5 Things You Need to Know About Your Horse’s Teeth

5 Things You Need to Know About Your Horse’s Teeth

Know the signs of tooth discomfort and common horse dental problems

Just as important as their hooves, joint and coat health, your horse’s teeth require regular care and maintenance. The health of your horse’s teeth and gums tell you a lot about their overall health and wellness.

In this blog we provide facts and information many people do not know about horse teeth. As always, please consult your veterinarian with any questions about your horse’s teeth.

Like so many aspects of horse care, horse teeth require periodic maintenance to ensure your horse lives their healthiest life. Keep in mind these 3 reasons for monitoring your horse’s teeth:

  1. Healthy teeth mean it’s easier to eat and absorb essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
  2. Healthy teeth mean your horse is not in hidden discomfort. (Remember your horse is adept at hiding discomfort.)
  3. Healthy teeth mean your horse can get enough calories to maintain their weight and fuel themselves for training, competition, and daily life.

Head shaking, rearing, fighting the bit, and acting out can be signs of sore teeth and gums. Pay attention to any changes in your horse’s behavior and when in doubt, contact your veterinarian for a full exam and dental check-up.

Make sure you know these 5 facts about horse teeth and horse dental care.

1. You Must Routinely Float Your Horse’s Teeth

We go to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned. Horses go to the veterinarian to get their teeth filed. That’s right — your horse’s teeth never stop growing!

Luckily, horse teeth don’t have nerves, so it’s not a painful process when your vet floats or files them. However, vets usually sedate horses before starting the procedure. Otherwise, your horse could toss its head, and the file could injure their mouth or teeth.

Since horse teeth grow about 1/8-inch per year, you should aim to float their teeth annually. 

Equine dentistry is essential for horse health because horses eat in a side-to-side motion, and their teeth don’t always wear down evenly. This chewing routine means the teeth can develop sharp points, causing pain and a range of dental issues.

2. Geldings Usually Have More Teeth Than Mares

Geldings (and stallions) have about 40 teeth as an adult. In contrast, mares typically have less than this, ranging from 36 – 40 teeth.

The reason that mares often have fewer teeth is that it isn’t common for them to grow canine or bridle teeth.

Regardless of how many teeth a gelding or mare ends up having, their average tooth length is 4 inches. You might be wondering—how do horses in the wild manage their tooth length without a veterinarian to float them?

Horse teeth grind down naturally when they eat. Nevertheless, wild horses likely experience more mouth pain than those with floated teeth due to sharp edges that can form.

3. Foals Have Baby Teeth

Just like us, horses have 2 sets of teeth. Most of their incisors and premolars appear within the first couple of weeks of birth. The third incisors (corner teeth) are the last to grow in, which happens by your horse’s 9-month birthday.

Horses have long lives, so their adult teeth aren’t in a rush to grow. Wolf teeth appear at around 5 months, and select permanent molars and incisors begin growing in during your foal’s second year of life.

However, canine teeth don’t grow until your horse reaches 4 or 5 years of age.

Because horses have such distinct phases of teeth growth, as well as deterioration as they grow older, it’s possible to accurately determine your horse’s age based their teeth.

4. Horses Use Their Teeth for Different Purposes

Horses are herbivores. But even though they don’t eat meat, their teeth serve different purposes.

Incisors: help a horse bite grass. Horses have 6 upper incisors and 6 lower incisors.

Canine (Bridal): used for fighting between males. Many mares don’t have canine teeth.

Wolf: like humans, these teeth don’t serve a purpose, and sometimes veterinarians need to extract them to prevent issues.

Premolars and Molars: grind up food to aid digestion. Horses have a total of 24 premolars and molars.

5. Horses Can Have a Range of Dental Issues

If you wait until you have a senior horse to start tending to their teeth, you’re setting your horse up to have many potential health issues during their life.

That said, older horses have an increased risk of suffering from dental problems since their tooth structure begins to deteriorate. Furthermore, young horses under 5 years old need more attentive dental care since their teeth change so quickly.

Regular dental care is a must for your horse, regardless of their age. However, if your horse is under 5 or older than 20, they made need multiple dental care visits per year. Be proactive with these dental visits, don’t wait until your horse is showing signs of tooth or gum soreness.

Symptoms of Horse Teeth Problems

If your horse is suffering from a dental problem, they often display several signs that you should keep an eye out for:

  • Lack of interest in eating
  • Weight loss
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Quidding (when they drop food as they eat)
  • Opening their mouth wide when chewing or displaying other signs of having difficulty while eating
  • Nasal discharge from only one side of their nose
  • Tilting their head, especially when you ride them

Types of Dental Conditions in Horses

Horse health isn’t straightforward, so you should call your vet if you suspect your horse has an issue with their teeth. However, to help you prepare for the types of dental problems your veterinarian may diagnose your horse with, here are some of the most common issues.

Shear Mouth: A condition that produces extra sharp teeth because there’s a greater than normal width difference between the horse’s upper and lower jaws. Senior horses have a higher chance of having this problem.

Step Mouth: Horses with step mouth have molars that look like a staircase because they differ in height. This often happens when they lose a tooth on the opposite side of their mouth, causing an uneven grind when they eat.

Wave Mouth: Yet another form of uneven wear in horses. In some cases, the teeth may wear down to the gum, opening the possibility for a bone infection.

Smooth Mouth: Occurs when the tooth’s denture doesn’t wear as quickly as its enamel. As a result, it creates a smooth surface on the molars, making it more difficult for your horse to break food up into smaller pieces. This occurs primarily in younger horses.

Making Horse Dental Care a Priority

Don’t be shy to ask your veterinarian questions about your horse’s teeth. It’s likely your veterinarian has advice on how to best monitor your horse’s teeth and gum health.

As you know, a sore tooth or mouth can be all-consuming and cause you to feel terrible. The same holds true for your horse. Keep any eye on your horse’s teeth and remember the signs and symptoms of dental problems.

A healthy horse is a happy horse! Thank you for taking such great care of your horse.

by Nick Hartog

In 1994, Nick Hartog became an owner and President of Grand Meadows Equine Supplements bringing his talents and extensive background in domestic and international equine sales and manufacturing. He has a reputation for plain speaking of the truth. In 1997, when the US horse supplement market was something akin to the Wild West with a complete lack of standards, Nick personally tested 32 different horse joint supplements to see if they matched the label. Unsurprisingly, to him at least, only 2 products matched the label claim. Read more...