Is Your Horse Afraid To Smile?

If you are taking the time to read this article, chances are you want the very best for your horse. Today, horses are our friends, companions, and in some cases our livelihoods. It is in our best interest ()and our horses) to provide the best health care possible, so they may live longer and happier lives. Special attention is given to make certain our horses are wormed every two months, keep current on all the necessary inoculations, obtain the highest quality hay and grain, have proper fitting saddles and tack, provide frequent sessions of massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic and shoeing. We know how important shoeing is to our horse's performance, therefore we schedule routine visits from our farrier.

Did You Know?

Many of us overbook another very important aspect of general health maintenance for our horse - that is care for their teeth. Most horses will not show symptoms of dental problems, but all horses develop sharp pain-inflicting points among other irregularities of the teeth. We are all concerned with our horse's comfort. In some cases, whole mouth dentistry properly done can alleviate and often eradicate certain cases of colic, eliminate mild lameness, clear runny eyes and lessen or even cure cribbing. Dentistry may also promote softer collection and flexion, re-muscle an atrophic top-line, and even lessen the severity of spooking. There are many other obvious issues related to dentistry such as correcting head tossing, lessening the amount of grain lost while eating, drooling, change a bad or undesirable attitude, loss of weight and fighting or fidgeting with the bit.


This all happens with whole mouth dentistry and equilibration best explained as equal crown heightening of teeth, not just floating! For instance ....... a male horse can have up to 44 teeth and a mare up to 38 teeth. These teeth will continue to erupt at different degrees, from sockets in the mandible, until a horse reaches 20 - 25 years of age. Horses in the wild will eat coarse grass and graze up to 20 hours each day. The silica or abrasives in the grasses will naturally keep the teeth worn down to the proper angle and height. Most domesticated horses are kept in stalls or small pastures, fed processed feed, or grazes limited amounts of time on fine grass. As a result, they do not receive the benefit of the abrasives necessary to keep the teeth evenly worn. Incisors will not wear at the same rate as the molar table. As this process occurs the horse adjusts its natural chewing motion from side to side motion to one of an up and down motion. This accentuates the unevenness of the molar table due to the fact that the lower molar table is narrower than the upper molar table. This causes the upper molar table to become cupped from the lower molar table pounding into it, accentuating the points of the upper molar table.

Having only the best intentions, horse owners and trainers have these points "floated" or removed. Floating however is just the beginning of the whole mouth dentistry and equilibration. Floating represents only 10% of the total work required to properly equilibrate the mouth, especially for the performance horse. The molars have a surface or table which the horse uses to grind its food when the upper and lower molar tables meet properly. Horses have a chewing motion starting with the lower mandible going down to one side, out, up and in, then down to the other side, out, up and in again. Molars can very often erupt at different rates as the result of the unbalance of individual horses chewing patterns. This can be the result of a wide range of issues. Here are just a few of them:

* Short Skulls - specific breeds such as Quarter Horses, Arabians, Morgans and Miniature Horses. Miniature Horses have teeth of a full size horse packed into their miniaturized skull.
* Injuries
* Missing teeth and teeth erupting in an outwardly, crooked pattern instead of the normal vertical angle.
* Unevenness of the molar tables

With regard to the molar tables, a wave effect can be created with commonly occurring hooks and ramps. These occur at the end of the molar table. A ramp can be at the front or rear of the bottom molar tables A hook is usually found at the front if the top molar table.

These hooks and ramps can even protrude up into the opposing gum line. An example of these ramps is when the back of the last molar is jabbed up into the upper gum line, hitting on an acupuncture point (bladder meridian) which has been found to cause lameness in the rear hocks. It would be essential to check the moth in this situation especially if radiographs of the hock show no reason why this lameness has occurred.

The washboard effect occurs when the entire table is jagged. This is called accentuated transverse ridging. All cases in which unevenness of the molar table is described will prevent a horse's mandible from from front to back or side to side or both. Anything that restricts the forward and backward movement is believed to be detrimental to downward transitions and collection.

In addition, restrictions of movement to the left and right of the mandible can correspond to the poor left and right flexion in the direction of the restriction.

Young horses have a natural table angle of 10 to 15 degrees, not flat, which most floaters will tend to create, any deviation of this natural jaw movement of angle of the molar tables or incisors will throw the horse off physically as they age.

One of the major goals of whole mouth dentistry and equilibration is to create a three point balance or S.C.O (Simultaneous Centric Occlusion) with incisors, molars and TMJ (Temperomandibular Joint) all having equal pressure at rest.

