5 Tips for Maintaining a Horse’s Teeth

If you’ve been around horses for long enough, you’ve likely heard the word “float” used at some point in regard to equine dental work. The word, which derives from the masonry act of smoothing a surface, is a layman’s term for the process of removing sharp enamel points from a horse’s teeth. But why is floating such an important part of horse care, and how often is it needed?

Quarter Horse News asked Dr. Megan Petty, resident farm veterinarian at La Feliz Montana Ranch in Hondo, New Mexico, for some tips about the process.

Beware the Signs

The way a horse’s mouth is made — the upper jaw sits wider than the lower jaw — and the way horses eat dictate the need for regular dental work, Petty explained. Horses were designed to graze all day in a grinding motion that wears their teeth down, so the teeth grow constantly to compensate.

These days, most horses live in smaller paddocks or stalls, and they generally eat diets composed of grain and hay. Their teeth continue to erupt, but without the repetitive griding action that comes from grazing for hours, they can develop jagged hooks, points and ramps.

“Because they don’t constantly chew as a horse would out in the wild, eating whatever it can find to forage on, they get sharp points on the outer edges of the upper cheek teeth and the inside edges of the lower cheek teeth along their tongue,” Petty said. “If you’ve ever had the opportunity to stick your hand in a horse’s mouth that needs a dental, it’s like feeling a mouth full of razor blades.”

This can cause pain in the horse’s mouth, leading to dropped feed, weight loss and behavior issues like bridling resistance, head tossing and acting up under saddle.

Start Early

Deciduous and permanent incisors in the same mouth.

Horses are born with some teeth, but more continue to erupt with age. By the time they reach about nine months, they should have their full set of baby teeth. Wolf teeth emerge at five to six months, and the first molars start erupting around nine to 12 months. At two-and-a-half years of age, adult incisors and premolars begin to replace baby teeth, and by age 5, most horses should have all of their permanent teeth.

Some people wait until the horse is 5 to have a veterinarian look at its mouth, but this isn’t always wise, Petty said. Even though they’re going to lose them, baby teeth can develop sharp points, and that can make bridling up a young horse for the first time an unpleasant experience.

“In my practice on a farm, before we ever bridle a horse up, we address their teeth typically late in their yearling year,” Petty said. “That way, we eliminate any excuses from their mouth so they don’t learn to anticipate that their mouth is going to hurt when we’re teaching them something for the very first time.”

Watch for Caps and Wolf Teeth

After the initial float in the horse’s yearling year, a veterinarian should examine the horse’s mouth every six months until the horse’s adult teeth have grown in. This is because horses lose their caps, or baby teeth, throughout this time period. If a cap loosens but doesn’t come off completely, it can cause problems for the horse in the long run.

“It’s like a little kid poking at a loose tooth with their tongue because it feels weird, but in a horse’s case, they’re packing feed material up under it, and it can cause a lot of local inflammation and irritation,” Petty said. “We want to check the horse and see if there are any caps that are loose and haven’t shed yet.”

Cap on 2nd pre-molar with hay packed underneath.

Performing floats every six months also allows you to watch for the horse’s wolf teeth to erupt. These small, vestigial teeth are the first premolars in the horse’s mouth. “Blind,” or unerupted, wolf teeth will often cause issues because they tend to be in a position that can interfere with the bit, causing discomfort.

“More often than not, you’re only going to have upper wolf teeth, but you can certainly see lower wolf teeth,” Petty said. “People always think wolf teeth are going to be more associated with colts, but I think I pull more wolf teeth on fillies than I do anything else. Sex doesn’t matter; you still have to check for them.”

Perform Yearly Exams

Once a horse has acquired all of its adult teeth, the frequency of floats can decrease, depending on the horse’s environment and lifestyle. The general rule is to have a dental exam done every year. Not every horse will need its teeth floated that frequently, but the exam can find a host of other issues in the mouth — soft tissue injuries, cracked teeth, embedded foxtails in the gums, etc.

“A lot of people will do it when they get their annual vaccines,” Petty said. “The anatomy of every horse is going to be a little bit different. You have some horses that have an overbite or underbite, or maybe they had an injury at some point to a tooth and now that adult tooth has grown in kind of funny. You find those things out if you have a regular exam schedule.

“If they never have anything wrong with their teeth other than needing to be floated, you can check them once a year, and they may or may not even need to be done,” Petty added. “Then, we can just see them again the next year or if a problem arises in the meantime.”

Give Seniors Extra Care

Around the age of 15, a horse’s mouth starts to change again. At this stage of life, the horse runs out of tooth to erupt and begins to gradually wear down its crowns, starting with its oldest adult teeth. This results in what veterinarians call “wave mouth.” The teeth become shallower and more fragile in the order they erupted, and they may begin to fracture or fall out.

Fractured/missing incisor

If a tooth falls out, the opposing tooth on the opposite jaw will no longer has anything to grind against, and it can become longer than the rest of the teeth. This will interrupt the horse’s grinding motion and cause them to open their mouths to chew instead.

“We have to address senior horses probably twice a year,” Petty said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to be floated, but I like to take a peek because you can check them in January and everything looks good, then check them in June and find a tooth that has fallen out. Now they’ve got a compromised gum.”

A horse’s mouth is a fluctuating and dynamic environment that changes throughout its entire life. By keeping up with dental work from an early age, you can ensure your horse is not only comfortable in its younger days, but also set up for success well into its golden years.