Straight From the Horse’s Mouth: The Importance of Equine Dentistry

Editor’s Note: Dr. DeRoy White of Sapulpa Equine Hospital in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, was a special guest at the Western Dressage Association® of America’s 2015 annual meeting, offering an educational session on equine dentistry. What follows is a handout that Dr. White agreed to share with all WDAA members.

DrWhite_EllenDiBellaIt is important to examine horses’ teeth on a regular schedule and to correct disorders early in their development. Dental care, vaccinations, de-worming and a good nutrition program should all be part of a preventive medicine program for horses.

Dental disorders may cause problems in eating and/or performance. Signs of dental disease range from obvious difficulty in eating to subtle changes in performance. Eating habits may change. The horse may lose feed from its mouth, slobber, tilt its head and/or carry its head in an abnormal manner, take one lead but not the other, or show some other performance problem.

Conditions that may cause problems include sharp enamel points, retention of deciduous (baby) teeth, wolf teeth, tall/long teeth, tall/long hooks, loose or fractured teeth, infected teeth or mal-aligned teeth. Horses develop sharp points because the lower jaws (mandibles) are narrower than the upper (maxilla) and because they grind their feed by a side-to-side motion. This results in development of sharp points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and the inside of the lower cheek teeth. These sharp points can cut the cheeks or tongue. It is fairly easy to float (rasp) off the sharp points.

Wolf teeth are the small first teeth in front of the large upper cheek teeth. Approximately 20 percent of horses do not have wolf teeth. The bit may hit wolf teeth, causing the horse discomfort. It is a good idea to have wolf teeth removed and the sharp points floated before putting a horse in training.

Retained deciduous (baby) cheek teeth may cause difficulties in eating and/or performance. Retained deciduous cheek teeth are called “caps.” The first cheek tooth is normally shed at 2 ½ years, the second cheek tooth at 3 years and the third cheek tooth at 4 years. A more accurate time table for the shedding of the deciduous cheek teeth is probably the first cheek tooth at 2 years and 8 months, the second cheek tooth at 2 years and 10 months, and the third cheek tooth at 3 years and 8 months. So late 2-year-olds, and early and late 3-year-olds are the ones that may have “cap” problems.

Owners and trainers working young horses must be aware of the great amount of activity occurring in the mouth at that time. Horses shed 24 deciduous teeth (incisors and cheek teeth) and erupt in 32 to 36 teeth between 2 and 6 years of age. Females do not normally have erupted canine teeth, and this is the difference between erupting in 32 or 36 teeth.

Horses’ teeth continue to erupt in until the horse is in its 20s. This is good, as the particles in grass wear down teeth. This is not good when the teeth are not in good occlusion. If a part of a tooth or a whole tooth is not rubbing on another tooth as the horse eats, then the part of the tooth (or whole tooth) not in occlusion gets taller/longer and can result in the development of severe problems. Examples are the hooks that develop on the front of the upper cheek teeth and the back part of the lower cheek teeth, or a tooth becoming taller/longer when its opposing tooth is missing.

Equine dentistry has changed greatly over the last 10 years. To do an adequate job of examining the teeth and correcting the problems present, most horses will need to be sedated and a full-mouth speculum used. There have been great advancements made in instruments and equipment available today. There are several motorized instruments available now that allow more precise corrective procedures with less soft tissue damage.

Horses that are in performance training need their teeth examined at least every six to 12 months, and breeding horses should have their teeth examined every year. It is especially important that young (2-4 years) and old (20+) horses are examined fairly frequently. Young horses may develop problems as they shed their deciduous teeth and rapidly form sharp points, and old horses may develop abnormal patterns of wear. It is much easier to correct minor dental problems than major problems.

Any horse showing signs of problems in eating and/or performance should have a dental examination and the indicated corrections done.


Dental Resource Books:

  • “Equine Dentistry,” edited by Gordon Baker and Jack Easley. W.B. Sanders
  • “Equine Dentistry: A Practical Guide,” Patricia Pence. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins
  • “Manual of Equine Dentistry,” Tom Allen. Mosby
  • “Guide for Determining the Age of the Horse,” Michael T. Martin, American Association of Equine Practitioners

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