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Equine teeth, unlike human teeth, continue growing for a lifetime, at a rate of about 1/8 inch per year. Wild horses graze most of their waking hours so constant mastication assists proper digestion and evenly wears dental surfaces. Domestication, however, can throw off the balance with processed feeds and regimented feeding schedules. A feral animal would not encounter processed grain blends or baled hay in its natural environment, nor would it eat only once or twice daily.
Most stabled horses consume dry feed unless an owner moistens hay to combat equine lung maladies, like heaves. Many horses actually prefer to dunk grain and hay in an available water source, even a pail or automatic waterer. This likely is because saliva aids digestion and dry feed is not as palatable as fresh pasture grasses.
Besides obvious dangers, like mold, possible in baled hay, always check flakes/pads for hazardous objects that can damage teeth, gums or palate. Stones, metal fragments and other foreign materials are often scooped up in the baling process. Even small bits of broken animal bones can wreak havoc in a horse’s mouth.
Small, pointed wolf teeth grow just forward of the molars. They usually erupt early on and are often extracted before training begins. If not removed, the bit’s constant contact with these non-essential teeth can cause ulceration or infection; loosening or fracture; pain leading to attitude/training/performance issues (i.e. head-tossing, refusing the bit, bucking, rearing).
Other signs of tooth troubles include head tilting when eating; chronic chewing on the bit; digestive discomfort and associated ailments; loss of weight or condition; dropping feed while eating; undigested hay or grain in feces. The costs of ignoring oral problems are usually higher than is regular dental care: the horse is compromised, expensive feed is wasted and owner frustration escalates.
To assure a horse is pain-free and eating/digesting efficiently, its owner must provide regular oral care by a veterinarian. Such diligent dental attention began more than 2000 years ago. Floating teeth (filing/rasping) dates to 1600s England. The 19th century brought equine dental charts, assorted dental instruments in 1817, and even rudimentary power tools in 1895.
With the 21st century come improvements in dental equipment and techniques. Veterinarian Chad Zadina, of Tabby Road Large & Small Animal Hospital in Wellington uses an electric power float. This tool lessens time spent working in the animal’s mouth and minimizes vibration from old-style, hand-held rasps. Hence, stress is reduced.
Dr. Zadina recommends annual dental checkups and floating for horses as young as 2 years. Congenital issues such as underbite or overbite can create hooks that don’t simply wear down, said the doctor. He’s a minimalist who prefers “less is more” during the filing procedure rather than risk unnecessary removal of tooth surface. When working on particularly bad cases, he floats the teeth gradually over time.
Veterinarian Andy Dean is the large animal specialist at Laporte Animal Clinic. He suggests dental exams and floating for weanlings. Jagged baby teeth or congenital problems can be discovered and addressed before they impede a young horse’s development. Dr. Dean advised that check-ups should be done every six months until age 6, then annually.
He listed some available state-of-the-art procedures, including fillings for dental caries; root canals; braces for foals with malocclusions; antibiotic-impregnated materials to save teeth from gum disease. In-the-field digital radiography is available to assess dental health or determine if a tooth should be extracted.
It’s bad advice to never look a gift horse (or one you bought) in the mouth. By all means look, and have your vet take a peek in there, too! Better still, upgrade another wise, old adage, “You are what you eat”, by making sure your horses are able to eat. Preventive, routine care will avert pain, digestive woes, training/performance issues, expensive fixes, or even premature death.