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

Updated: Apr 3


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

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.



Step Mouth

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

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

Waves

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

Tartar

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
abnormal tooth eruption in horses caused by trauma or overcrowding











  • 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.


Floating Teeth

Floating teeth is a fundamental procedure in equine dentistry aimed at addressing sharp enamel points or uneven tooth surfaces that can hinder proper chewing and oral health. This essential procedure involves the use of specialized dental tools, primarily the float tool, to ensure the maintenance of optimal dental alignment and function in horses.


The process of floating teeth typically involves the following steps:

equine dental metal floating rasp
Photo credit: Horse Dental Equipment
  • Identification of Dental Abnormalities: Prior to floating, the equine dentist or veterinarian conducts a thorough examination of the horse's oral cavity to identify any sharp enamel points, irregularities, or malocclusions that may impede proper mastication or cause discomfort.

  • Selection of Dental Tools: Various dental instruments are available for floating teeth, but the float tool remains the primary implement used for this purpose. Resembling a long nail filer or rasp-like tool, the float is specifically designed to smooth out rough enamel surfaces and correct dental abnormalities safely and effectively.

  • Flattening Sharp Enamel Points: Using precise techniques, the practitioner targets sharp enamel points or uneven tooth surfaces with the float tool. By gently filing down these protrusions, the dentist ensures that each tooth's occlusal surface is level and conducive to proper chewing motion.

  • Achieving Dental Balance: The primary objective of floating is to restore dental balance and occlusal harmony within the horse's mouth. By smoothing out irregularities and ensuring proper tooth alignment, the practitioner facilitates optimal contact between opposing teeth, promoting efficient chewing and reducing the risk of oral discomfort or injury.

  • Enhancing Overall Oral Health: Through the meticulous process of floating teeth, the equine dentist aims to optimize the horse's oral health and well-being. By promoting better dental function and reducing the likelihood of sharp points causing trauma or ulcers, floating contributes to improved digestion, enhanced performance, and overall equine welfare.

Overall, floating teeth is a critical aspect of routine equine dental care, essential for maintaining oral health, preventing dental abnormalities, and ensuring the horse's comfort and longevity. By utilizing specialized dental tools and techniques, practitioners can address dental issues promptly and effectively, supporting the horse's overall health and performance.


How often should horses have routine dental work?

Maintaining proper dental health is crucial for the overall well-being and performance of horses. The frequency of routine dental work varies depending on factors such as age, dental condition, and individual needs. Here's a detailed overview of how often horses should have routine dental work:


Young Horses (Under 5 Years Old)

Young horses, particularly those under five years old, undergo significant dental changes as they transition from deciduous (baby) teeth to permanent adult dentition. During this period, known as the "transition period," dental care is especially important. Floating should be performed approximately every six months to address issues such as sharp enamel points, uneven wear, and abnormalities associated with the eruption of adult teeth.


Reasoning: Young horses are prone to developing sharp points more easily due to the rapid growth and wear of their teeth. Additionally, monitoring for proper tooth eruption and identifying any abnormalities early on is essential for ensuring optimal dental development and preventing potential issues in adulthood.


Adult Horses (Over 5 Years Old)

young horse needs dental exam

Once horses have all of their permanent adult teeth in place, routine dental work should be performed at least once a year. During these annual examinations, the equine dentist or veterinarian assesses the horse's dental health, addresses any emerging issues, and performs necessary maintenance procedures such as floating to maintain proper occlusal balance.


Reasoning: Adult horses typically require less frequent dental attention compared to young horses, as their dental development has stabilized. However, annual dental exams are essential for detecting and addressing any issues promptly, ensuring continued oral health and function.


Senior Horses

Senior horses, typically aged 15 years and older, may require more frequent dental examinations and interventions due to age-related dental issues such as tooth loss, dental disease, and changes in tooth morphology. Depending on individual circumstances and dental health status, senior horses may benefit from semi-annual or more frequent dental check-ups to address specific concerns and maintain oral comfort and function.


Reasoning: Aging horses are more susceptible to dental problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, and dental abnormalities. Regular dental care becomes increasingly important in senior horses to address these issues promptly and ensure their comfort and nutritional intake.


