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The Anatomy of the Equine Mouth and Why Dental Health is Important

horse yawning showing his teeth

Equine dental health is as important as yours. Horses use their teeth to grind their food in the first step in digestion. Horses are herbivores and their teeth wear down due to continuous grazing. They depend on their incisors to pull grass from the field and depend on the molars to chew food before they swallow.

Without teeth, the horse would not be a very good horse would he? When the teeth become malformed or abscessed, the horse begins to drop feed and his hay is not chewed properly for digestion. This leads to weight loss and causes pain in the mouth. Without a healthy mouth, the horse would not preform like expected. The pain will also be noticed when trying to bridle the horse. Throwing or tossing his head while bridling or riding.

This is why it's very important for you to maintain the horses mouth with dental care. Moreover, their teeth continue growing throughout their life. So, routine dental work is necessary. But, the good thing about continual growth is that we can use it for aging a horse. Let's begin with horse teeth anatomy before we dive into more.

Horse Teeth Anatomy

To understand the importance of equine dental health, first we need to know about different types of teeth horse have.

The teeth of omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores are different depending on the type of diet. Horses come in the category of herbivores, so they have strong molars and small canine teeth. We can divide the teeth of a horse in four categories.

foal incisor teeth begin to show at 6 days then 6 weeks
  • Incisors: Six incisors on the upper jaw and six on the lower. These are deeply rooted and their function is to grab and tear forage. A foal's first incisor teeth erupt at approximately 6 days of age. The second set of incisors come in around 6 weeks. Then, 6 months for the third incisors. Adult incisors erupt at approximately 2.5 years of age for the first set, then 3.5 years for the second set, and finally 4.5 years for the third set.

showing the canine teeth in the horse
This photo shows the canine teeth of the horse.
  • Canines: Almost nonexistent in female horses. In male horses, they usually start erupting at the later part of year 4 to 5.5 years old. These are the teeth that get mistaken for wolf teeth. They are the big teeth in the gap between the incisors and premolars.

  • Cheek teeth: 12 premolar teeth and 12 molar teeth (six on each side) are included in the cheek teeth category. They serve the purpose of grinding and improving digestion.

diagram showing the types of teeth in the horses skull.
Wolf teeth are closer to the premolars. Photo credit: VCA Hospitals
  • Wolf teeth: The teeth that erupt in front of the first premolar of the cheek teeth and erupt at 5 to 12 months of age. These are usually smaller than canines and grow in the area where the bit sits. It's best to remove these at an early age to reduce the chance of the tooth becoming fused to the jaw bone at an older age.

equine dental diagram shows equine incisors, Canine, wolf, and molar teeth in the horse mouth
The yellow color represents canine and the pink shows where the wolf teeth erupt. Photo credit: Mojave River Equine

Horses also have teeth that continually grow throughout their life. For us, this is a useful tool to determine the age of the horse. For horses, this allows them to continue to grind away at food without becoming toothless. To determine age, we use characteristics of their teeth.

  • Galvayne's Groove - This is the darkened line that can be seen on the incisors starting at age 10. This groove continues to move down the tooth as the horse ages and the teeth grow out. Age 15, it reaches halfway down the tooth. Age 20, the groove is all the way down the tooth. Around age 25, the groove is just on the lower half of the tooth. At age 30, it is completely gone. This is not always accurate.

  • Cups - These are the indicators on the "top" part of the tooth. You need to have the horses mouth open to see the flat side or surface of the tooth. It's called a "cup" because the enamel infolding is empty and usually filled with food. Thus, cupping the food.

  • Dental Star - The dental star is one of the best ways to tell the horses age. The star is created by the dentin the covers the pulp of the tooth. As the tooth grows or wares down, the dentin changes shape.

  • Tooth Angle or Angle of Incidence - As the horses teeth grow, the angle of the teeth become more bent outward. Baby horses have more of a flat angle. As the horse ages, the angle becomes more perpendicular. The teeth look longer as the horse ages.

