Over the last decade advancements in equine dentistry started to occur and have revolutionized the way we perform dental procedures in horses. With these advancements, we have come to realize how these procedures have helped the overall performance of the horse. When we ride the horse, we use their mouth and head to guide and direct them. If their mouth is uncomfortable due to dental abnormalities their eventual performance can suffer. When careful consideration is given to the normal parameters and function of the mouth, and by using advanced dental techniques, we can enhance the expected performance of a given horse.
The horse as a species needs to have frequent dental examinations and corrections. This is partly due to their teeth continually erupting throughout their life and the disparity of the width between the mandible and maxilla, this results in sharp enamel points on the inside of the lower teeth and the outside of the upper teeth to develop. It’s also partly due to our need to control the horse with either bits inside their mouth or a hackamore on the head. Bits and hackamores can apply pressure on cheeks and lips and press these soft tissues into the sharp points of the teeth. One other factor is the type of feed that we give our horses. Studies have shown that horses on continual pasture chew and use their mouths in a more natural manner than those fed hay and grain. Feeding hay and grain can cause the sharp enamel points on the arcades to become more severe than those continually on pasture.
Performance dentistry is based on identifying the abnormalities of the mouth and teeth and correcting these abnormalities to restore normal form and function. Careful examination begins with the horse from a distance. Body condition is assessed and scored, head position is considered, and the lips and mouth position are examined. The horse is then sedated and the external head is examined for abnormalities. The muscles that control mastication are palpated along with the temporal mandibular joint. Next the mandible (lower jaw) is moved from side to side and from front to back to assess the degree of movement. Then the incisors are examined for even contact and for the normal resting position of the teeth.
The interior of the mouth is examined next. To facilitate the exam, a mouth speculum is applied and the mouth opened. Presence of wolf teeth, sharp enamel points on the premolars and molars, and cheek lacerations are noted on exam. Wolf teeth are undeveloped remnants of the 1st premolar that serve no physiological function and removal is recommended. Both lower arcades (rows of teeth) are examined for the amount of angle when viewed from the front tooth to the back tooth. Due to the asymmetry of the widths of both the maxilla (upper jaw) and mandible, for normal molar and premolar occlusion the arcades need to be angled from 10-15 degrees. Usually these angles are much less than required and need to be corrected for proper function. All arcades are also examined for excessive transverse ridges on the teeth. Transverse ridges are normal undulations to the teeth to facilitate the grinding of forages. Excessive transverse ridging can lead to abnormalities of the teeth on the opposite arcades.
Corrections of any abnormalities are completed with hand tools with sharp carbide steel blades. This entails the reduction of all sharp edges on the molars and premolars, reduction and alignment of incisors, the correction of abnormal angles on the arcades, and the reduction of excessive transverse ridging. The correction of large abnormalities should be done over a 6-12 month period of time with multiple sessions to avoid damaging the tooth or teeth concerned. It should be noted that although it may seem ideal to use power tools and equipment to correct the dental abnormalities, in my opinion, it is not needed and in fact unhealthy for horses and their teeth. Recent scientific papers have outlined the damage that can occur when power equipment is used in equine dentistry. This damage ranges from lacerated cheeks from rotating grinding wheels, thermal damage of teeth from overheating the teeth, to complete malocclusion from over-aggressive grinding of the teeth. Thermal damage of the tooth can lead to the loss of teeth, but it can take several years for the loss to occur.
No matter what your riding discipline is, you expect the best performance your horse can give you. By correcting dental abnormalities and restoring the normal function of the mouth, we can enhance the natural performance of the horse.