Ultimately, the frequency of routine dental work should be determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as the horse's age, dental history, lifestyle, and any specific dental concerns. Consulting with a qualified veterinarian or equine dentist is essential for developing a tailored dental care plan that meets the individual needs of each horse, promoting optimal oral health and overall well-being.

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?

Acupressure, a traditional healing practice rooted in Chinese medicine, offers a holistic approach to alleviating dental pain in horses. While it may not replace conventional dental care, acupressure can serve as a valuable adjunct therapy, providing additional support before and after dental procedures.


Utilizing gentle pressure on specific acupoints along the body's meridians, acupressure aims to restore balance and promote the body's innate healing abilities. When applied to equine dental care, acupressure offers a range of benefits:

  • Reduced Swelling: Swelling is a common post-dental procedure concern, often accompanied by discomfort and restricted movement. Acupressure targets acupoints associated with reducing inflammation and edema, helping to alleviate swelling and promote comfort.

  • Relief from Toothache and Jaw Pain: Dental pain, whether stemming from routine procedures, extractions, or infections, can significantly impact a horse's well-being and performance. Acupressure targets specific acupoints linked to pain relief, providing relief from toothache and jaw pain by modulating pain perception pathways.

  • Increased Circulation: Optimal circulation is essential for delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues, facilitating healing and recovery. Acupressure stimulates blood flow to affected areas, enhancing circulation and promoting tissue regeneration following dental procedures.

  • Stimulation of the Nervous System: The nervous system plays a pivotal role in orchestrating the body's response to injury and promoting healing. Acupressure activates the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering relaxation responses and promoting a state of calm conducive to healing.

  • Activation of Natural Healing Mechanisms: Acupressure encourages the body's natural healing mechanisms by restoring balance to the body's energy pathways, known as meridians. By harmonizing the flow of vital energy, or qi, acupressure fosters a state of equilibrium conducive to accelerated healing.

Incorporating acupressure sessions before and after dental work can enhance the overall effectiveness of equine dental care protocols. By harnessing the therapeutic potential of acupressure, horse owners and veterinarians can provide comprehensive support for their equine companions, optimizing comfort, promoting recovery, and fostering overall oral health and well-being.


Red Light Therapy for Equine Dental Recovery

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

In the realm of equine care, the integration of Red light therapy  (RLT) holds immense promise, particularly in the context of aiding equine dental recovery processes. While equine dentals are routine procedures, they can still induce discomfort and require a period of healing. Incorporating RLT into the post-dental care regimen can significantly enhance the recovery journey for horses.


At its core, RLT harnesses the power of red and near-infrared wavelengths of light to penetrate deep into tissues, stimulating cellular activity and promoting natural healing mechanisms. This non-invasive treatment modality offers a myriad of benefits that are particularly pertinent to equine dental recovery:

  • Pain Relief: Following dental procedures, horses may experience discomfort or soreness. RLT has shown efficacy in alleviating pain by modulating pain perception pathways and promoting the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

  • Inflammation Reduction: Inflammation is a common response to dental work, especially in cases of extractions or extensive treatments. RLT has demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokines and promoting the resolution of inflammation, thereby expediting the healing process.

  • Lymphatic Drainage: Proper lymphatic drainage is crucial for eliminating toxins and reducing swelling post-dental work. RLT has been shown to enhance lymphatic circulation, facilitating the removal of metabolic waste products and reducing edema, which can accelerate recovery and promote overall well-being.

  • Tissue Repair: Dental procedures often involve the manipulation or removal of dental tissues, which necessitates efficient tissue repair mechanisms. RLT enhances cellular metabolism and promotes the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy currency of cells, thereby accelerating tissue repair and regeneration.

  • Collagen Production: Collagen is a vital component of connective tissues, including those involved in dental structures. RLT has been found to stimulate fibroblast activity, leading to increased collagen synthesis. This not only strengthens dental tissues but also promotes overall oral health and resilience.

By integrating RLT into the equine dental recovery process, horse owners and veterinarians can provide a holistic approach to care that not only addresses immediate post-procedural concerns but also fosters long-term oral health and well-being. This non-invasive, drug-free therapy offers a gentle yet effective means of supporting horses through the delicate period of dental healing, ultimately enhancing their comfort, function, and vitality.


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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