  • Shape - The tooth also changes shape as it grows. The young horse has an oval shape tooth. The tooth then becomes more round, then triangular then biangular.

Aging a horse by its teeth chart
Photo credit: Horses and Us

Why do horses need dental care?

Horses need dental care for several reasons:

  • Pattern of chewing - horses have a specific pattern of mastication. Mastication is just a fancy word for chewing food. They chew their food in a lateral or sideways direction.

  • Hypsodont teeth - hypsodont teeth mean high crowned teeth that grow beyond the gum line. This makes the teeth more prone to wear and tear.

  • Being plant eaters - their diet consists mostly of grass and hay. They need their teeth to aid in the first part of digestion.

  • Tooth growth - horse’s teeth continually grow and erupt throughout life, so it is important to get routine exams to check for changes.

  • Overall health - horses need to eat a lot of hay and/or feed each day to continue to have optimum body weight. A 1000 lb horse would need to eat about 15-20lbs of hay a day! A good rule of thumb for grain/feed is 1.5-2% of the horses body weight.

  • Digestion - as mentioned before, horses need their teeth to aid in the digestion process. Chewing food into smaller particles helps the body digest and absorb nutrients easier.

If the teeth are not aligned properly, broken, chipped, sharp or they develop a periodontal pocket, their pattern of mastication may get disturbed. They will start chewing in a vertical direction or not at all which will not grind the food effectively and cause weight loss. Everyone always says "no hoof, no horse" but this also could be said about the mouth!

Signs of Dental Problems in Your Horse

If you're curious about how to monitor equine dental health. Note these signs and symptoms in your horse:

  • The horse becomes irritated due to the pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Loss of weight

  • Becomes fatigued or laziness

  • Eating takes more time (notice when eating grain)

  • Dropping grain

  • Refuses to eat or stops suddenly while eating

  • Hesitation in drinking cold water

  • Finding partially chewed hay/grass on the ground

  • Bad breath

  • Tossing the head

  • Major behavior change

  • Changes in behavior when riding

Also, be aware that some of these signs can also be a result of other underlying conditions or improperly fitted tack.

Common Equine Dental Problems

Dental problems are painful, can cause infections, changes in behavior, weight loss abscesses, and more. Below are some common dental problems that affect most horses.

Sharp Enamel Points

The most common equine dental problem is developing sharp enamel points. After a few years of grazing, the horse's teeth develop sharp edges. These sharp points cause ulcers and painful lacerations inside the cheek and tongue. The sharp points can develop in any location on the tooth and they can have multiple sharp points at once.

Most sharp points develop because the horse is not chewing the fullest lateral movement. This can be caused by eating a diet consisting mostly of processed feed instead of its natural diet of hay and grass. The horse can chew in short movements when eating grain/feed instead of the long natural movements. Be sure to offer your horse enough hay and access to grass to continue to have a healthy mouth.

equine hook tooth causing ulcers in the mouth needs dental care
Photo credit: Standard Examiner

Wolf Teeth

Wolf teeth are vestigial teeth (which means that it has no real function) that are seen in mostly in male horses. They grow on the upper jaw and may cause a problem in mastication or be painful when the horse it bridled. Most owners opt for these teeth to be removed and a "bit seat" to be made to prevent pain. The bit seat is maintained by rounding and beveling the front part of the first premolar cheek teeth during routine dentals.

equine hook on a front incisor needs dental work
Photo credit: Texas Equine Dentist


Hooks are extra parts of the tooth that hangs over. This part of the tooth does not touch another tooth when chewing. They can develop when the jaw is not "lined up". For example, a lower jaw that is set more forward than the top jaw or easily understood as an underbite. The same can happen with overbites.

