Dentistry, A Lesson in Dental Equilibration

Not so many years ago “floating teeth” was not much more than removing the enamel points that develop on the outside of the upper and inside of the lower dental arcades. Modern dental equilibration is the correction a number of common malocclusions and dental imbalances that were considered untreatable only a few years ago.

The dental issues important to the young horse entering training are much different from the six year old performance horse and both of these horses needs vary significantly from a broodmare or a twenty-five-year-old pleasure horse. In other words there is not a one size fits all dental procedure for every horse. The appropriate maintenance of a horse’s mouth should be tailored to its age and use.

Dental examinations should begin shortly after birth. Some babies are born with dental problems that can be corrected if caught early and treated properly. The next critical time for a dental exam is prior to the onset of training. Two-year-olds still have baby teeth that can be very sharp creating injuries to the cheek and tongue during early training. Similarly, wolf teeth will irritate the cheek making the horse’s initial experience with a bit unpleasant. 

Between 2 ½ and 5 years of age a horse will loose 24 baby teeth as permanent teeth erupt.  Delayed or slow shedding of baby teeth can be uncomfortable and cause the horse to become preoccupied with its mouth when you really want the horse’s attention to be on you the trainer.

Horses of all ages develop enamel points on the outside of their upper teeth and on the inside of their lower teeth. Points occur because horse’s teeth wear at the rate of nearly one-eighth inch per year. Horses that graze on pasture have a more natural chewing motion and tend to have smaller points than horses eating hay, grain or pellets. This constant wear or loss of tooth is similar to what happens to a piece of chalk. Over the years the horse’s teeth are in a constant state of eruption as the original four inches of reserve crown gradually is worn down. We encounter a wide variety of abnormal wear patterns that when not corrected lead to premature loss of teeth.

Performance horses that work against the bit or who have strong intermittent bit contact have unique needs with regard to their teeth. These horses should have a bit seat prepared and maintained on a regular basis. The bit seat involves creating a well rounded, smooth surface around the front and outside of the first upper cheek teeth and on the inside and front of the first lower molars. These teeth in the natural state can be very sharp resulting in ulcers and lacerations of the cheeks and tongue. 

Another unique aspect of dentistry in the performance horse involves the forward-backward movement of the jaw as the horse flexes at the pole. Stand beside your horse and elevate its nose to a near level position. Note how the upper and lower incisors are aligned. Now lower and flex the neck at the pole until the head is vertical. The lower jaw will normally move forward with respect to the upper jaw anywhere from one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch. Malocclusions limit the amount of collection the horse can comfortably achieve. The horse will either refuse to flex at the pole or open its mouth to comply with the rider’s request. This movement can be restricted by any wear pattern that tends to lock the jaw when the mouth is closed.

The incisor teeth can also present problems. Abnormal wear patterns in the molars can alter wear of the incisors. An injury to the incisors is relatively common resulting is spaces that in turn result in a long tooth opposite the missing tooth. Regardless of the cause misalignment or overgrowths of the incisor teeth can limit the normal grinding of the molars during the circular chewing motion of the horse.  You can evaluate your horse’s incisor alignment by sliding the lower jaw to one side then the other. The molar teeth should make contact and separate the incisors at a point no greater than one centimeter (about the width on one tooth) off center in either direction.

So what procedures are indicated for your horse? Well, all horses regardless of their age or use should be examined for sharp enamel points that irritate the cheek and tongue. Also any abnormal wear pattern along the biting surface of the molars and incisors should be corrected to maximize the efficiency of the chewing process and to prolong the functional lifetime of the horse’s teeth. These issues are addressed in every dental procedure. 

If your horse is a broodmare, pet, retired athlete or if your riding is simply pleasure riding on a loose rein a basic dental may be all that is needed. However, if you participate in activities that require close communication between you and your horse’s mouth, closer scrutiny of the molar teeth is indicated. A bit seat provides safe comfortable contact between the molar teeth and soft tissues of the mouth. Excessive transverse ridges or other wear patterns that would encumber the forward movement of the lower jaw are addressed so that horse can comfortably flex at the pole as it is pushed into the bit and asked to assume a vertical head set.

Many older horses can have food packed into spaces that develop between molar teeth. These spaces called diastima or diastimata (plural) can lead to periodontal pockets if the food pushes the gum tissue away from the tooth roots. Periodontal pockets are painful and can lead to infection and premature loss of teeth. An advanced dental procedure called “Diastima Burring” opens up these dental spaces to allow food to circulate through rather than pack into the space. At the same time the periodontal pockets are cleaned and packed with medication to allow healing and elimination of the painful condition.

This article is in no way an exhaustive discussion of modern equine dentistry. Each year at least one of our doctors attends a training seminar dedicated entirely to the study of equine dentistry. A so called equine dentist may in fact have specific training in equine dentistry but only a veterinarian who offers advanced dental procedures has the training in medicine, surgery, radiology, and pharmacology necessary for the comprehensive management of your horse’s oral health.

In summary, the horse’s mouth is a very dynamic and complicated food processing machine. There are a wide variety of abnormal wear patters that can develop. Your horse’s comfort and willingness to perform can be influenced by his teeth. Let your veterinarian know the type of riding you do so that together you can determine the appropriate dental procedure for your horse.

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