Like many mammals, horses have baby teeth that fall out as their adult teeth grow. But when exactly does this happen?
Horses start to lose their baby teeth around two and a half years old. It is expected that they will have their complete set of adult permanent teeth at age 5. [Source]
The process of transitioning from one set of teeth to the other is often a complex one, and their are lots of possible issues around potential dentistry and things to watch out for during this period.
I have ridden horses pretty much all my life, and in that time I have experienced the most important problems and fixes for horses and their teeth. I going to tell you everything you need to know about horses’ baby teeth, how they fall out, any problems to watch out for, and any other top tips to make the process as painless as possible.
Deciduous Teeth in Young Horses
Deciduous teeth which can be simply called baby teeth, are the first set of teeth during growth and development. In total, 24 of these teeth will slowly erupt through the gum line starting at birth and then be replaced by permanent teeth starting at around two tor two and a half years old [Source].
Believe it or not, dentistry in young horses is crucial. Baby teeth as actually a lot softer than their adult teeth making them more prone to hooks and sharp edges! [Source] This can cause your horse a lot of pain, mouth ulcers, and could cause behavior problems when starting to train them to carry a rider.
Baby Horse Dentistry
All foals (baby horses) should have the teeth examined at birth or shortly after birth. This initial care is to screen for any deformities or development problems within the oral cavity ie: teeth, mouth, palate, etc.
It is best that if these problems are present at birth, that they be addressed soon in life rather than later – for the overall best prognosis [Source].
These deformities could be especially problematic if they interfere with the foal nursing and latching on properly. Even if no obvious signs are noted, having your veterinarian give you a good clean bill of health for your new foal is always wise.
Routine dental care will be apart of your horse’s life for years to come, especially so if they have any dental abnormalities or trauma.
Starting your horse receiving this care at a young age not only catches potential problems before they get out of control, but it may help your young horse get accustomed to this type of routine care. Some horses tolerate dentistry quite well, while others may require some level of sedation.
Starting your horse early with receiving care for their teeth and hiring someone that is well trained and experienced, gives you the best chance at your horse having minimal stress and dental issues.
The Shedding of Baby Teeth
The process of losing baby teeth is known as “shedding caps”. You can think of the baby teeth as little soda caps that are place holders for the permanent adult teeth. Roughly the first set of caps are shed at around 2 ½ years old, then 3 years old and then roughly 3 ½ to 4 years old [Source].
Obviously this varies among horses due to a multitude of factors including genetics, breed, co-existing teeth/mouth abnormalities, and even down to their diet and the type of food they consume.
Now, to be completely correct baby horses may “lose” their baby teeth, but the teeth don’t get loose and fall out.
Yes, don’t be concerned about your baby horse swallowing a baby tooth. At the same time, don’t get too excited about collecting your horse’s baby teeth and displaying them in a shadow box. Horses’ baby teeth actually deteriorate during the process in which their permanent teeth start to come through the gum line.
During this process the old teeth (the baby teeth) actually become hollowed out and pop off the gums from the gum line to allow the new permanent teeth their rightful place!
When the Cap Doesn’t Pop Off
Picture a 2 liter bottle of soda with a cap screwed on. When you shake up the soda, there is an immense amount of pressure in the bottle and on the cap. You can almost feel the tension in the bottle and it seems as though the bottle is just about to bust at the seams!
Picture the tooth cap in young horses the same way. There is going to be pressure as the permanent tooth erupts through the gum and pushes the cap off. However, if for some reason that cap does not come off properly, immense pressure can back up behind the cap which includes the structures around the tooth, like the gums.
If these caps do not come off – a situation called “a retained cap” – it can cause inflammation and pain around the mouth and gums. It could also lead to sinus problems (depending on the location of the stuck cap) and it could cause the new adult tooth to come in wonky or even become impacted [Source].
How to Fix a Stuck Cap
It may be hard for you personally to tell if your young horse has a retained cap. Signs of a cap that has not come off could be behavior changes like your horse being fussy near or around his mouth.
It could even be having an over-reaction to accidentally bumping into a gate or a water bucket. This could also manifest with your horse not being able to chew properly, or showing signs of distress while chewing like pinning their ears or cow kicking out.
Your veterinarian or equine dentist should be able to examine the horse’s mouth and determine that the issue is the cap. As long as your veterinarian can, they will remove the cap themselves – or it may require an equine dentist.
Most experienced equine medical providers will also remove the opposite cap as well ie: top is retained and removed, bottom cap of the matching tooth on the lower jaw is also removed. This aides with the symmetry of wear and tear in the mouth to avoid discrepancies in bite. It also helps encourage those permanent teeth to come in without added complications [Source].
Teething in Baby Horses
Like puppies and babies, horses go through a teething period which is during their first five years of life. During this time there is a big transition with “losing” their baby teeth and acquiring their permanent adult teeth. This can cause some degree of discomfort and soreness in your horse.
That being said it may be somewhat normal for you to see some swelling, teething bumps, crankiness and weight loss [Source]. This may all be simply contributed to their new teeth coming in, and having routine veterinary and dental care should catch anything more sinister than that.
Although there is no cardinal “teething toy for horses” or home remedies, giving your horse time is the best way to soothe teething pain. If you suspect your horse is enduring an acutely sore period in the teething process, giving them a break from training would probably be the best way you could help.
Exercising extra caution around their mouth and teeth helps to not irritate what may already be a sensitive area. Be mindful of hard treats like carrots and apples and maybe stick to something softer and easier to chew.
If you horse seems extremely uncomfortable and isn’t eating or is experiencing extreme weight loss – it may be time to consult your veterinarian who may want to examine your horse or suggest some kind of pain relief or supplementation to their diet .
Horse baby teeth don’t literally fall out, so don’t go sifting through their hay and shavings to find a needle in a hay stack (get it…). Horses do go through a teething stage, but no amount of frozen textured rings will help in this process. Horses’ mouths evolve so much over the course of their first 5 years of life, literally from birth!
Not only do their teeth affect their nutrition and growth, it can also affect the training process and could cause a lot of speed bumps to your overall goal of being able to enjoy your time in the saddle. The best thing you can do for your horse is to give them the proper dental care they need, and to be understanding that some days they will be a little cranky about their mouths and may need to take a day for some R&R!
Dental Care for Young Horses: Equimed – Horse Health Matters. EquiMed. (n.d.). https://equimed.com/health-centers/dental-care/articles/dental-care-for-young-horses.
Dental Development of Horses. Dental Development of Horses – Horse Owners. Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/horse-owners/digestive-disorders-of-horses/dental-development-of-horses.
Equine Dentistry. Equine Dentistry – Conley and Koontz Equine Hospital. http://www.ckequinehospital.com/page/175/Equine-Dentistry.
Teenagers – Including Horses – Need Careful Handling: Manitoba Co. operator. (2011, April 21). https://www.manitobacooperator.ca/livestock/teenagers-including-horses-need-careful-handling.