Hooks sometimes become too large that it damages the gum on the opposite jaw and causes pain. It can also catch on the cheek and cause ulcers. You can see hooks on both incisors and cheek teeth.

horse skull with step mouth needed dentals
Photo credit: Horse Nation

Step Mouth

Step mouth means one tooth is bigger than the one next to it. It makes an uneven surface and results in uneven grinding. It can develop due to missing or worn off tooth on the opposite side. For example, one tooth on the top jaw is missing. The bottom tooth that would normally touch the top tooth can now continue to grow into the empty pocket. It no longer has a tooth above it to grind it away as it grows. It sometimes fits like a key in the pocket. This tooth can damage the tissue on the opposite side and cause pain.

horse skull showing waves in the mouth
Photo credit: Horse Nation


This involves most of the cheek teeth. It usually occurs when there are multiple missing teeth or chipped teeth. The opposite grinding teeth begin to grow into these missing areas and causes a wave-like look in the mouth. It is a more intense version of the step mouth.

horse tartar teeth are yellow


A yellow deposit on the teeth is known as tartar. It usually develops on the lower canine teeth or incisors. Tartar itself is not an issue, but it can lead to complications such as gingivitis or tooth decay. Be sure to continue to monitor your horses teeth and look for redness or swelling near the gum line.

Abnormal Tooth Eruption

Sometimes permanent teeth can also erupt abnormally due to trauma, fractures, or overcrowding of the teeth.

horse incisor teeth growing in wrong due to being kicked and trauma
Photo credit: The Horse's Advocate

  • Trauma - horses can be kicked in the jaw and cause tooth breakages or a broken jaw. This can cause the teeth to grow abnormally.

  • Fractures - this is also related to trauma and can cause the teeth to grow abnormal.

  • Overcrowding - baby teeth can become retained and block the adult teeth. They then grow in not where they should be.

  • Cribbing - cribbing can cause abnormal wear on the incisors and cause abnormal tooth growth.

This abnormal growth can also develop the above mentioned problems.

Cheek Tooth Infection

Developing a tooth abscess is a result of infection or inflammation. It is a serious condition and a medical emergency. If you notice your horses mouth to have abnormal swelling or pus pockets, call your vet! You can also feel for swollen lymph nodes. Swelling in lymph nodes can indicate an infection. Infection occurs at the root of the tooth and in the jaw.

Congenital Defects

Congenital defects like overbite (parrot mouth) or underbite may occur. Parrot mouth is a dental condition in which there is poor alignment of the teeth. The upper jaw is larger than the lower jaw. Underbite, less common, is a condition in which the lower jaw is larger than the upper jaw. It causes disturbance in chewing and leads to malnutrition. Dental caps or retained baby teeth is another congenital defect in which baby teeth remain attached to the permanent teeth.

horse over bite or parrot mouth and underbite
Photo credit: Horse Illustrated

All the above-mentioned conditions can be treated with a dental procedure. But requires regular check-up once a year to prevent them from occurring or recurring.

Does age affect an equine's dental health?

Yes, it does. As horse ages, its teeth also wear away. Senior horses need more frequent dental care than adult horses as they have increased risks of gum disease or periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is a condition in which there is swelling or inflammation of gum around the tooth. Moreover, the tooth surface can also wear, disturbing the alignment of the horse’s teeth.

horse has retained baby teeth causes adult tooth overcrowding
Photo credit: Texas Equine Dentist

Young horses, aged 2-5, also need special attention because they will be loosing baby teeth. You need to make sure these adult teeth are growing in properly and the baby teeth are not retained to avoid abnormal tooth eruption. Their baby teeth are also softer than the permanent teeth and can break easily.

It's always a good idea to maintain a healthy mouth with routine exams and maintenance throughout the horses life.

Routine Dental Maintenance

While there are hundreds of problems related to equine dental health, thousands of solutions also exist. The most important step that you can take to maintain equine dental health is a routine dental examination by a vet. Getting your horse on a routine schedule for regular check ups and dental exams will be the best thing for your horse.

veterinarian doing a routine dental exam on a horse

The veterinarian that is specialized in equine teeth will check for tooth decay, gaps, sharp points, etc. Veterinarians can also:

  • Administer sedatives for a safe dental

  • Administer antibiotics in case of infection

  • Rasp/Float teeth

  • Extract teeth

  • Diagnose dental conditions

Some states allow non-veterinarians, who specialize in equine dentals, to preform the work while a veterinarian is present on site, have veterinarian indirect supervision, or just by themselves. If you look for an equine dentist, it will be your responsibility to choose one that is qualified based on state laws and experience.

