Looking at the size of a horse’s tooth, I imagine that the reward would be much greater than the quarter I used to receive as a child for my tiny teeth… and here’s the story of how I came to realize just how large a horse’s tooth is.
Almost 13 years ago on a cold winter’s day I received a call from my friend, Mary, saying she’d heard from a former riding student who told her of a nice little Morgan mare that was looking for a good home. The mare was Vermont-bred, but after having had a difficult foaling, was no longer being used as a brood mare, and was primarily a pleasure horse and subsequently used for handicapped riders at Pony Power (Three Sisters Farm) in Mahwah, NJ, where she was presently stabled. We were told that she was about 16 years of age, 14-15 hands high, sturdy, and a good trail horse.
We went to check her out and found that she was a registered Morgan, although she was not 16 but rather 21, and was barely 14.1 hands with shoes! But there was something special about Sabrina, and I was happy to arrange to have her brought to our farm.
As Sabrina aged, I took care to have her teeth checked by our equine dentist twice a year, especially heading into the colder months, when her main source of energy is supplied by hay and other dried forms of roughage (alfalfa pellets), and the ability to chew properly is of utmost importance. (If your elder horse has a loose tooth or sharp edges where the teeth aren’t ground down evenly, this can cause pain in the mouth, and the horse will not be able to chew its food. As a result, your horse may ‘bolt’ down the food — which could result in the horse choking or colicking, or at the very least prevent the nutrition from that food from entering the digestive system and blood stream, resulting in a loss of weight and condition.)
Over the past two years during the spring and fall visits, our equine dentist told me that Sabrina had a tooth that was loosening, not loose enough to pull, but he could feel that the tooth was being “pushed over” into a more comfortable position by Sabrina, and she would pack her feed and hay alongside that tooth. This resulted in, at times, a pleasant slightly fermented odor coming from her mouth, and she continued to eat her food without any problem. However, he warned, when she has difficultly eating or if I noticed a change in the odor, it was time to have the tooth removed.
The time came earlier this month. One morning I noticed that Sabrina had hardly eaten her food as I went to groom her. I was immediately concerned, as she is thin and can’t afford to miss many meals, especially heading into winter. I put my ear near her flank to listen for gut noises but couldn’t hear many, and thought she might be mildly colicky. I proceeded to gently massage her stomach and sides by circular movements with a soft rubber curry and brushed her for a long time, which I’ve noticed always seems to relax her. She seemed to enjoy the grooming, and after a while walked out of the stall and raised her tail and dropped some manure — a good sign that she was not colicking. I went to open her mouth and check her teeth and noticed a strong odor coming from her mouth — much stronger than the fermented smell I was used to. It was then that I realized it must be her loose tooth that was causing the problem.
I called our equine dentist, Terry Finch, and left a message. He returned the call and said he’d come over the next morning; I was very relieved he would come so quickly, as Sabrina didn’t finish her evening food either.
Terry came as promised and looked in Sabrina’s mouth. He used an equine dental speculum to keep her mouth open so he could work. As he ‘floated’ her premolars and molars he noted that sure enough, the tooth that had been loose for the past two years was getting ready to come out, was quite wobbly, and he also smelled an odor coming from it. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but as Sabrina calmly stood in the aisle of the barn, he placed the long-handled dental tooth extracting forceps in her mouth, gently gave a tap, and all of a sudden a quick pull up and out came the tooth! There was no blood, as the tooth was dead and it came out very easily. Terry showed me the tooth, which was huge and had a very straight ‘worn’ spot on one side where Sabrina had been “pushing it over” for the past 2 years into a more comfortable position. There was only one of the four root “points” left on the bottom of the tooth that served to hold the tooth in Sabrina’s mouth, and it was exactly the right time to extract it.
Fortunately it was a very easy process. Terry suggested I flush Sabrina’s mouth out with warm salt water after she had finished eating for a couple of days to make sure no food gets caught in the newly open area. Sabrina immediately started to eat her food, and seemed very comfortable now that the offending tooth had been removed. I flushed her mouth as Terry suggested for the next couple of days, and continued to monitor her eating and habits; and was relieved that there have been no resulting problems.
By the time a horse reaches the age of about five years, all the teeth have erupted and are “in wear.” But depending on the horse’s main diet, the teeth will wear at different rates. A horse grazing in a pasture will have a faster rate of wear, as grass and grit grind down teeth faster than hay pulled from a net or manger. Pelleted feed will wear down the teeth even less, which is why many horses of advanced age are given a diet of pelleted feed, to preserve the teeth they have left — or to provide nutrition when those teeth are gone. A pelleted ration is made of grains and roughage that are ground up in the process of manufacturing, and then formulated into pellets — in essence, the grinding of the grains and roughage that the horse would normally do with his own teeth has already been done for him.
Of all large domestic and farm animals, the horse is most affected by problems with the teeth. Unlike those of any other large animal, horses’ teeth are more like the teeth of a rodent, which are designed to continue to grow and wear away over the course of their lives. Horses that tend to be cribbers and wood chewers will wear their teeth abnormally; and a horse with an underbite or an overbite may experience uneven wear on the teeth that can become a problem. But many horses without these conditions may also wear their teeth unevenly. The types of forage and soil in your pasture as well as different feeds will influence wear, and a horse with dental irregularities that go untended will have major problems as time goes on.
If a horse wears its teeth down irregularly, the teeth along the cheek may become so unevenly worn that they will form a sharp ridge that can actually cut into the sides of the cheek or tongue. To avoid that painful area in chewing, the horse may bolt down its feed, resulting in indigestion or colic.
Take care to observe your horse’s eating habits, and watch for signs that may indicate a problem with chewing. If you notice whole grains passing through in the manure, you should be concerned that the horse is not chewing its feed properly, which can result in a lack of proper nutrition. Another sign to watch for when your horse is eating is the presence of cigar-shaped wads of partially chewed grass or hay that drops from the mouth. These are called “quids” (like a quid of tobacco) and the process is referred to as “quidding”; and is evidence that there is a sore cheek or tongue or a tooth problem that needs to be examined. In addition to eating disorders, a horse that is reluctant to take a bit or shakes its head when being ridden may also have a tooth problem. If you notice any of these symptoms in your horse, contact your veterinarian or an equine dentist, before the problem worsens.
It’s wise to have your horse’s teeth checked at least once a year — and for elder horses, twice a year, spring and fall. In the meantime, watch your horse, be aware of any unusual symptoms, and follow your equine dentist or veterinarian’s recommendations. A horse owner with a good awareness of his horse’s health and keen powers of observation, coupled with regular dental exams will provide an excellent regimen for keeping the horse healthy and in the best of shape.