The oral examination is an essential part of your horse’s annual health checks. Regular examinations allow for the identification of dental problems while they are still in the early stage, decreasing the possibility of more severe dental conditions which may lead to other serious health issues for the horse.
As a minimum, all horses should receive a yearly dental exam. Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dental exams than older horses, as there are many dental changes which occur during this time in their life. Senior horses (20 years of age or older) have an increased risk of developing periodontal disease and face the additional challenges of advancing age. Twice-a-year examinations are sometimes required to keep the teeth of senior horses functioning correctly, as they enter their third and fourth decades of life.
Horses with dental problems may show obvious signs such as pain or irritation, or they may show no noticeable signs at all. Remember that horses are a prey species and generally will not show a weakness until it is unavoidable. By the time many owners notice a problem, such as dropping feed from the mouth while eating, fighting the bit or avoiding contact of the bit when ridden, or a foul odour from the mouth or nostrils, the issues inside the mouth are likely to be severe.
The chewing muscles, bones of the skull, salivary glands and lymph nodes are all assessed from the outside along with the range of jaw movement. The nostrils and eyes are checked for discharge. The mouth is rinsed clean of any food and then a preliminary palpation examination is carried to feel for abnormalities with the mouth and teeth. A specialised powerful headlight is then used to illuminate the mouth and a detailed assessment made of each tooth, the gums, cheeks and tongue with the aid of a mirror and picks.
Like humans, horses have two sets of teeth in their lifetime. The baby teeth, known as deciduous teeth, are temporary. The first deciduous incisors may erupt before the foal is born. The last deciduous teeth come in when the horse is about eight months of age. These teeth will begin to be replaced by adult teeth around the age of 2 1⁄2, and by age 5, most horses have all of their permanent teeth.
Routine maintenance of a horse’s mouth has been historically referred to as “floating” and involves removing the sharp enamel points by filing or rasping. The term occlusal equilibration is the modern term used to describe the smoothing of enamel points, correcting malocclusion (faulty meeting of the upper and lower teeth), balancing the dental arcades and correcting other dental problems.
Traditionally, horses have had their sharp enamel points and occlusal overgrowths (tall teeth), reduced with hand-held rasps otherwise known as floats. Over the past 20 years improved dental techniques and instruments have been developed, including the use of cordless motorised instruments. Using these tools requires a great degree of skill and requires a qualified and experienced operator due to the potential to cause damage with the instrument. The main advantages however, are that “power floating” provides a more efficient procedure and far greater precision due to the visualisation technique compared to manual rasps that are used “blind”. Dental work should only be carried out by a qualified Equine Dental Technician or a vet that has had specialist training in equine dentistry, and holds an Advanced Certificate in Equine Dentistry.
Incisor teeth are very rarely filed as part of a normal visit. They are checked for balance and alignment, tartar and disease are treated as required. Reducing height of the incisor teeth can be risky for the health of the teeth, and cause great stresses on the cheek teeth and significantly upset the balance of the whole mouth. Never let anyone perform a reduction (reducing the height of all or one incisor tooth), unless you are convinced they are trained to do the procedure and that it is absolutely necessary.
In primitive horses wolf teeth were fully developed premolars, over time they have reduced to such a small size they are now redundant. They serve no purpose to a modern horse. They are usually situated in the upper jaw, just in front of the first cheek teeth. They can cause bitting problems due to the bit causing discomfort when used. Bits may also cause wolf teeth to fracture, risking further pain, infection and disease. Although it is not always necessary to remove wolf teeth, they are often routinely removed when a horse is between 2.5-3 years of age, ideally before they are mouthed and bitted, as part of their first equine dental checkup. Wolf teeth may however be removed at any later age if it proves necessary. Extraction is carried out under standing sedation, and some local anaesthetic is often used as well. Post extraction, it is advised that the horse is not ridden with a bit in the mouth for a few days.
Many people come to me with a problem. They know something isn't quite right with their horse but they can't quite get to the bottom of what it is. There are a lot of signs and symptoms of dental problems, but some don't manifest themselves until the horse is actually in pain.
Performance problems such as head tossing or shaking, mouthing or chewing the bit, sticking the tongue out of the mouth or over the bit, resisting bridling, refusing to maintain vertical head carriage, getting behind the bit, rearing or bolting can often be attributed to dental problems in the horses mouth.
Clinical signs that may indicate a horses teeth may be troubling him are those such as dropping hard feed, excessive salivation, foul odour from the mouth, head tilting when eating, not grazing as much as expected, nasal discharge & facial swelling, however in most cases there will be no clinical signs whatsoever.
Most dental problems in horses start out minor and can accelerate into major problems if unchecked. Horses usually don't show symptoms until the problems are advanced, which is why it is better to have your horse's teeth checked regularly by a qualified Equine Dental Technician or a specialist Vet holding the Advanced Certificate in Equine Dentistry for preventative care. Invariably a horse does not show any signs of a dental problem which is why regular examinations are paramount.
Mark Thorne has been my horse's dentist for approximately 10 years and I hold his knowledge and professionalism in high regard. I would not hesitate recommending Mark to anyone else.Lynda, North Yorkshire
Mark has been my equine dentist for a number of years now. His professionalism, service and care are second to none. Highly recommended.Joe, North Yorkshire
Mark was recommended to me by a friend. He was very professional explaining why and what he was doing at each step, answering any questions I had. I would highly recommend him. A genuine knowledgable guy.Beverley, Cleveland
Mark is very conscientious and careful with my horses. Additionally he is always on time and takes as much time as he feels is needed. He is happy to forfeit work if he feels the horse doesn't need it, such as my old mare. You get the feeling he is there for the job satisfaction not just the job!Camilla, Scottish Borders