Once you have your professional equine dentist chosen, be sure to contact them between routine exams if you notice any abnormalities in the mouth, behavior changes or any other signs mentioned above.

equine dental metal floating rasp
Photo credit: Horse Dental Equipment

Floating Teeth

Floating is a procedure in which sharp enamel points or uneven teeth are flattened or made even with a filer or rasp-like tool. There are many different types of dental tools, but the tool used most is the float tool that looks similar to a long nail filer.

Floating tools allow the practitioner to access the molars safely and with ease. Smoothing each sharp/uneven tooth down with this tool creates good contact with the other teeth and leads to better chewing, less pain, and better overall health.

How often should horses have routine dental work?

young horse needs dental exam

For young horses, floating needs to be done roughly every 6 months. Their teeth tend to develop sharp points more easily and could cause pain. They are also shedding their 36 baby teeth before reaching the age of 5. During this time, the adult teeth are erupting. The dental exam will help watch for any abnormal tooth eruption, retained teeth, or sharp points.

Horses that have all of their adult teeth must have routine dental work at least once a year. Senior horses may need more frequent exams. Every horse has different needs due to their lifestyle and age. Your veterinarian will suggest the best frequency for your horse.

Acupressure for Dental Health

Acupressure can help improve equine dental health in many ways. But first, we would like to mention that acupressure is only meant to be preventative and complementary care, not a replacement for veterinary care. Acupressure is non-invasive and can be used before and after dental work.

equine acupressure practitioner doing point work for dental health

Acupressure works by touching specific points on the body to activate the energetic pathways, called meridians. These pathways can bring nutrients, increase blood flow, activate organ systems, and even relieve pain. You may have even used some of these points yourself! If you have ever had a headache and massaged your temples, pinched your upper nose near your tear ducts or pinched the area between your forefinger and thumb, you're using acupressure! These points are also great to use on a horse!

Adding acupressure to your horses' care routine can provide all benefits mentioned above.

  • Blood flow - Improving the blood flow to the jaw provides nutrients for strong bones and healthy gums.

  • Immune System - Acupressure can also boost the immune system and prevent pathogens from harming the body. This includes infections.

  • Tension - Acupressure can relax tight areas on the body. TMJ joint is an important area that can hold a lot of tension. Relaxing this area helps relieve pain and possible teeth issues.

Can acupressure improve dental pain?

Yes, acupressure can be used as an alternative and complementary therapy for dental pain. It is a good idea to schedule a session for before and after dental work.

Acupressure reduces swelling, toothache, jaw pain, increases circulation and stimulates the nervous system, which in turn, activates natural healing in the body. These awesome benefits from acupressure sessions will help your horse heal quicker after routine dental work, extractions and/or infections.

Red Light Therapy for Equine Dental Recovery

red light therapy poll cap on a horse for dental pain relief

Red light therapy (RLT) can also be a great complementary care option for your horse going through dentals and recovering from dental procedures. Red light therapy uses red and near infrared wavelengths of light to provide the tissues the energy they need to heal quickly and naturally. Below are some other awesome benefits of RLT

  • Pain relief

  • Inflammation reduction

  • Lymphatic drainage

  • Tissue repair

  • Collagen production

We offer red light therapy sessions, pad rentals, and pad sales. We also add acupressure points to our RLT sessions. So, your horse will enjoy and benefit from both RLT and acupressure during the session.

Interested in pad rentals for wound healing? Contact us today to schedule and check out our pricing plans here. We only offer pad rentals and sessions in the Greater Charlotte Area unless we are traveling.

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