February is Pet Dental Awareness month and we began with a brief overview on what’s inside the horse’s mouth.
If you missed it you can go back to Will Delta Dental Cover My Horse?
…So now you know about the incisors, the molars and the other bonus teeth some horses might grow.
You also now know that horse teeth are continually growing. Most domestic horses have imbalances and this causes uneven chewing and wear. Uneven chewing leads to hooks and cut-up cheeks.
It’s for this reason that we have the floating procedure. This is a highly undervalued aspect to horse-care that many horse owners both green and experienced often fail to understand or address. Today I want to go over the basics of a routine exam so let’s cover the 5 Ws….who, what, where, when, and why.
WHO…takes care of horse teeth
Veterinary schools offer a course for equine dentistry, but it’s often one course in a sea of many. Do you remember everything from one of your college courses? Vets are often bombarded with a lot of information all at once. Your vet may absolutely take care of your horses teeth, however, you would be much better off vetting your vet first.
What I mean by this is if you’re going to use your vet ask him or her about their dentistry education. Choose someone who has specialized in dentistry and gone the extra mile to further their education beyond the one course.
Your dentist doesn’t have to be a vet, either. There are separate licenses that dentists will get for attending a school that don’t require a vet’s degree. These schools offer focused attention to the biomechanics of the mouth. My horse’s dentist has thousands of hours working on JUST equine dentistry. Some states have regulations on what non-vets can do so I recommend you familiarize yourself with that. You need to make your own decisions on this matter; be honest, fair, and wise.
WHAT…happens during the dental exam?
When the dentist arrives you should have your horse stalled and ready to be handled. The dentist might bring a halter for you to use but will instruct you on how he/she prefers to work. You will be asked for some clean water to use for the tool bucket so the tools can be sanitized (the dentist may have a solution to mix with the water).
From there the examination begins. first getting to know the horse. Sedation is typically required to help the procedure go more smoothly and so the horse resists less. This is good to make sure no damage is done from head throwing while the tools and human limbs are in the mouth.
A good dentist will begin by getting the horse’s mouth moving and observing the natural mechanics. They will be checking out the incisors, looking for healthy teeth, gums, and alignment. Once the incisors are addressed a speculum is inserted and the horse’s mouth is opened for inspection of the molars.
From here a dentist may use a hand powered float/rasp to file down the molars or a power drill might be used. You will find arguments for both all over the web. On this site you’ll find that I argue for hand powered.
One of the reasons I love my dentist so much is because she releases the speculum after about 45-60 seconds. These little breaks made it less stressful on Blade and was a lot easier on him. Not all equine dentists are so considerate or patient but if you find one who does this hold on to them!
WHERE..does floating take place?
Just as the vet or the farrier visits, so will your dentist. You’ll probably pay a barn call fee or it’s worked into the cost of the float.
WHEN…does my horse need dental work?
Typically once a year is sufficient. In younger horses, geriatric horses, or horses with dental issues two times might be required. By beginning a good dental routine at a young age the horse will grow up to have a balanced mouth, which translated into more a more balanced body. This also helps your buddy into it’s geriatric years when eating and chewing can get more difficult.
WHY…do horses need their teeth floated?
Just as with the hooves equine teeth are always growing. In the wild the daily roaming is enough to wear the hoof. Similarly the grazing upon grasses and other forage wore the teeth down as well. Our domesticated four-hooved beasts spend much less time roaming and usually have hay to eat so they aren’t tearing grass and brush with their incisors nearly as often. Standing in a stall or even in a nice grassy pasture is not enough to wear the hooves nor is the hay enough to wear the teeth. This is why we need farriers and dentists.
Going further, between the feed and training, domesticated horses are more likely to be off balance. This causes the teeth to wear unevenly and creates sharp edges called hooks. Hooks can and in several cases do cut the cheek and gums if not properly addressed.
But why should you do it 1-2x per year if there are no obvious signs of trouble? Trouble can manifest itself in other parts of the horse. You won’t recognize it as dental issues because it’s cloaked by something else. Something many horse owners really don’t realize is how much an imbalanced and poorly cared for mouth can actually affect a horse’s health, attitude, and performance. It’s not a “catch-all” but many symptoms of poor dental care can include weight loss, poor body condition (some hard keepers), irritability, anxiety, tail swishing, head tossing, and other issues. Whether you see one of these symptoms or some it’s still difficult to realize and attribute them to the mouth. If you have a good dentist and keep them routinely cared for you’ll never have to wonder and can rule it out when diagnosing trouble.
Plus, with horses living into their 20s, 30s, and sometimes 40s, a good dental routine early in life will prevent many issues into the retirement years. Isn’t that why you start children at the dentist early?
HOW…is the procedure performed?
The tools used in a routine dental visit have a medieval look to them. They are large, metal clunky tools with a long handle. They can be downright frightening.
The speculum is a large headpiece used to help keep the horse’s mouth open. A strap around the poll (like a halter) holds the piece on the head and the incisors lay on two platforms. These platforms can then be widened to give an opening for the dentist to do his/her job.
Side Note: It is relatively easy to open and close, so a really great dentist like the one above will not keep the speculum in the open position for the whole procedure. Our dentist works in short spurts and gives Blade time to rest his mouth (and temporomandibular joint…TMJ) frequently.
A good dentist will have a smaller handheld device used to file and balance the incisors. Before you have your dentist come out to work on your horse, ask about whether incisors are part of a routine exam. Many overlook this very important set of teeth.
Floats are simply rasps on a long handle. They are used to reach the molars. While I prefer them to be handheld some vets will use a power drill. There are arguments for both but that’s a whole separate article on it’s own.
The total take-home I want you to really grasp is how important it is to find a great dentist. There aren’t strict regulations on how dentistry is performed and there are a lot of varying opinions out there. Equine dentistry is somewhat newer to the horse-care world in how we understand it and concepts are always changing.
What was once “standard practice” is now being replaced with some more novel ideas to use the horse’s natural anatomical balance. Natural balance dentists employ the natural angles of the horse’s mouth and they address the incisors. They observe the individual horse’s natural chewing mechanics to determine how to care for him individually. THIS is the type of dentistry the horse world is moving toward but the traditional concepts are still the majority. I’ve included a link below for one of the schools that trains using natural balance concepts (Center for Natural Balance Dentistry). I’m not affiliated with them in anyway, but I’m a happy client of one of their practitioners. If you want to find someone in your area all you have to do is email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is nobody nearby don’t fret, there are other schools and good dentists out there if you look hard enough (it’s worth it).
Blade even enjoys a nice stretch after his dental work.
For more great reading check out these links!
- Center for Natural Balance Horse Dentistry
- The Spruce – Learn About Your Horse’s Teeth
- Equisearch – Horses Require Regular Dentistry and Teeth Floating for Proper Chewing
- CEH Horse Report – Equine Dentistry: It’s Not Just Floating Anymore
- MacKinnen Equine Services – Equine Dentistry
- VCA – Equine Dentistry