Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth: All About HorseTeeth


horses teeth

We're going to get our Science on and talk Equestrian Dentistry, or Horse Teeth, as I like to call it.  Those teeth can rip grass out of the ground and grind oats to a pulp, they can also be a nasty surprise on your rear-end when you are bending over to clean out front hooves... purely hypothetical, of course.  :)  Teeth are a subject I am particularly interested in since I used to be a dental hygienist, but the difference between human dentition and equestrian dentition is quite large, pun intended.  

hypsodontFirst of all, unlike humans, horses' teeth continue to grow and erupt. Horses are referred to as Hypsodonts, which sounds like a cool dinosaur, but actually means large, crowned tooth.  Hypsodontia, also found in deer and cows, are particularly useful in rubbing against one another in a side-to-side motion to grind up tough ingredients like hay and grass.  Horses can fit in about 60 chews per minute and, if given the opportunity, would like to graze 16.5 hours a day.  That's a lot of chewing!  So the reason their teeth continually erupt an approximate 2-3mm per year is actually in response to the grinding down caused by their food source.  

Sometimes the teeth can grow too fast, or due to irregularities in chewing, some teeth can become longer and more pointed than others.  Just like humans, horses' teeth fit together with the bottom molars leaning a little towards the tongue/lingual side and the upper molars leaning a little to the cheek side.  This is a natural way to fit together to provide the most force on whatever you are chewing and to protect your tongue and cheeks when you bite down.  Due to this slight offset and the fact that horses' float teethteeth are constantly erupting, the unmatched sides of teeth can grow faster than the matched/ground down side, resulting in sharp points.  This is where floating a horse's teeth becomes a necessity.  Once the sharp points develop, horses cannot chew their grain properly and you will notice that they start dropping feed because they can't fit their teeth together properly.  This picture shows you what in the world I am talking about.  The teeth on the left show you what can happen over time and then the teeth on the right is what they should look like after floating.  It is a good idea to have your horse's teeth floated at least once a year.  Some horses may need it more than annually, it just depends on the way the chew and the rate their teeth erupt.  Coincidentally, if horses receive a really rich diet (higher in oats than natural roughage) they spend more time chewing in an up-and-down motion as opposed to their normal side-to-side motion when grinding hay.  This can result in a higher possibility of sharp points.  Some symptoms of your horse having dental pain are tilting their head sideways when they are eating (they are trying to avoid chewing on certain areas), as discussed earlier, dropping feed, or refusing to eat.    

At a certain age, horses' teeth will stop erupting, they might lose Gift horse in the mouththeir back teeth and have really long, rectangular front teeth.  This is where the saying, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" comes from.  It was considered rude to look at a horse's mouth that had been given to you as a gift because you could tell the actual age of the horse by the length of the teeth or lack there of.  We use it in everyday language to say don't unappreciatively question a gift.  This is also where the saying, "Long in the tooth" comes from, meaning something is old.



So now you can wow your vet with all of your teeth knowledge!  Thanks for reading.  I hope it wasn't too sciency.  :)  All of this info was picked up at The Healthy Happy Horse event held in College Station, Texas presented by Dr. Cleet Griffin.  

Written by Kara Grimes

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  • Burge Linton
Comments 2
  • Barrett Littell
    Barrett Littell

    Great article. horses will also let you know they are having some problems in there mouth by fighting the bit. A lot of times people will miss this sign.

  • Alan

    Great article. Long in the tooth wisdom.

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