Copyright. Ginger Langan. All rights reserved.

If you are curious to learn more about equine dentistry and the various dental stages of the horse, you may contact us with any questions, or visit the following links:

Equine Dentals: You can trust Dr. Langan with this important aspect of your horse's health.

Risks of Non-Veterinary Dentals

Many people in the horse world still use equine dentists who are not licensed veterinarians. This can be dangerous, and is less effective than a veterinary dental procedure. Horses often come to us with many oral problems to fix that have resulted from year of dentistry done without proper sedation.

The electric tools used are powerful, and can be damaging in the wrong hands. These need to be controlled by someone with the proper education and experience.

While sedatives are very safe, again, they may be dangerous in the wrong hands. Only trust a professional with years of education on how to administer a proper dose.

Dentals are unsafe without sedation. Plus, lack of sedation provides less opportunity to examine the teeth and make sure a proper job is done.

What does a dental involve?

First off, the veterinary or technician will get a detailed history from you. This is especially important if this is their first time seeing your horse. This is not only to determine what may need to be involved in the dental, but also to make sure your horse is healthy enough for the process, and check if there are any other potential issues that should be investigated.

After taking the history, next comes the sedation. All veterinary dentals should be performed under sedation. It is impossible and potentially unsafe to do a proper job without this. Your horse's approximate weight will be checked with a weight tape, and then a dose for sedation will be calculated, then administered intravenously. (To prepare a young horse for this is is a good idea to get them used to being touched in that area of their neck. You can pinch or flick lightly and make sure they can remain calm). The sedation acts quick, so be ready!

Once the horse is sedated enough, their head is generally secured in some way. If you bring your horse into the clinic, they can be held in the stocks. On the farm, they might be tied with a quick release, supported by a specially designed head support, or sometimes held by an assistant, and you will need a nice, flat surface. Whatever the mechanism, it is important to keep an eye on their balance. Horses use their head and neck as a counter-balance and may need the freedom to use that while sedated.

With the head secured, a speculum is used to open the horses mouth, which is then flushed with water/antiseptic solution to help keep everything clean. This also allows good visibility for the vet to assess the mouth, and find out what they need to work on. The then process can begin. Dentals (or floats) nowadays are usually done with an electric tool, rather than the handheld rasp that used to be common. However the rasp can still be useful for small adjustments. Any sharp points are filed down, and sometimes there will also be an adjustment of the incisors if they are not properly aligned. During the process the veterinarian and any assistants will be keeping an eye on how the horse is doing, sometimes additional sedation needs to be administered, especially if there is a lot that needs to be done in the mouth.

Afterwards you will need to be able to stay with your horse for 15-30 minutes, just until they come out of the sedation enough that they can be left alone.

Horses have lived in the wild for centuries; why are dentals needed for domestic horses?

The lifestyle of the domestic horse is very different from that of their wild ancestors. The pasture life includes less grazing, more supplementing with hay and grain, not to mention that domestic horses have, on average, longer life spans thanks to this cushy lifestyle.

Furthermore, wild horses are also not asked to do the things that we expect from our riding companions. They do not have to carry a rider, or a bit, or balance themselves in a certain frame in order to achieve fantastic maneuvers for show or sport.

The way horses graze and chew naturally wears the teeth and prevents sharp points and hooks. The domestic lifestyle can alter this process enough to require veterinary intervention in order to keep our horses happy and sound!

Dental stages in horses, and when you should expect a dental

Horses have up to four different types of teeth - incisors, canine, wolf, cheek. Incisors are the ones in the front that are used to grab and tear the grass. There are six upper (maxillary), and six lower (mandible). Canine teeth are mostly in found in males, historically used for fighting. Some mares develop these too, but they tend to be much smaller. The wolf teeth erupt close to where the bit would sit and horses can have up to eight of them that may need to be removed. It is thought that wolf teeth are an evolutionary "left over" from ancient horses, as they appear to serve no useful purpose in the horse today. The cheek are like the powerhouse of the mouth! They do the grinding of all the forage, and act as four (one in each quadrant)  large, flat surfaces for effective grinding of food. There are 24 of these teeth in total - six upper and six lower on each side.

The first teeth (deciduous or "baby" teeth) appear around 2 weeks after birth. Wolf teeth are next and start to appear at about 6 months of age, although not all horses develop wolf teeth. Wolf teeth can have an impact on the horse's comfort while carrying a bit, so they should be removed early on. The first permanent molars appear in yearlings, and permanent incisors appear in 2 year olds.  From about 2.5 to 4.5 years of age, the premolars shed their caps - ie the remains of their baby teeth. Canines are pointed teeth that only appear in male horses. Historically, these were likely helpful for the males in fights in the wild. The canines appear at about 4 or 5 years of age.

Foals can be checked over for abnormalities, but first real dental should be between 18 months and 2 years of age. At the first dental, you should check for wolf teeth, and definitely do this before training with a bit. Horses between 2 to 5 years may need more frequent dentals than their older herd members. Young horses can develop sharp points quickly which can negatively affect the beginning of training. Horses shed premolar caps and grow 36 adult teeth all before the age of five! With this fast-developing and changing mouth, young horses may need to be checked more frequently. After five, it is a good idea to do annual checks. Having an annual check does not necessarily mean a float is needed! But it is a good idea to let a vet have a look and make recommendations.

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Many horse owners are conditioned early on in their equine education to think about dental when their horse is dropping food, an indication that they are having trouble chewing.

While this is important to notice, the horse's mouth can affect much more than that.

​Problems that can occur related to oral health:

  • Weight Loss: This may be the most obvious one. Especially if you have an older horse, or just a hard-keeper; make sure your horse's mouth is in order to give them the best chance of absorbing the food they eat.
  • Training difficulties: Many behavioural problems can arise from a bad mouth. This can include discomfort with the bit, making it more difficult to turn in one direction vs the other. The important point to remember is that sharp points on the teeth can cause pain and any time a horse is in pain they may act out in problematic or even dangerous ways including bucking and rearing.
  • Alignment problems: A horse with a part of their mouth that is bothering them might carry themselves in a different way to try and minimize the pain. This can lead to one-sided stiffness or muscle/skeletal alignment problems which may require an adjustment from the chiropractor.