Equine Dentition

Samantha Gunter
Photos by: 
Peter Borgdorff

When people find out that their horses’ teeth need to be filed, they cringe at the thought of it. We humans are fortunate not to require that type of treatment, as we have brachyodont teeth, which erupt and remain relatively static. We still however, require regular maintenance to keep our teeth healthy.

Species of the Equidae family, which includes horses, donkeys and mules have hypsodont teeth. These teeth are very different from the teeth of humans as they have a root which resembles the shape of the crown. This root erupts over time to replace the crown material that wears away. Animals with hypsodont teeth grind roughage so they wear a lot. That’s why there is a need for the crowns to be replaced.

Domestication is the main reason as to why horses require dental treatment. The modern horse has evolved to consume and digest several kilograms of roughage for 18-20 hours per day, so it is normal for their teeth to be constantly at work. When a horse’s teeth aren’t grinding the amount or length of fibre in their roughage like they would in the wild, teeth can wear unevenly, and secondary problems and diseases may develop.

All horses require filing to remove the sharp points that develop on their molar arcades. These sharp points form due to the side-to-side style of chewing horses use. The consumption of mostly short-fibered feed can cause sharp points to present themselves at a fast rate, and at their most severe can cause painful lacerations to a horse’s cheeks and tongue. Other dental-related issues such as periodontal disease can also be uncomfortable or painful for the horse. As a consequence this may then lead to general health and behavioural problems. It is important that all horses be subject to regular dental maintenance, keeping in mind that grinding surfaces of the teeth should be coarse to be efficient and that inaccurate or excessive filing harms the teeth.

Young horses will begin to shed their deciduous teeth or ‘caps’ at about 2 ½ years of age, and as they shed, their permanent teeth will take over. As a young horses’ teeth are still developing they are softer and will wear faster, it is for this reason that young horses need to be seen by an equine dentist more frequently than an older horse.

The teeth of a geriatric horse may lose their effectiveness over time. Teeth can become loose and fall out, making it difficult for the horse to chew. If the horse is unable to thoroughly chew feed, it can eventually lose weight and condition and will be at greater risk of colic and choke. Providing a horse with appropriate dental care combined with a suitable diet makes it possible to maintain a horse well into their senior years.

Edited for publication by NEDP.