If you have ever seen an episode of Mr. Ed, you’ve seen the large set of teeth horses have. If you’ve ever wondered about horses teeth and the care they need, the answer is here! Horses need routine dental care which can vary in frequency depending on the horse’s age, overall baseline tooth health, and their behaviors and lifestyle.
Horses’ teeth continue to push through their gum line throughout their life. They don’t necessary “grow” but rather are exposed more and more through the gum line as they age.
I have been riding horses throughout my life, and in that time I’ve learned all the essential information about horses and their teeth. I’m going to take a look at how they grow, how their teeth operate, dental care, and everything else you need to know.
The Basics You Should Know – Horses And Their Teeth
At the end of the day there is a lot to know about teeth in horses. Although you aren’t going to be sticking a tooth brush in their mouth daily to take care of their teeth, you should be taking care of their teeth under the guidance of a professional.
Healthy, young adult horses have teeth that are on average 4-5 inches long [Source]. Over the course of their lifetime more tooth will be exposed to compensate from the natural grinding down process. This can vary among horses due to congenital abnormalities, developmental issues, and eating habits. Other behaviors can affect the teeth like wood chewing and cribbing.
If anything, here are some of the basics to keep in mind to keep your pony smiling!
- Horses teeth become longer with age, but they are not growing. They are just becoming more exposed over time – on average 1/8” every year .
- Domesticated horses need routine dental care annually after the age of 5 unless a professional has reason to inspect them more often ie: developmental problems, deformities, etc.
- Look at for warning signs that your horse may need an early check up
- Find a reliable equine dentist or veterinarian to examine and “float” your horses teeth. Improper filing of the teeth could cause more problems than the problems you are trying to avoid.
Not only are the teeth important for your horse to eat and get proper nutrition, they help vets determine horses approximate ages. Proper teeth health will ensure you can enjoy your time with your horse both in and out of the saddle!
Horse Teeth In Full Detail
Horses are herbivores and have teeth designed for grabbing vegetation and grinding materials into food that they can swallow.
The front teeth that are commonly seen when horses first open their mouth or flip up their lip, are called the incisors. There are 6 incisors on the top and 6 incisors on the bottom. These are the teeth that are used to bite and tear at vegetation. These are often the teeth that are used by veterinarians to determine the approximate age in horses [Source].
After the incisors there is a gap known as the diastema that is a separation between the incisors and the cheek teeth. In this gap there are short and sharp teeth known as canine teeth. These teeth usually appear at around 4-5 years old (which can help when trying to determine age in horses).
In the modern domestic horse, these teeth really serve no real purpose and served more for fighting situations over things like territory and mates.
Horses grind their food by sliding there upper and lower cheek teeth together. The teeth have an abrasive surface that aids in grinding food for digestion. The cheek teeth are made up of 12 premolar and 12 molar teeth divided between the right and left sides of the upper and lower jaw [Source].
If Wild Horses Don’t Get Dental Care, Why Do Our Horses Need It?
Horses in the wild are constantly roaming and grazing. In the wild, horses graze on a variety of vegetation for nearly the entire day, which naturally grinds down their teeth.
Horses that we are now domesticated as our riding partners and companions, have vastly different diets than what they would eat in the wild.
Not only are they not eating the same rough grasses, but most horses that are owned are not grazing on a variety of vegetation for 14+ hours a day. This overall is less time our horses spend chewing and naturally grinding their own teeth down [Source].
The difference in the materials that are consumed also changes the way in which the teeth are worn down. The change in the chewing pattern of our horses can be counter-productive and can create sharp points and hooks on the teeth.
These sharp edges can lead to injury and can be so bad as to cause mouth ulcers, infections and it can prevent your horse from eating properly. If your horse is not able to eat properly, your horse can experience poor nutrition and significant weight loss.
Horses do need routine dental care, but the frequency may depend on your horses lifestyle, age and eating habits.
How Do You Know If Your Horse Needs Dental Care?
There can be a few signs that your horse needs dental care. Checking your horse’s teeth yourself can be somewhat difficult and you do have to be worried about your horse accidentally closing their teeth on your fingers!
In reality, your horse’s teeth should be checked regularly regardless if there is an issue going on or not. However, there are some signs you could look out for that may indicate you need to have your vet or equine dentist pay you a visit.
Horses naturally munch all day if given the opportunity to do so. If you horse is not eating the volume of food they usually do, it may indicate that there is a problem with their teeth.
Refusing food all together is a huge warning sign, and you should decide to call your vet with a very low threshold of suspicion that something is wrong [Source]. Horses eating much slower than usual could also indicate an issue with chewing and may be that your horse is trying to be extra cautious to chew in a particular fashion that doesn’t bother their teeth.
Some horses are naturally messy and tend to get their grain seemingly everywhere but their mouth. If you notice your horse is being especially messy and grain is falling out of their mouth in excess while chewing, it may mean that their chewing is impaired in some way.
Horses teeth can also bother them while you are riding, especially if they have a bit in their mouth. If you horse is normally happy while you are in the saddle and suddenly show signs of distress when you steer, pull on the reins, or take the bit in or out, that could be more of a physical sign than a behavior issue.
Some horses will tilt their head to one side or try to spit the bit out to avoid the bit contacting the teeth that bother them. If you are having a behavior issue in the saddle especially when in comes to what your horse wearing in its mouth, you may want to consult your vet to check their teeth, before chalking it up to your horse just not wanting to turn left.
What Type of Dental Care Do Horses Get?
Horses get their teeth filed down, much like you use an emery board to file down your fingernails (which also grow throughout your life!). This process is sometimes called rasping due to rasps that are used during the process. It can also be known as floating.
Sometimes professionals use power towels in order to achieve this process. Regardless of what tools are being used, either can be potentially harmful in the hands of an inexperienced person, so do your research and find a reliable professional.
The horses jaws are usually held open by devices so a professional can examine the mouth safely and rasp the areas that are sharp or hooked.
Some horses tolerate this process well, and others may require some level of sedation. If you’re unsure how your horse will tolerate this process, you should prepare to either self-administer medication if you are experienced or have a professional on stand-by who can help [Source].
Caring for your horse’s teeth. UMN Extension. (n.d.). https://extension.umn.edu/horse-health/caring-your-horses-teeth.
Dentistry, E., Carson, D. M., & Carson, C. D. M. (n.d.). Equine Dentistry. vca_corporate. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/equine-dentistry.