environment can also cause your horse to become a little snotty as the mucous membranes react to the dryness and extra particles.
However, a yucky running nose can be a sign of a sinus infection or even dental problems. Call your vet to help figure out what’s causing the discharge.
Sign #6 Drooling
Your horse will drool or slobber after eating plants with fungi that make him drool after ingesting an irritating substance.
It could also be caused by something being stuck or embedded in the gums, tongue or palate and his system is literally trying to flush it out.
It can also be a sign of problems with your teeth and you should get them checked.
If your horse tends to drool with the bit in (and you’ve made sure that the bit is a good fit otherwise) normal drooling clearly caused by the bit shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Sign #7 Smelly breath
If your horse has a bad odour coming from the mouth or the nose, it’s pretty clear that there may be an infection in the gums or somewhere in the mouth.
An infection will usually be treated with dental work and antibiotics.
Sign #8 Losing weight
When your horse can’t chew properly because of dental issues, he won’t be able to get all the nutrition he needs from fibrous fodder like hay and grass.
In addition to causing weight loss, problems with the teeth can also cause choke and colic.
Sign #9 Quidding or spitting food out
Quidding is a sign of your horse not being able to chew his food properly. If your horse is spitting out food in general or it’s falling out of his mouth (more than usual) when he’s eating, it’s time to check the teeth.
Sign #10 Slow eating
Infected gums, broken teeth, sore cheeks, ulcers and any other problems in the mouth will make your horse eat his food very slowly because it will be painful.
This will quickly lead to weigh loss and poor nutrition, especially if your horse is feeling rushed, for instance by other horses coming to eat his food.
Sign #11 Spilling grain
If your horse eats by spilling or throwing his grains around may be anxious about food.
He might be trying to keep an eye out for other horses coming trying to steal his food or he may have problems holding the food in his mouth or chewing because of dental issues.
Because he won’t be able to chew the grain properly, he can end up choking.
Sign #12 Dehydration
If your horse has problems with his mouth or teeth he may hesitate to drink cold water.
If you think this is an issue you can offer warmer water to drink until the vet or dentist can come and check him out.
Dehydration or a lack of sufficient water makes it more difficult for your horse to get all the nutrients he needs to get from his food and can lead to choking and an increased risk of colic.