The gift horse Part I

...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.

You know the old saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” and you also know to beware of the man selling a horse who says, “He’s twelve.” That’s because if you do look into the horse’s mouth, you will be disappointed.

We will discuss the horse’s teeth in a series, starting from birth to 20+ years of age.

Horses are like people, they have baby teeth that fall out as the animal matures. There are 24 temporary, or deciduous teeth, and 40 to 42 permanent teeth. Stallions have an extra 2 teeth, known as canines, and this causes the variation in numbers, as these are not present in mares. (1)

The enamel is a hard material that covers the crown, or top surface of the tooth, and it is immune to acid and bacteria. Under the enamel lays the dentin, comprised of a softer material. Beneath the dentin lays the lays the center of the tooth, comprised of pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels. T

ooth decay occurs very rapidly if the tooth gets cracked to the degree that the pulp gets damaged, and the root itself can die. (2)

A type of physical matter called cementum covers the root of each tooth, and its purpose is to attach the tooth to the periodontal membrane. This keeps it secured in the bony tooth socket.

The periodontal membrane and socket meet at the tooth’s weakest point, and here the tooth is the most vulnerable to tooth decay and periodontal disease. (3)

The horse’s face, jaw and teeth are very long. Teeth can be imbedded up to 4 inches within the bone of the jaws. The horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its lifetime; they never quit growing, and tooth care and filing are part of an owner’s responsibility.

As the teeth erupt from the jawline, the grindings of the horse’s jaws as it eats helps to wear them down. As the tooth erupts, it is shaped and ground by its opposing tooth. (4)

The structure and design of the horse’s intestinal tract requires that the animal thoroughly grind and chew all food, such as grain and hay, by the premolars and molars, before the animal swallows it.

Failure to grind properly or swallowing large chunks of food, such as apples or corn cobs, can result in “choke” or intestinal blockage further down the line. It also does not give the animal the full nutritional benefit of food items, and the animal will lose weight.

When the horse chews its food, the jaw works both side to side and up and down.

The “incisive arcade,” or dental arcade of horse teeth do not line up exactly they way they do in human beings.

In a horse, the arcade of the upper jaw overlaps the arcade of the lower jaw by approximately 30 degrees. As the horse grinds its food, the circular motion creates an effect that acts in conjunction with the overlapping physical structure, to make for uneven wear of the teeth. (5)

“Points” develop on the cheek side of the teeth on the upper jaw and on the tongue side of the lower jaw.

Good horsemen always feel for points by sliding fingers along the spaces between the teeth and cheeks, while feeling for points on the molars and premolars of the upper arcade.

Grabbing the horse’s tongue and pulling it out and to the side can facilitate checking all areas, but be careful. Fingers can get caught accidentaly as the horse tries to regain its tongue.

These points on the teeth will eventually interfere with eating and chewing. As the horse masticates its food, the points are an irritant, rubbing the mouth tissues, creating sores and causing food to coagulate in clumps.

Veterinarians and equine dentists can help to remove these points by regular filing with a long-handled rasp. This is tricky, and should be limited to the points only, not the enamel and top (table) of the grinding surface of the tooth.

The proper name for filing horse teeth is called “floating,” and it is never cheap. Careful study of equine dentistry should be a requirement.

Vets are now sedating horses to float their teeth, and using Dremmel tools to do the job. This lets the horse relax and there is less physical effort, since the Dremmel is an electric or battery-operated tool.

The choice in options is up to the horse owner. The owner should carefully screen any so-called “equine dentist,” as problems can occur with the horse’s mastication or grinding process if the filing is not done properly.

“Quidding,” or lumps of feed can occur with improper grinding, as the horse drops or spits out lumps of food that has been shifted around in its mouth from one side to the other. This is a sign of painful chewing and should be addressed immediately.

Having a Veterinarian use a speculum to look in to the horse’s mouth is an excellent idea, as they are trained in tooth abnormalities or abnormal wearing patterns.

“Wave, Step, and Smooth Mouth,” will be discussed at a later time, along with “Parrot, Sow, and Shear Mouth,” abnormalities.

Be selective in who is floating your horse’s teeth. Bitting problems can also occur when riding and driving, if the horse is in pain due to chewing or sores.

More next time.

Leaving you with thoughts of lovely Spring to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”

1-5: “Horse Owner’s Veterinary Handbook,” by James M Giffin, MD and Tom Gore, DVM