Older Horses

Older horses, usually over the age of 10 years and young horses between 2 and 4.5 years of age have uniqueness in their teeth. Horses in the wild graze up to 20 hours a day and their grazing or nipping grasses keeps their incisors from becoming excessive in length. Stabled horses, fed processed feeds and precut hay are not able to wear their incisors properly. Older horses, 10 years + will not be able to grind their food as well without the interference of the incisors and will turn to an up and down sort of "chop chop" chewing motion. This in itself poses a problem. As the horse eats, he is not grinding his food properly and whole pieces of food are being swallowed, contributing to improper digestion, sometimes even colic. Pieces of food can be trapped in the epiglottis flap in the throat allowing hay dust into the lungs, hence the symptoms of heaves, coughing and wheezing may become apparent. From the performance view, the gap in the molar table causes pain in the TMJ and will cause the horse to throw and pop its head when asked to collect or round up.

Wedge or slanted incisors will cause a horse to chew only on one side of its mouth. This will make excessive wear to the side being used and accentuated uneven height of the clinical crown of the molar arcades. Here again, the whole mouth must be re-angled Special dremel instruments must be used to align properly and to insure incisors; molars and TMJ have equal pressure.

Younger Horses

Younger horses between the ages of 2.5 through 4.5 shed 24 teeth and should be checked every 6 months to insure proper occlusion of the permanent teeth. In many cases these shedding baby teeth or caps, do not slough off at the appropriate time in the appropriate manner. They are called retained caps and cause retained dental cysts offering a myriad of problems. If the caps on the molars will not come off to allow the permanent tooth to erupt, the permanent will erupt in an opposing direction, consequently through the bottom of the mandible or into the nasal cavity of the maxilla.

Normal dental cysts occur 3 to 6 months prior to the shedding of the baby or deciduous tooth and disappear 3 to 6 months after the baby tooth has been shed. Retained dental cysts or bumps on the mandible, lasting longer than the above-mentioned time, should be a red flag to the horse's owner that your young horse needs dental help.

If the incisors develop retained caps, the mature teeth coming in will grow in crooked behind the caps, or not at all. This produces a great deal of pain in babies, resulting in head tossing, excessive tongue movement in and out of the mouth etc. In many instances, retained caps are the initial reason that a horse will start to crib The young horse attempts to rid itself of caps by any means possible. Cribbing is retained as a habit. Cribbing also occurs in older horses that are attempting to file down incisors that are excessive in length.

Horses have been know to eat rocks, sticks and metal to file down their own teeth or rid themselves of caps. This method however is seldom successful Once again, young horses should be checked every six months and older horses once equilibrated should be checked every 9 to 12 months.

Other Occurrences in the Mouth

Whatever the age of the horse, it can have wolf teeth. Did you know that horses could have up to as many as 10 wolf teeth? They date back to the first horse, Eohippus, when horses had 7 molars in each arcade. The wolf tooth is actually a remnant of the roots of a premolar, or the 7th molar. As a premolar it has the capabilities of having a baby or deciduous tooth. These teeth can occur on the top and bottom arcades.

Wolf teeth are loosely rooted and set in front of the first premolar where the bit is placed and for this reason should be extracted prior to the installation of bit seats. This will enhance the performance of your horse.

Bit Seats

There are nerves running along the bars of the horse's mouth. If a bit constantly bangs on them these nerves can be damaged causing general aggravation. To solve this problem, bit seats are installed for the comfort of the horse and are suggested for any horse that is being ridden. By rounding the front of the first premolar (top and bottom to the gum line) we provide a place for the pouchy flesh and cheek to escape the bit. This bit seat should be custom made for the bit that is used in the horse's mouth. Many people will create bit seats, but they may not be the proper size for any bit, yet alone the bit you use.

This photo is of the horse skull with bit seat on the one side. (near side)

Why Use Sedation?

Most of the work I do does not require sedation, but if the horse is in need of advanced precision angle work that requires the horse to be still it is a must. This is especially true when dremels are used. The horse will respond with excessive moving about and head tossing. When the horse has been properly sedated they will be stranding and still awake, but they are quiet.

Another important reason for keeping the horse still is that there is a palatine artery running along the top of the mouth. If the horse should fidget and toss his head, there is a chance of puncturing this artery with an instrument while working.

Roger Eq/D working an unsedated horse.

Dentistry, a New Fad or a Thing of the Past?

There is a widespread misconception that horse dentistry has just been developed over the last 10 to 20 years. Although evidence exists that we did quite a bit of regular tooth maintenance over a century ago, when horses were our primary source of locomotion. Horse dentistry was pretty much forgotten after WW1 when the Vet Board claimed it as a veterinary procedure. This took the practice out of the hands of experienced dental technicians who had already figured out oral biomechanics and how to eliminate the problems that prevent normal mastication and better riding habits.

