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Dental Care for Your Horse

By: Ann Compton

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Does your horse have that winning smile? When was the last time he opened his mouth and said, "Ahhhh"? Does he have hay breath? It may be time for him to visit the dentist. In fact, your horse needs dental checkups as often as you do.

One of the leading causes of impaction colic comes from food that is improperly chewed before the horse swallows it. Horses have a delicate digestive system and therefore need teeth that help them to process food efficiently before they swallow it.

In Your Horse's Mouth

There are different ways to tell when your horse needs dental care. The horse's mouth is a good first place to look when he exhibits problems such as moving stiffly in one direction, tossing his head up, curving his neck in or feeling unsteady in his ride. Another common sign is dropping feed. Teeth that have become sharp and are cutting the horse's cheek may trigger all of these problems. His defense is to move his head in such a way that he protects the sore area in his mouth.

Think about it. When he's not being groomed or ridden, he is either standing in his stall munching hay or out in the pasture enjoying a grassy salad – with only brief periods in between for naps. He is probably using his teeth nearly 15 to 20 out of 24 hours. And, when you're riding him, the bit in his mouth also impacts his teeth.

Once a Year

Equine dentist Brian Stuart of Middletown, N.Y., recommends that horses' teeth be examined regularly and "floated" – the term used for removing the sharp edges that develop as your horse chews his food. "Regularly" may be different for each horse. The average horse needs dental work once a year, but competition horses, or those with problem mouths, may need to be examined more frequently – perhaps every six months.

Many people believe that equine teeth are like ours – that once the permanent teeth come in, that's all there is to it. That's not the case, though, with the equine mouth. Horses' teeth continue to erupt even after horses are mature. It's a process that continues throughout their lives. As they age and wear away tooth matter, the remainder of the tooth grows through, allowing them to process stiff roughage like dry hay.

The Floating Procedure

A typical floating by an equine dentist should take roughly 20 to 40 minutes for the normal horse and cost between $40 and $70. The dentist will arrive with a sanitized steel pail of tools. He will have a device designed to hold the horse's mouth open while he works fitted to a special halter, along with several files, called floats.

He will begin by feeling inside the horse's mouth for teeth with sharp, pointed edges and raw spots on your horse's cheeks. Then he will file the sharp areas on each tooth. He will start with the molars in the front where the bit rests, so when it is pulled back by the reins there are no points or edges on the teeth to snag the sensitive tissue in the horse's mouth – something that, understandably, might cause your horse to object to your hand signals.

He also will remove hooks or points in the rest of the mouth, and look for any teeth that are high and may impede the lower jaw from moving. The conformation of the horse's jaw causes the horse to chew in a way that creates sharp areas on the teeth because the horse's upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw. When a horse chews, he doesn't thoroughly wear the outside edge of the upper teeth and the inside edge of the lower teeth. As the parts that do meet chew food, the parts that don't meet get longer, developing points that cut the cheek.

Watch your horse when he eats his hay. Does he chew with a long, slow rhythm or a short, choppy one? If your horse's mouth becomes bad enough, it will inhibit his ability to swing his lower jaw, resulting in short, quick chewing. When the problem is really bad, he will begin to chew with an up and down motion. This is not effective when he chews and, as a result, food is only partially chewed when swallowed. This can result in impaction problems.

Other Signs of Trouble

There are other signs that will tell you if your horse's mouth is in trouble. You will notice a general change in his eating habits. It may take him longer to finish his food; he might be less interested in eating than normal; his eating will become sloppy and he may dribble grain. If you notice him tilting his head to one side when he chews or craning his neck out, his mouth needs attention.

And, though he probably won't feel much differently than you do when you see the dentist, he will thank you for it.

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