Caring for your horse’s teeth is crucial for its overall health and well-being. If your horse has a dental problem, he won’t chew well or get the nourishment he needs, which may result in other health issues. Keeping your horse’s teeth clean doesn’t mean brushing and flossing regularly, but it does require regular dental check-ups and healthy feeding practices. Understanding your horse’s oral anatomy helps you spot possible dental problems and respond quickly and keep him healthy. We’ll help you understand your horse’s teeth, how to care for them at different stages of life, and how to spot, respond and prevent common dental problems.
How many teeth do horses have?
Not all horses have the same number of teeth. On average, adult male horses have 40 teeth but could have up to 42. Female horses have fewer teeth, usually between 36–40. As a horse reaches adulthood, it may grow extra teeth on the bar of its mouth between the front and back teeth. These small, extra teeth may either be canine or wolf teeth and are more common in male horses than mares. Wolf and canine teeth can be removed for greater comfort with a bit.
Like humans, horses have deciduous or baby teeth and permanent teeth. All 24 deciduous teeth erupt by 8 months, and permanent teeth erupt between 2 ½ to 5 years old. Sometimes, the “caps” of baby teeth don’t fall off or get dislodged as a permanent tooth starts to erupt and must be removed by a veterinarian. Once all baby teeth have been replaced, permanent teeth continue to grow until a horse reaches old age and its teeth fall out.
Types of horse teeth
Incisors are the horse’s front teeth that grab food or tear grass while grazing. They’re the pronounced teeth you see when a horse whinnies or grabs food from a hay net. Horses have 12 incisors–6 on top and 6 on the bottom. Incisors are strong and deeply rooted to withstand biting and pulling tough foliage.
|Horse Incisor Eruption
|2 ½ years
|3 ⅓ years
|4 ½ years
2. Cheek teeth
Cheek teeth are also called premolars and molars. After grabbing food with their incisors, horses use their wide, flat cheek teeth to grind and chew the food into a pulp that can be easily swallowed and digested. A horse has a total of 24 cheek teeth that are firmly rooted in the jaw bone, located behind the bars of the mouth. These teeth are arranged in four sets of six on the top and bottom left and right sides of the mouth. Each set of cheek teeth is tightly packed, with no gaps in between, forming a large grinding surface. A horse’s cheek teeth continuously erupt and grow throughout its life to compensate for the natural wearing down of teeth from grinding.
|Horse Cheek Teeth Eruption
|First Cheek Tooth
|By 8 weeks
|Second Cheek Tooth
|By 8 weeks
|Third Cheek Tooth
|By 8 weeks
|Fourth Cheek Tooth
|Fifth Cheek Tooth
|Sixth Cheek Tooth
|First Cheek Tooth
|2 ½ years
|Second Cheek Tooth
|Third Cheek Tooth
|Fourth Cheek Tooth (First Molar)
|9 months–1 year
|Fifth Cheek Tooth (Second Molar)
|Sixth Cheek Tooth (Third Molar)
|3 ½–4 years
3. Wolf teeth
Wolf teeth are small teeth that can erupt in some young horses between the ages of 6 and 12 months, although not all horses have them. They usually emerge in the upper mouth and from any angle. Often these teeth are removed because they can be painful, especially when the horse is holding a bit, may get in the way as the first cheek tooth emerges, and aren’t necessary for chewing or any other purpose. However, in some cases, the removal of the wolf teeth may not be necessary if they are not causing any problems for the horse.
4. Canine teeth
Canine teeth are sharp teeth located between the incisors and cheek teeth and are more commonly found in adult male horses. These teeth can cause discomfort to a horse when a bit is in the mouth and be a source of danger to handlers, riders, and other horses if bitten. For these reasons, canine teeth are often removed by a veterinarian.
|Horse Wolf and Canine Teeth Eruption
In addition to understanding how to care for your horse’s teeth, learn the basics of your horse’s anatomy to help you train and care for him more effectively.
What do horses use their teeth for?
Horses primarily use their teeth for eating food. The incisors grab the food, and the cheek teeth or molars grind the food. When horses chew, their jaw moves in a circular motion to break down tough fibers and extract nutrients from their food. Forage, which is fibrous and requires more chewing, is an essential part of a horse’s diet. Feeding a horse a diet primarily consisting of concentrates can lead to overgrowth of the lower teeth, which can cause painful mouth ulcers or cuts if left untreated. In contrast, grazing on grass allows a horse’s teeth to wear naturally as new growth erupts. It’s important to provide horses with a well-balanced diet that includes both forage and concentrates and to ensure they receive regular dental check-ups to catch any issues early on.
A horse also uses its teeth for grooming, showing affection, or fighting. Teeth can scratch an itch or remove loose hair or debris from their coat. Horses may also nibble affectionately at each other to bond. However, nibbling or biting can also be a sign of aggression, so it’s important to watch your horse closely around other horses to stop aggressive biting to prevent injuries.
Common dental problems in horses
Regular dental check-ups and treatments are essential for maintaining the dental health of domesticated horses. Undomesticated horses’ teeth are maintained naturally with constant grazing, but domesticated horses spend less time grazing and are expected to respond to cues with a bit, which can lead to dental problems. Routine dental care is necessary to prevent and address dental problems that could affect their health and well-being. Dental treatment may also help prolong a horse’s life. A broken, lost, or damaged tooth inhibits a horse’s ability to chew and consume enough nutrients, which could result in more serious health issues. Such problems can be prevented or corrected with proper dental care.
