Michelle Fox, DVM

Serving Phoenix, the Verde Valley and Northern Arizona. 
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Equine Teeth-Why Balance is Important

Horses teeth erupt continuously throughout their lives. At the same time they are constantly being worn down as they chew. The chewing surface of the tooth is naturally rough because it is composed of three substances of varying hardness. The hardest of these substances is enamel. It tends to form sharp points on the sides of the horses teeth. Horses are designed to nip off grass with the front incisors and then grind it with the molars as it travels towards the back of the mouth to be swallowed. The lower jaw (mandible) moves in a roughly circular motion as it grinds. The size and shape of the teeth affect how efficiently this grinding occurs. If sharp points, abnormally tall, ramped or hooked teeth are present it can “lock up” the jaw and inhibit normal grinding and wear.

A small tooth imbalance can lead to a major abnormality over time if not corrected early. This leads to difficulty chewing feed, damage to oral soft tissues, excessive pressure on teeth, discomfort when wearing bits, bridles or hackamores and/or pain in the temporomandibular (TMJ) joints. Problems can progress to cause weight loss, abscessed teeth, and even impaction colics from poorly chewed feed.

         So what causes these “minor imbalances” in the first place, and how do wild horses live without ever having their teeth floated? Genetics plays a part. In general, we have bred horses to have smaller more refined heads, with delicate tapered muzzles. While more aesthetically pleasing, this change in the shape of the skull may partially explain why domestic horses have so many dental problems. Also, when you look closely you will see that very few horses (or humans for that matter) have a perfectly symmetrical face. This is usually just normal variation, but asymmetry can also be a result of past trauma or disease.  A horse with a less symmetrical head may tend towards more dental imbalances. Asymmetry can also be a sign of tooth problems rather than a cause. If a horse can only chew on one side of it’s mouth, the external musculature may reflect that fact by being overdeveloped on one side and atrophied on the other.

The way horses are fed also affects their teeth. Horses eating hay or processed feed often develop incisors that are long, relative to their molars. This is because the incisors are not being worn down as they would if they were grazing and nipping off grass with their front teeth. When horses chew pellets or grain, the mandible tends to have a more “up and down” chomping action verses the circular grinding movement when they graze. Even the height of the feeders can affect tooth wear. When a horse raises its head to eat from an elevated feeder the mandible slides backwards relative to the upper jaw just a bit. This promotes the formation of hooks and ramps.  

                                                 LARGE HOOK

                                    AFTER REDUCTION (often performed in stages)


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