This is a guest post written by my good friend Trisha Wren from Equine Energetics.
If you don’t have a horse, or haven’t spent much time around them, you may not have given much thought to their teeth and how they differ from human teeth.
There’s the obvious of course – they are much bigger (which I’ll come back to later)! And, horses are herbivores, not carnivores, which also changes things up. Since they don’t have opposable thumbs they also use their teeth for things that humans don’t, like grooming each other or attacking each predators.
How horse teeth are different from human teeth
Where humans have a maximum of 32 teeth, horses can have up to 42. They have more incisors (12) – required for grazing, and nibbling – and more molars (24). They can also (depending on sex) have canines and wolf teeth.
Unlike humans, horses also have a large gap (the interdental space), top and bottom, between their incisors and molars. Conveniently for riders, the interdental space is where the bit sits. (If you’re curious to find out what horses think about wearing a bit, you might be interested in this survey)
The only real similarity with human teeth is that horses also have two sets of teeth in their lifetime. From two weeks old until they’re about five years old, they’ll have 24 baby teeth. They have all their permanent/adult teeth by five years old.
Here’s the really different (and slightly freaky) thing that makes horse teeth so different from human teeth.
The adult teeth are 4-5 inches long – but most of that length is hidden away in the jaw. The teeth grow downwards as the horse ages (and hopefully not slower than they’re getting worn away). Because, unlike us, they are herbivores, those teeth are constantly getting worn down.
The incisors get worn down from the cutting part of grazing, as the horse snips the vegetation they’re interested in, and more so if the horse is grazing very short grass.
The molars grind against each other in a sideways motion, across the top and bottom jaws, to process the grass/food before swallowing.
What happens to horse teeth as they age?
Because of this wear and tear, horse teeth have a finite lifespan.
The older a horse gets, the more likely that teeth will start to fall out usually from their late twenties onwards, bearing in mind that horses can live into their forties.
When this happens to domestic horses it means feeding them soft sloppy feed so they don’t need to chew, but for wild horses it can be a death sentence.
Here’s my horse Sioux. The first photo is of her front teeth in 2012 when she was 22, the second was taken in 2020, just before she turned 29 years old.
When does your horse need an equine dentist?
The fact that horses’ teeth grind against each other and wear down can cause problems.
The type of wear can be dependent on exactly what the horse is eating; for instance, wear patterns from a grass diet are different from a horse that is fed only grain.
Problems can also occur if either the hyoid or the temporomandibular joint are out of balance or tight, affecting how the horse uses his jaw and therefore how he chews.
A common problem is when sharp edges can develop on the outside edges of the upper molars. This is at least partly because the upper jaw is slightly wider than the lower.
Horse teeth can also have similar issues to human teeth, such as impactions, damage leading to infection, or hereditary issues like having a parrot (overshot) mouth.
Horse can get cavities, although much less frequently than humans.
Whilst they don’t brush or floss their teeth, most horses aren’t eating same the volume of sugary treats that humans do. However, many pre-made horse feeds do have a high sugar content, to make them more palatable.
If a horse does get a cavity, the grinding motion of their eating pattern will likely either even things out or cause a piece of tooth to break off, so there is no need to drill and fill the cavity.
The most common result of a cavity for a horse is that food will get stuck in it. If that food stays there, ie their eating motion doesn’t dislodge it, it may start to decay and can lead to infection.
Owners can recognise when there are issues with their horse’s teeth if any of the following happens:
- He starts getting fussy about his feed
- He’s dropping feed out of his mouth
- He is ‘quidding’ (you’ll see little ‘balls’ of feed falling out of the mouth)
- He doesn’t want to be bridled
- He is responding differently to bit contact
- He is head shy (not wanting his face or head to be touched).
What does an Equine Dentist do
For their comfort and good health, and so that we can bridle and ride them, domestic horses need the attentions of an equine dentist every 6-12 months.
Most dentists will shine a torch in the horse’s mouth while the gag is on holding the mouth open – see the photo above – as well as feeling with their fingers for irregularities. And, in the instance of infection, smell can play a part!
The horse dentist uses a large rasp to smooth or float any sharp edges or imbalances.
Natural remedies that help with horses’ teeth
Seaweed is a good natural supplement for supporting horses teeth as it
“contains generous levels of vitamins including A, B1, C, D and E. It is also rich in minerals calcium, potassium, zinc, iodine, magnesium, iron and copper as well as amino acids and trace elements. It contains high levels of calcium to help promote promote healthy skin, strong bones and teeth” Hilton Herbs
(Note that in here in New Zealand only tiny amounts of seaweed are advised due to the high iodine content.)
Another helpful supplement for equine oral health is Limestone powder which is high in calcium, especially for young/growing animals.
For older horses, increased difficulty in chewing (because of wobbly or fewer teeth for instance) leads to decreased stomach acid production, so a good probiotic can be beneficial to support their overall health.
For nutritional advice for your horse, visit Dale Logan
Has a dentist told you that your cavities or receding gums are your fault because you are drinking too much Coke, you don’t floss enough or you need to stop breastfeeding your baby? And you know that isn’t true!
I’m not going to blame you or shame you.
The underlying causes of your oral health issues are not your fault!
Nature or nurture, ancestry or environment, free will or systemic oppression, unconscious emotions or the degraded food system
These are the factors that make your teeth and gums vulnerable to disease.
Even though your tooth decay and gum disease is not your fault, it is within your power to change.
You can turn your oral health around with natural strategies and healthy habits.