Here are some of the most common dental problems in horses that require treatment.
1. Fractured teeth
Horses can fracture their teeth when biting something they shouldn’t or with poor quality feed that’s difficult to chew. Fractures can also be a sign of weak teeth from disease. A broken tooth can make it difficult and painful to chew and will make the horse’s tooth more prone to infection.
2. Unevenly worn teeth
A horse’s teeth wear naturally as it grinds food, and new growth erupts to replace what’s been worn down. But sometimes a horse’s teeth can wear down unevenly and cause irritation and require smoothing down.
3. Parrot mouth
When a horse has parrot mouth, its jaw is misaligned, resulting in an overbite. Parrot mouth can be an inherited abnormality or, in some cases, the result of injury or illness in a foal. If the horse’s teeth are not aligned properly, grazing will be challenging. It can also result in ulcers and sharp enamel points that will cause painful ulcers.
4. Infections and abscesses
A horse’s soft inner tooth, called the pulp, can become infected as a result of trauma, debris or plaque build-up, or gum disease. A severe infection can lead to an abscess in the jaw. Symptoms of an infected tooth may resemble sinus issues because a horse’s back molars are close to the sinus cavity. Because a missing tooth can make it difficult for a horse to eat, veterinarians first look for a way to treat and preserve the tooth before extraction. When extraction is required, the horse’s teeth will need to be realigned once or twice a year.
Hooks are sharp points that can form on a horse’s cheek teeth, often as a result of a misaligned jaw. Hooks can be very painful and damage the soft tissue in a horse’s mouth. They’re treated by a procedure called floating, where the share points are filed down on a regular basis.
6. Wave mouth and step mouth
Wave and step mouth also result from a misaligned bite surface that causes the teeth to wear unevenly. Wave mouth occurs when grinding creates an uneven or wave-like pattern on the teeth. Step mouth causes an uneven height difference between teeth. With both issues, gaps can form between the teeth and trap food that can lead lead to tooth decay or gum disease.
7. Excessively long or sharp teeth
A horse’s teeth may be too long or sharp and interfere with chewing and inserting a bit. Teeth that are too long or sharp can cut the gums and tongue and inhibit a horse’s circular chewing motion.
8. Periodontal disease
Periodontal disease is a serious infection of the gums surrounding a horse’s teeth. Healthy gums should have a pink color, and any inflammation is a sign of periodontitis. This condition is very painful and can be caused by a variety of dental problems, including gaps, fractures, trauma, and uneven wear of the teeth, which can trap bacteria below the gum line.
9. Remaining caps and extra teeth
Caps from deciduous teeth that remain intact can be painful for young horses. Caps require removal by a veterinarian if they don’t shed naturally. Extra wolf or canine teeth that grow in the mouths of some horses may be problematic and should be removed if they interfere with the bit, cause discomfort, or make chewing difficult.
10. Abnormal eruption
A horse’s teeth can erupt abnormally due to trauma, congenital abnormalities, or overcrowding. These problems can be painful for the horse and may also affect its ability to eat, perform, or respond to the bit. Abnormal tooth growth also increases the risk of broken or decayed teeth, as well as infections.
Learn more: 17 Symptoms of a Sick Horse & What They Mean
How to avoid dental problems in horses
1. Provide routine dental care
Regular dental exams and routine maintenance are crucial to caring for a healthy horse. During a regular dental checkup, the vet usually performs floating, or the practice of removing sharp points that may interfere with the bit or cause discomfort. Floating may also be used generically to refer to a horse’s routine dental visits.
Horses with all of their permanent teeth should visit a veterinarian or equine dentist once a year. Horses should go for their first dental check-up at around 18 months, and young horses (2–5 years) should receive dental care twice a year until all permanent teeth have erupted. Senior horses and horses with ongoing dental problems also require more frequent dental treatment depending on the dental problem.
2. Respond to signs of dental problems
In addition to regular dental care, you should watch for signs of dental problems in your horse and address the issue as soon as possible. Your horse’s teeth won’t ever be sparkling white since food stains their teeth a yellowish-brown, but gums should always be a healthy light pink. Sometimes a horse’s tooth problems will be visible, but, other times, symptoms may appear outside of the mouth. Here are a few signs that may indicate your horse needs dental treatment.
- Loss of appetite or reluctance to drink
- Weight loss
- Whole or partially digested food particles in manure
- Resistance to the bit or bucking against aids
- Excessive drooling or mucus or other symptoms of a sinus infection
- Foul breath
- Cuts and ulcers in the mouth
- Jaw swelling
- Head consistently tilted to one side
3. Feed your horse well
Giving your horse plenty of grazing time can help prevent dental issues. Forage should be the primary source of nutrients for horses, supplemented with hay and feed tailored to their weight, performance, and environmental factors such as pasture quality and weather conditions. Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining good dental and overall health in horses. To determine the best diet for your horse, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian and follow their recommended nutrition plan.
Caring for a horse can be hard work, but the bond it creates between us and our horses makes it well worth it. Here are a few tips that we’ve learned from our years of experience with horses to help you care for yours.
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