Equine dentistry in some form has been around for many, many years. Obviously horses have survived for millions of years without dentistry, but then so have humans.
We can identify three primary reasons for equine dentistry.
- Improved chewing efficiency
- Eliminate injury and mouth pain
- Cosmetic reasons
There are numerous attributes to a comprehensive dental. Because of advances in technology and medications, routine dentistry has begun to take on a whole new meaning and level of sophistication. The term “floating” is fast becoming inadequate and obsolete to describe modern equine dentistry. Although smoothing of the teeth is important, it is only one facet of the overall procedure necessary to produce consistent, positive winning results. The following are some basic/agreed upon facts, which establish the foundation for understanding the primary reasons why horses develop dental problems.
Basic anatomy – primary points
- The lower jaw is much more narrow than the upper jaw.
- The upper jaw teeth often overhang the bottom jaw teeth (parrot mouth). Many believe this to be caused by the last lower jaw teeth coming in at an angle, which probably tends to push the lower jaw backwards as the teeth wear accounting for the high incidence of horses with mild acquired overbite.
- The horse’s lower jaw moves in a circular (rotary) motion.
- The average distance from the front teeth to the last jaw teeth is 12 to 14 inches.
- Teeth are composed of alternate layers of hard and soft material: therefore the roughened table (chewing surfaces) remains as the teeth wear. This makes for an efficient grinder or feed mill.
- The chewing surfaces of both the first upper and last lower jaw teeth are basically triangular. Hooks and points are more prone to develop on the front of the first jaw teeth and the back of the last jaw teeth, both uppers and lowers .
- Teeth grow or move out into the mouth at about 1/8-inch per year. If everything works according to nature’s plan this 1/8-inch is worn off in the grinding of feed.
- It is important for the incisor (front) teeth to fit and slide properly for efficient grazing and so the back teeth wear and function correctly.
- Wolf teeth (first premolars) are tiny teeth that are located immediately in front of the first large jaw teeth. This is where no teeth are present and where the bit is placed also known as the interdental space. They are rarely found in the lower jaw.
- All bits push soft tissues against at least some of the teeth.
- Canine teeth serve no useful purpose and can cause lacerations to the front part of the tongue or the lips; the lacerations may or may not be associated with the bit.
- The tongue is a very strong, well-controlled muscular structure with a combination of bones inside its base. The bones (hyoid apparatus) make the tongue rigid from side to side and somewhat unyielding at the back in the area of the throat.
- The heavy jaw muscles on the side of the horse’s face make for powerful feed grinding, but also push the cheeks against the last upper jaw teeth with great force. The tongue, cheeks and gums are very close to the back jaw teeth. Therefore, the sharp enamel edges that develop usually cause much more damage to the soft tissues than they do up front.
- Enamel ridges running up and down both sides of all jaw teeth cause serrated edges to develop as the teeth wear. Obviously a serrated edge will cause more damage to the soft tissues than will a smooth edge.
- Hooks and points that develop in many horses tend to restrict the circular motion of the jaw leading to abnormal tooth wear and opposition and resultant decreased feed-grinding efficiency. The restricted motion is likely due to mechanical interference and/or the response to pain.
It is reasonable to assume that horses learn bad habits from mouth pain as they learn from any other repetitive pain response. Utilizing power tools with similarities to equipment of the human dentist enables Dr. Hickman to thoroughly treat all teeth in the horse’s mouth (including those hard-to-reach back teeth) without distressing the soft tissue to the degree obtained when utilizing more conventional hand-held equipment.