Equine dental health is a major aspect of horse health and it is important to understand what problems can arise in a horses’ dentition, and what can be done about it.  Have you ever wondered what the veterinarian is up to when they perform an equine dental?

Typically, an equine dental appointment will start with the veterinarian gathering a history.  They will ask the owner or stable manager questions in order to gauge what they may expect to find in the horses’ mouth.  Typically, the veterinarian will ask if certain symptoms of dental problems have been present in the horse’s behavior.  Some of these symptoms may be:

  • Dropping feed from the mouth while chewing.  This is also known as “quidding” and can happen while eating hay or grain/pelleted feeds.

  • Awkward chewing motions while eating.  This may look like exaggerated chewing action, chewing on one side of the mouth, or slow or intermittent chewing rhythm.

  • Trouble placing a bit in the horses’ mouth or difficulty riding when the horse has a bit in the mouth.  This may be seen as fighting the bit, shaking or tossing the head when contact is made with the bit, or potentially the horse can be less willing to travel in one direction.

  • Weight Loss

  • Nasal Discharge

Next the veterinarian typically will sedate the horse.  Sedation allows for a more thorough oral exam, as well as a more thorough dental float and treatment.  Once the sedation has taken effect, the veterinarian will place a speculum within the horses’ mouth.  The speculum holds the horses mouth open to allow the veterinarian to safely examine and work in the horses’ mouth.

The first thing that the veterinarian does once they have the horses’ mouth open is perform a comprehensive exam of the mouth, including the gums, mucosa, teeth, and tongue.  Once the exam is performed and problems are identified, then the veterinarian will begin treatment.

The hallmark of equine dental care is a procedure called the Dental Float, which is to use a power or handtool to grind the teeth in certain locations to either adjust the alignment of the mouth, or to smooth out sharp or protruding points in the teeth.  Once these sharp points are smooth, and the tooth surfaces are level, the veterinarian will also check to make sure that the occlusal surface angle is approximately 15 degrees.  Furthermore, the veterinarian will evaluate the lateral excursion, which is a measurement that helps to ensure the chewing teeth are contacting properly.  These are the main aspects of routine dental care to ensure the horse can eat properly and is comfortable while holding a bit.

The following is a list of the common pathology found in Equine dentistry and a brief description of what may be done to resolve that problem:

Sharp Points:

The most common issue found in an equine dental exam is sharp points on the pre-molar and molar teeth.  These sharp points will typically arise on the lateral (cheek side) sides of the upper teeth, and the medial (tongue side) sides of the lower teeth.  These sharp points form through regular chewing of feed and hay.  Some horses are more prone to developing this problem than others, and it seems to be highly dependent on how coarse the horses’ feed is.  These sharp points can poke into the cheek and tongue, causing discomfort.  Occasionally, this can be severe enough to form ulcers along the tongue and inner cheek.  This can also cause an abnormal contour to the tooth, which may interfere with the grinding/chewing action of the teeth.  This problem is fixed by smoothing out the sharp points by grinding them down.  This process is called a dental float and is the most common procedure in equine dentistry.  For many horses, the dental float is a routine procedure performed every 6 months to every 2 years, and is essentially a maintenance procedure.


‘Caps’ are a common finding in horses that are 3-4 years old.  These are the deciduous (baby teeth) pre-molar teeth that have not fallen out yet.  When the caps are stuck, or delayed in falling out, they can be unstable and potentially develop sharp points, causing discomfort when chewing, or during riding.  Commonly, if the caps are sharp or a little loose, they are removed by the veterinarian when they are found.  This will relieve the horse of the discomfort until the adult tooth can complete erupting into this spot.

Hooks and Ramps:

Rostral Hooks and Caudal Ramps are sharp points that typically develop on the front edge of the upper pre-molar teeth, or on the very back of the lower molar teeth, respectively.  This is a fairly common finding in horses which results from the chewing teeth not being correctly aligned, causing abnormal wear of the teeth.  These hooks and ramps can be quite sharp, and can cause a significant amount of discomfort for the horse, especially while carrying a bit.  These hooks and ramps are removed by grinding them down to be level with the normal tooth surface.  Occasionally, they will be so large that it may require more than one dental procedure to completely resolve the issue.

Wave Mouth:

A wave mouth describes the condition in which the occlusal surface of the teeth is not straight or level.  The occlusal surface is where the upper chewing teeth and the lower chewing teeth meet, and it is normally in a fairly straight line.  When a wave mouth forms, and the occlusal surface is not straight, it can cause binding between the upper and lower teeth, resulting the horse not being able to chew effectively.  This problem often will require more than one dental procedure to correct completely, since changes may need to be made slowly.  Often, routine dentals of every 6 months to a year will be required to keep the horses’ wave mouth under control.

Smile Mouth/Shear Mouth

A smile mouth is when the alignment of the incisor teeth is abnormal and is not straight.  This problem is more common in older horses.  It can cause abnormal occlusion of the molar teeth in the back of the mouth, and therefore cause ineffective chewing of feed.  To correct this problem, the veterinarian will need to perform an incisor float, removing high points of the incisors to help straighten the occlusal surface of the incisors.

These are just a few of the problems that can develop within the horses’ dentition.  There are also several other problems that can be found, such as crooked teeth, broken teeth, missing teeth, cavities, diastemas, feed packing, resorptive lesions, etc.

Written by Dr. Mackenzie Marks
Learn more about Dr. Mackenzie Marks here.