Establishing a good relationship with an experienced and knowledgeable equine dentist, whether it is your routine vet or a more specialized dentist, is a very important piece of routine care for every equine. Yearly dental check ups will ensure that your horses teeth and mouth are in good shape, preventing discomfort that can be caused by sharp teeth that form from their constant chewing. When left untreated, a horse with sharp teeth can continuously cut the insides of their mouth – you can just imagine how uncomfortable this would be! This usually results in not only issues in working with a bit in their mouth, but can lead a horse to have difficulty chewing and swallowing, developing an infection, and possibly stop eating all together if it is causing them enough pain. In extreme cases, horses have been found to starve themselves because the pain of eating is too much to handle. This is why routine dental care for your horse, donkey, or mule is so important!
What does an equine dentist do?
Your dentist will check the status of their mouth and teeth and may be able to give you some insight into your horse, if recently purchased, like their age and an estimate on when the last time their teeth have been done. They will also be able to tell you if your horse is missing any teeth, if there is any abnormal wear, and how the overall structure of their teeth fairs. This will be good to know going forward in the way you might care for them.
If required, your dentist will perform a float. “Floating teeth” is the term used to describe the filing down of sharp edges or hooks that may run on the inside of your horses mouth and cause them discomfort. Special rasps, called floats, are used to do this. There are different shapes and sizes of floats used for reaching different teeth in the mouth.
Your dentist may also use a speculum to hold their mouth open while they preform the float. This looks like a head stall with a metal device (where the bit would go) that is inserted into the mouth and cranked open to hold their mouth open so that the dentist can get their hand and tools in there without the horse clamping down on them. It does not cause the horse any pain, and generally they are very receptive to the speculum with some patience.
Your dentist may even take x-rays to get a better view of what is going on inside of their mouth! Above is a photo of Zorro getting his x-rays taken during a dental exam.
Does my horse need to be sedated for a float?
Depending on your dentist and your horse, your horse may require some sedation for the procedure. Some dentists always sedate, some sedate certain horses, and some never do. Generally a float can be done without any sedation, but it is always up to the discretion of the dentist and the owner on what the best practice would be. If you do not wish to have your horse sedated, you can always shop around to find a dentist willing to do it without any.
Last year, one of my geldings started becoming a bit fussy for his floating. The dentist I was using at the time wanted to sedate him, but I was not ready to jump to that. I spoke with another dentist who never sedates, and he was able to get him done without any sedation or really any protesting either with a bit more patience. He even pulled my stallions wolf teeth with no sedation! It was done in a few minutes and Jasper had barley noticed.
Of course, some horses who have had a bad experience in the past might just need something to take off the edge. Always speak with your dentist and/or veterinarian, and listen to your horse, to help you make this decision.
When should I have my equine dentist out for a visit?
If you are starting a young horse to drive, you will want to have the dentist start checking their teeth early on. Some dentists will recommend a light rasp if their teeth are becoming sharp, and some may not recommend a full on float until you are ready to start bitting them. A general rule of thumb for the average horse is to have their teeth floated once a year, however, younger horses and older horses will require more frequent routine care and should be checked every 6 months.
If you have purchased a new horse, I would recommend having your dentist do a check up asap. This way they can determine if the horse needs a float, or estimate when to come back out to float. They will also be able to tell you if their mouth structure is good, if they are missing any teeth, or if there are any other concerns, and of course answer all of your questions.
You should have your dentist out right away if you notice your horse is having any issues eating, especially if accompanied by weight loss. This might look like:
- Dropping a lot of food
- Chewing on one side of their mouth
- Having bad breath
- Are noticeably swollen in the cheeks
- Are reluctant to eat
Another indicator that they may need their teeth checked is constant runny or swollen eyes. Some horses will also show you in their own way. I used to know a mare who would always tell us it was time for the dentist to come out by chewing on wood.
You may want to think about calling out the dentist if your horse is having trouble relaxing with their bit or all of the sudden become bothered by it’s presence. It is also a good idea to talk with your dentist about the shape of your horses mouth and structures inside to learn more about how you can choose the most comfortable bit for your horse.
It is always recommended to talk with your vet and/or dentist to get their recommendations for your horse depending on their individual needs. Be sure to give them a call before bitting your horse for the first time, or if you are having any of the issues mentioned above.