Updated: Jan 25
A horse's teeth are vital to his well-being. If they are painful, infected, or missing, he will not be able to chew his food properly and will rapidly lose condition. Therefore, horses require regular dental attention to catch problems early and ensure their teeth stay in tip-top condition.
Part 1 - Checking Your Horse’s Teeth Yourself
1. Check your horse’s teeth regularly. Every responsible horse owner should regularly check their horse's teeth on a regular basis.
Fully visualizing all tooth surfaces of the molars requires specialist equipment, but you are still able to check the incisors and the molars for any obvious problems or signs of discomfort.
Ideally, you should check your horse's mouth as part of his bridling-up routine each time he is ridden, but failing this, check his teeth at least once a week.
2. Smell your horse’s breath. Take a moment to smell the horse's breath. This helps you to familiarize yourself with what is normal, so if the horse develops halitosis (bad breath) you will recognize it.
3. Inspect your horse’s incisors. An adult horse has 6 upper and 6 lower incisors at the front of the mouth. To inspect them, peel the upper lid up and the lower lid down. Look from directly in front of the horse, and then from both the left and the right-hand side.
In profile, the biting edge of the teeth should meet in a smooth line. The enamel surface should be free from cracks and the teeth firm in the head, not loose or wobbly.
There should be no swelling or change of gum color where the crown meets the gum. There should be no discharge coming from around the gum line.
4. Examine the diastema. It is normal for there to be a gap between the incisors at the front of the mouth, and the molars to the rear. This gap is known as diastema.
Some young horses grow extra "wolf" teeth, or tushes, in this gap. These teeth, which are technically known as the first premolars, start to erupt with the adult teeth and erupt from about 5 to 12 months of age.
It is important to recognize if these teeth are present or not because the bit will knock against them and cause the horse pain. Thankfully, it is a simple procedure for the vet to extract these teeth.
5. Check your horse’s molars. To the rear of the mouth are the molars. These are the grinding teeth that the horse uses to chew its food. If spurs develop they can dig into the cheek, or tongue, depending on the location.
If you have a placid horse, or one trained to let you open his mouth, with the aid of a head torch you may be able to peer in and inspect the lingual (tongue-side) aspect of the molars. However, the tongue frequently sits in the way and so the view will be poor. The biggest clue to a spur on the lingual aspect is seeing blood-stained saliva on that side.
For the buccal (cheek) side, place the flat of your hand on the horse's head and slide it over the cheek whilst applying gentle pressure. If a spur is present it will dig in slightly and the horse will resent the exam, pull away or shake his head.
Part 2 - Caring for Your Horse’s Teeth During Each Stage of Life
1. Take care of your foal’s teeth. Check a foal's mouth to ensure the incisors meet neatly. Some anatomical abnormalities which can happen include sow mouth (overshot lower jaw, which means the upper row sits behind the lower) and parrot mouth (undershot lower jaw, which means the upper teeth are further forward).
These issues need to be identified as early as possible so the vet can advise you as to whether corrective procedures are necessary.
A foal has a full set of 24 milk (deciduous) teeth by 9 months, and these begin to fall out from 2 ½ years of age. Even foals and young horses can develop spurs on their teeth, so be sure to be vigilant for signs of discomfort.
2. Look for ‘wolf teeth’ in two-year-olds. Check for the presence of wolf teeth in the diastema and get your vet to remove them before introducing the bit.
3. Check for ‘capped’ teeth in three to five-year-old horses. The horse will shed his deciduous teeth as his adult dentition grows through. However, sometimes the milk teeth do not fall out cleanly but become wedged between neighboring teeth.
This is known as "capping". The retained tooth traps food and can set up an infection, so the capped tooth needs to be removed by the vet.
Signs that a horse has a capped tooth include bad breath (from trapped food), playing with his tongue a lot, quidding, drooling, and dropping grain from his mouth.
Because the adult teeth erupt at different rates it is not unusual for a young horse to have a problem more than once, and repeated vet exams may be necessary.
4. Care for your adult horse’s teeth (ages 5 to 20). Most adult horses have between 36 and 44 teeth. The adult should be fully present from 6 years of age, and problems are usually down to spurs on the molars. The permanent teeth are open-rooted, which means they continue to grow through most of the horse's adult life, in order to replace the crown which becomes worn down by chewing.
However, if the rate of wear is uneven, spikes or spurs develop which painfully dig into the cheek or tongue. These need to be "floated" or rasped down by your veterinarian.
Signs of spikes include quidding, whole grain in droppings, drooling, and bloody saliva.
5. Have your senior horses (20+ years old) checked by a veterinarian regularly. Although the teeth are open-rooted and continue to grow, they do have a finite life. Increasingly, with improvements in general veterinary care, horses are living longer than the lifespan of their teeth.
This means some of their teeth may fall out and the horse finds it difficult to chew. An elderly horse that loses condition drops food from his mouth or drools heavily need to have his teeth professionally checked.
You can help a horse that has lost teeth by feeding him soft foods such as beet pulp or hay cube mashes. These are highly digestible and have a good calorific content to keep his weight up.
Part 3 - Practicing General Tooth Care
1. Keep sugary treats to a minimum. Just as it does for us, sugar can cause dental decay in horses. Keep sugary treats to a minimum and give sugar-free mints, preferably carrots, as a reward.
2. Avoid knocking the bit against your horse’s teeth. Teeth can break or crack, so be careful that you don't knock the bit carelessly against their teeth.
Feed your horse so that his head is close to the ground. Grazing and chewing with the head down promotes even wear on the teeth. Where possible, encourage feeding near the ground – although be wary of anything that could trap a leg and cause trauma.
Part 4 - Recognizing Signs of Sore Teeth
1. Take note if your horse tosses his head frequently. As the horse chews, he may toss his head around as if in discomfort. When this happens, he is likely trying to avoid chewing on certain teeth and physically moving his head in response.
Smell your horse’s breath. Trapped food or bacterial gum infections can lead to bad breath, a cardinal sign of dental problems.
3. Pay attention if your horse starts avoiding the bit. If the bit comes into contact with a sore place in the mouth, the horse may flex his neck, or grip the bit between his teeth, in an attempt to prevent it from touching that area.
4. Take note if your horse starts quidding. If spurs dig into his cheek as he chews, the horse may learn to chew up hay and hold it as a protective pad against his cheek. When he has finished eating he drops the pads out on the stable floor, where you can find them.
5. Notice if there are any whole grains in your horse’s droppings. If it hurts to chew then the horse won't completely grind up his grain but swallow some whole. This travels through his gut and can be seen as a whole, undigested grains in his droppings.
6. Watch out for signs of ‘choke’. If the horse does not chew his hay properly it contains less saliva. When he swallows it can form a dry ball that gets stuck in his gullet (esophagus) in a condition known as "choke".
7. Call your vet if you spot these signs of pain. It is important to be vigilant for signs of oral discomfort. Even if a check-up is not due, if your horse has mouth pain it is time to call the vet.