Skip to main content

Importance of Regular Dental Care

An adult horse has 36-40 teeth. Unlike humans, horses have hypsodont teeth, which means that they continue to erupt throughout the horse’s life as they are worn. However, the length of these teeth is finite. As the teeth erupt and are then worn by chewing, sharp points form along the sides. These points can cause significant pain in the mouth when chewing, and should be removed at least annually. We are seeing horses live well into their 30s and sometimes 40s now, and a large reason for that is regular dental care. The goal is to identify small problems before they become big problems, and to keep the mouth in balance and pain free, so that the horse can chew efficiently and comfortably.
Frequently Asked Questions - Definitions
What is a float?
A float is an older term that refers to the smoothing of the sharp points along the sides of the teeth. This should be done at least once annually in all classes of horses. A float can be accomplished without sedation or a speculum (to open the mouth), though this can result in harm to the person or the horse, and the quality of one's work will be difficult to evaluate.  back to top

What is equilibration?
This is a newer term that takes a float one step farther, where the veterinarian performs a thourough examination of the mouth and corrects all abnormalities within that mouth. This includes reduction of any malocclusions (hooks, steps, ramps, waves), application of bit seats, and any periodontal work. It is not possible to perform an equilibration without adequate sedation, bright light, and a speculum to hold the horse's mouth open. Equilibration is extremely important for all classes of horses to maintain adequate function of the horse's mouth, and should be done at least annually, depending on the horse's needs.  back to top

What are incisors and what are they for?
The incisors are the front teeth that you are accustomed to seeing. They are used for gripping and biting food, especially when grazing. While they are important overall, they are far less important than the cheek teeth. Incisor abnormalities include overbite and under-bite (sometimes so severe that the incisors are not in occlusion), as well as dorsal and ventral curvatures (frown and smile) and a diagonal bite. Incisor abnormalities may be primary, or may be secondary to cheek teeth abnormalities.  back to top

What are the bars of a horse's mouth?
The "bars" refer to the area of both sides of both the upper and lower jaw between the 3rd incisor and the 2nd premolar. Wolf teeth and canines if present are in this area. This is the area where a properly fitted bit should ride.  back to top

What are canines and what are they for?
The canines are teeth that are present in the "bars" of the mouth. The are prominent in most geldings and stallions, but often absent or very small in mares. They are commonly incorrectly referred to as the wolf teeth. They are used for fighting and tearing, and can interfere with bitting as they can become quite tall. Unlike wolf teeth, they have very long roots, so removal of healthy canines is strongly discouraged. Instead, these teeth are reduced similar to over tall incisors or cheek teeth, being careful to not be too aggressive and cause damage to the live structures within the tooth. I also prefer to round the edges to prevent them from scratching owners as they place the bit it the horse's mouth. Though it is done, it is very unwise to reduce these level with the gum line or to cut them with any sort of nipper or blade.  back to top

What are wolf teeth and why are they removed?
The first premolar is often called the "wolf tooth". These teeth are small and have relatively short roots, and often erupt between 6-18 months of age. Mares and geldings/stallions are equally likely to have wolf teeth. Most horses have from 0-2 wolf teeth, with rare horses having more than that. They are problematic with bitting as they often sit in the bars where the bit would normally rest. Not only can they be directly uncomfortable when they are contacted by the bit or when the cheeks or tongue are trapped between them and the bit, but their location denies access to the second premolars for application of a proper bit seat. Because of this, they are often extracted when the horse is young.   back to top

What are "blind" wolf teeth?
These are wolf teeth that are present but have not erupted through the oral mucosa. The tooth crown can not be seen, but can be palpated under the mucosa. Blind wolf teeth often are seated a little farther forward, or rostrally, than erupted wolf teeth, making them more likely to interfere with the bit and should be removed.   back to top

What is a bit seat?
A bit seat is a term that refers to the smoothing of the sides and fronts of the second premolars (both top and bottom), or first cheek teeth. While the name is somewhat misleading, a properly fitted bit does not actually sit here, but should ride immediately in front of these teeth. The importance of the bit seat is to remove all sharp areas of these teeth so that when pressure is applied to the bit, when the cheeks and/or tongue are squeezed between the bit and the tooth, there is no pain. The chewing surface of these teeth should NEVER be altered or removed when creating a bit seat.  back to top

What are the cheek teeth?
The premolars and molars are often referred to as the "cheek teeth". These are the teeth in the back part of the mouth that are most important for mastication (chewing). There are 4 premolars and 3 molars in each arcade (there are 4 arcades). The first premolar is not functional, and is called the wolf tooth. The second, third, and fourth premolars as well as all three molars are used in chewing, which gives a normal horse 24 cheek teeth. The difference between the molars and premolars is that the premolars have deciduous (baby) counterparts, but the molars do not. In other words, you will never see molar "caps", only premolar "caps."  back to top

What are caps?
Just like you and I, horses start with deciduous (baby) teeth, which are lost and replaced by permanent teeth. The first deciduous teeth are lost at approximately 2.5 years of age. These deciduous teeth are often referred to as "caps", because they act as a cap over the erupting permanent tooth until they are shed. Sometimes, caps are retained, and not lost at the proper time. This is why it is important to have a sedated dental exam performed on your young horse every 6 months while these caps are being lost and the permanent teeth are erupting. If your young horse has retained caps, it is important to find them and remove them, as they can cause eruption abnormalities of the permanent teeth that will be much harder (or impossible) to correct later in life.  back to top

What is a "full mouth"?
A "full mouth" refers to a horse who has shed all of his deciduous, or baby teeth, and all permanent teeth are present and "in wear". This happens at approximately 5 years of age.  back to top

What is the interocclusal space (IOS)?
The IOS is the small space that exists between the upper and lower cheek teeth when the jaw is at rest and not chewing. This space is normal, and can be estimated by checking the lateral excursion to molar contact. This is when the lower jaw is slid to the right and to the left with regard to the upper jaw. At one point, the incisors will begin to separate, which indicates that the cheek teeth have come into occlusion. This distance (from "neutral" to the point of separation) is a rough estimate of the IOS.   back to top

What are hooks and ramps?
Hooks and ramps are found on the second premolars and third molars. They are extremely common, and when large can significantly restrict the movement of the jaw. The difference between a hook and a ramp is simply the angle: a hook is much steeper than a ramp, in relation to the occlusal (chewing) surface of the teeth.  back to top

What is "quidding"?
Quidding refers to a horse's inability to properly chew long stemmed forage. The horse attempts to chew, but after a period of time, that forage comes back out of the mouth in a soggy ball. Quidding is commonly seen in geriatric horses due to age-related tooth loss. Quidding can also be a sign of oral pain, where the horse is unwilling to chew properly, or indicative of an IOS that is too large.  back to top