So why the big ruckus now about the service that has been avoided for so long that we have not been able to get our regular veterinarians to perform it? We ask them to check our horse's teeth and they often replied something like:
"His teeth are OK?" after a brief finger check
"Is he fighting the bit?"
"Has he been dropping grain?"
"He is in good shape. See how fat he is."
"They do not need that until they are senior citizens - they are OK now."

This is becoming a thing of the past. More and more people are switching to dental technicians and better educated veterinarians. This is thanks to several horse dentistry organizations and schools that have formed over the past decade or two. The Academy of Equine Dentistry in Glenns Ferry, Idaho being one of the best in teaching the practice of quality horse dentistry.

Last February the Academy of Equine Dentistry studied around a hundred horse skulls and a vast majority showed no signs of dental maintenance. In fact, a lot of them had serious dental problems, which might have been a factor for their destruction. This leads us to believe that most horses die sooner than they should have and suffered much more pain that cold have prevented through regular dental maintenance. Always remember it is a myth that horses show us signs of dental problems before they become serious. So it is very important to have a qualified dentist check your horses regularly (every 6 to 9 months)

How to Choose a Qualified Equine Dentist

* He / she should use a full mouth speculum (a device used to hold the mouth open using crescent shape bite plates for the incisors to rest on that ratchets. Thorough examination by sight and palpitation of the oral cavity) VS A spool type speculum, which is like a large fishhook with a handle of one side and a cylinder on the other for the molars to sit on. This speculum will often fracture molars and doe snot allow a thorough examination of the mouth resulting in incomplete dental care along with more complicated problems.

* He/she should allow the client to feel the problems in the horse's mouth and the difference after the procedure is completed. This educates the horse owner or trainer and gives him/her more confidence that the practitioner is helping the horse and not creating new problems for the horse.

* He/she should give a brief explanation on the basic mechanics of how horses masticate their food when in proper balance.

* He/she should not pull out the tongue with force. This is due to the fact that the tongue is connected to a group of thin bones called the hyoid apparatus, which is connected to the petrosal bones of the inner ear. If the petrosal bones are damaged it could result in balance problems, or tilting of the head. If the hyoid apparatus is damaged the horses tongue will usually hang out of its mouth.

* Your dentist should not be abusive to the horse; it is not their place to discipline your horse. It is your responsibility for your horse to have good manners before the practitioner works on it. The same applies to your farrier, vet and chiropractor.

* He/she should not sedate without the owners consent. Also he/she should not sedate all horses. Sedation only needs to be used during advanced procedures and on horses with such vices as striking, kicking and rearing problems etc. It is best for the non-veterinarians practitioner to have the owner provide the sedation or have a licensed administrator available.

* It shod take approximately 45 to 60 minutes for the first visit and 30 minutes for maintenance thereafter. The cost will vary from dentist to dentist due to skill level and knowledge.

* He / she should fill out an evaluation chart that shows exactly what was found in the horse's mouth and how it was taken care of.

* He/she should provide performance floats. This is when the first premolars are rounded to the gum line (commonly known as a bit seat). Bit seat prevent the cheeks and pouchy flesh on the lower bars from being forced into the boat-shaped points of the premolars by the bit. This will eliminate vices such as head throwing, hollowing out, chomping and/or grabbing of the bit a lot of the time!

I hope you have enjoyed this article and found it informative for you and your horse. If you have any questions or need an experienced practitioner please call us

Roger W. Kelsey Jr. Eq/D
Home: (937) 692 5565
Mobile (937) 657 7100

Born with the love of horses from day one I wanted to make a difference and help the horse. I decided to go to school to be an Equine Dentist after watching a friend of mine work on a few horses. I have seen how much improvement came after he finished whole mouth dentistry, and I was amazed at the difference it made in the attitude and performance of the horse. The owner thought he had performed a miracle and was so happy with the work that she told everybody she knew.

I thought what a rewarding career, to be able to make horses and people happy. So I went to the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Glenns Ferry, Idaho under the guidance of an amazing man Dale Jeffrey M/EqD, who has shared his knowledge with people from around the world. He teaches patience, compassion and consistency.

I believe that proper Whole Mouth Equine Dental Equilibrium, as opposed to "floating" is not only necessary for the proper mastication as it relates to general health, but more importantly for the total well being of the horse relative to performance and ultimately attitude!


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Updated: October 2005.