THE equine mouth is an important part of the horse’s body. It is the beginning of the horse’s digestive system. Key components of the mouth include the tongue and the teeth. Various facial muscles are of importance in relation to chewing and saliva released from salivary glands assists with the lubrication of food prior to swallowing and the buffering of stomach acids.
The horse is an efficient herbivore, which has evolved over the years to contain well adapted, hard-wearing teeth to enable them to chew such a diet. One of these adaptions is that horses are hypsodont animals – this means that their teeth continually erupt throughout their lives and are only worn down by the action of grinding feed materials.
Horses have four distinct types of teeth; incisors, canines, premolars and molars. All of the teeth are composed of an irregularly formed laminate of different tissues, which include enamel, dentine and cementum. These tissues wear at different rates, which ensures the surface that the horse uses to grind food stays irregular and rough, helping to increase the efficiency of the grinding of feed materials. The teeth also have one or multiple pulp cavities, which contain veins, arteries and nerves. These sensitive structures are sealed off by a layer of dentine, this can be recognised by its shiny black appearance on the grinding surface of the tooth. If this is damaged, it can lead to sensitivity and clinical disease (Rossdales, 2015).
The horse has 12 incisors (six upper and six lower), which are used to grasp and tear herbage. Like humans, incisors have temporary deciduous counterparts (milk teeth). The last of the milk teeth erupt around eight months of age and are shed when the permanent teeth begin to emerge around 2.5 years of age. By five, most horses have their full complement of permanent teeth (AAEP, 2022).
Canine teeth are more commonly found in male horses, and usually erupt around four to six years of age. Canine teeth are short and often sharp teeth found in the gap between the incisor and cheek teeth on both upper and lower sides. These teeth are prone to developing calculus, so often require removal of this build up of food material during routine dental care (Rossdales, 2015).
Wolf teeth are the first premolars and are found immediately in front of the first cheek teeth. They erupt between six to 18 months of age and may be displaced into the bitting area, causing pain and interference with the bit during ridden work. For this reason, wolf teeth are often removed to prevent this issue. Wolf teeth are believed to have once been ‘molarised’ teeth, but due to evolutionary changes serve no useful purpose in the modern horse.
The horse usually has 24 cheek teeth – three premolars and three molars in each quadrant of the mouth. These teeth usually come as a tightly packed unit, so act as one large tooth to grind down food materials. The first two to three upper cheek teeth and all lower cheek teeth are positioned with their roots within the bones of the face; so if infection occurs at the root, it can cause firm facial swellings. The roots of the remaining cheek teeth are usually positioned in the sinus compartments of the head, therefore, infection of these teeth leads to infection of the sinus compartments and nasal discharge (Rossdales, 2015).
Other common dental problems include overgrowths to the outside of the upper teeth and inside of lower teeth due to the reduced time domesticated horses may spend grinding food. This may arise due to increased concentrates being fed, or due to set portions of hay being provided to the horse rather than the horse being able to naturally and continuously graze grass. To prevent sharp edges from overgrown teeth causing pain, regular dental care is recommended. Enamel edges should be filed down twice yearly, while the permanent teeth are still emerging and as frequently as needed after that, depending on your horse’s diet. Horses that graze grass free range may only require annual oral checkups, whereas, a stable kept horse which is fed forage and concentrates will require more frequent oral care, again twice yearly is recommended (Easley, 2020).
There are two key people who are suitably qualified to check your horse’s teeth; a veterinary surgeon, ideally equine specific who is trained in modern dentistry, or a qualified Equine Dental Technician (EDT), who is registered with the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians (BAEDT) or category two members of the World Wide Association of Equine Dentists (WWAED). It is important to note that there are many equine dentists who do not have sufficient qualifications, leading to ineffective treatments or serious problems being missed, which can lead to further complications.
During a typical equine dental examination the vet/ EDT will ask some questions about the horse’s clinical history before a little sedation may be given depending on the horse’s temperament or the extent of the examination which will be carried out. EDTs cannot administer sedation, so a vet may have to be called or the EDT will have to continue without. A mouth speculum is placed, the mouth is opened and washed out, allowing for a thorough examination to take place by the use of palpation and dental mirrors. Treatment of sharp points is carried out by using hand held rasps or motorised tools, the vet/ EDT will carry out further treatments where required.
To find a qualified EDT in your area, visit: British Association of Equine Dental Technicians – MEMBERS – IRELAND (baedt.com)
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