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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keaton Massie

A Horse Has Only Got So Much Tooth, Protect it!

I felt I needed to write this article after examining a new patient, a 3 year old stallion in training, that was suddenly off food and couldn’t eat. He was lethargic, appeared colicky, could not chew normally, and had developed ulcers. So many worries went through my head until I performed a simple dental exam and discovered that his young teeth were completely rounded to where there was no flat occlusal surface to grind his food. Due to dental over-floating, this performance horse’s training and showing schedule was interrupted and he had to go on soaked pelleted feed for weeks.

by Dr. Keaton Massie Massie Equine Veterinary Clinic & Healing Center

There’s been a growing concern within the equine community regarding individuals performing excessive "floating" on horses' teeth. I have been noticing horses with their teeth ground down to almost nothing by lay dentists and veterinarians who somehow think this is acceptable.

This is very worrying because the horse only has so much tooth in its lifetime. Its tooth is a finite resource; which eventually runs out. In this article, I will explain why every horse owner should take extra precautions with dental floating procedures.

Floating is a routine dental procedure that involves gently filing a horse's teeth to remove sharp enamel edges, points, and irregularities that develop due to chewing naturally. This procedure ensures the horse can chew food effectively and without discomfort.

The case for tooth floating

Let me first clarify that I am not against the practice of floating a horse's teeth. Dental care, specifically floating, is an indispensable procedure for domesticated horses.

Why? Humans have changed the lifestyles and diets of horses. Unlike their wild counterparts who would graze on scrub grass in rocky terrain and spend hours foraging, today's domestic horses have adapted to a different dietary regimen.

So what is a normal horse tooth? Horse’s teeth have a very distinct irregular box shape from the start and there is no completely flat surface to the tooth. Great example of this is feeling your own molars with your tongue.

Adult horses possess hypsodont teeth designed to continually erupt throughout their lives as the grinding surface naturally wears down during feeding. These teeth harden into bone-like material by the age of 7 at which point they are “fully grown”. This means that after the age of 7 as they wear and erupt they cannot get any longer. This is the same as sharpening a pencil which eventually runs out.

Domesticated horses have adopted modified diets and eating patterns that change how their teeth wear naturally. Uneven wear on their teeth can cause sharp enamel points and tooth imbalances that prevent them from properly chewing their food. It can be particularly discomforting for horses during ridden exercise with pressure from the bridle on sensitive facial muscles and nerves connected to the jaw.

Regular dental care and teeth floating effectively address these imbalances before they become serious problems for your horse. This practice helps to improve chewing, prevent infections, relieve pain, and enhance your horse’s health.

The problem with excessive floating

Now, I must state that equine dentistry involves more than just addressing teeth; there is much more involved when problems arise within the mouth. The answer to every dental problem in a horse is not just floating the teeth. This is where some equine dentists, trainers, and veterinarians fall short in their approach.

Teeth floating is not a one-size-fits-all procedure. Before scheduling a dental float, I first examine the horse holistically (The Whole Horse) and conduct a thorough oral examination. This helps me develop a tailored treatment plan specific to your horse. The biggest part of this exam is putting my hand in the horse's mouth and feeling every tooth for irregularities, sharpness, and infection.

The tooth is made up of three layers, the Enamel (white hard outer layer), the Dentin (yellow middle softer layer, ), and the pulp (innermost cavity which contains the roots). That hard outer enamel layer is what protects the teeth from excessive wear and damage. If the tooth enamel is undamaged the teeth can last a lifetime. However, once the enamel is gone and the soft dentin is exposed it cannot be brought back. Every bit of enamel that's filed away during excessive floating cannot be replaced.

During floating, the removal of tooth enamel on the outer surface of the tooth should be approached conservatively, which is why I only use a hand rasp. The goal of any floating is to simply remove the tiny sharp points that cut into the cheeks and tongue, and not remove the occlusal (chewing) surface. Every irregularity of the teeth are designed to work in conjunction with each other to allow for optimal chewing.

Dangers of Excessive Floating

When too much enamel is removed, it can lead to some of the following problems:

  • Gum Injuries and mouth infections

  • Pain and Discomfort

  • Jaw Misalignment

  • Inability to chew food

  • Reduced tooth longevity

  • Problems with digestion

  • Loss of weight

  • Behavioral changes

  • Reduced performance

Things to watch out for before floating a horse

  1. Leave It to the Professionals. I should probably not have to say this but never try floating a horse's teeth yourself.

  2. Within the state of Oregon only licensed veterinarians are allowed legally to perform dentistry work. Choose a veterinarian trained to use a holistic approach to your horse's oral health. They should be willing to walk you through their treatment plan and explain what specific issues they intend to address.

  3. Dental care for horses should go beyond merely smoothing out the teeth. Any filing or removal of the tooth needs to be done with consideration of the occlusal surface.

  4. Be careful with Power Tools. In today's age of advanced equipment, many horses are floated excessively using power tools, often without regard for the natural angles and eruption rate of the horse's teeth. The issue with power tools is that they can generate too much heat, which makes the tooth surface too smooth and damages the internal structures. When this happens, horses might find it hard to chew properly. You can read more of my explanation on hand-rasps vs. power tools.

Over-floating is a threat to a horse's quality of life. Remember, the horse has only so much tooth to last its lifetime. To ensure the best dental care, exercise caution and only use qualified veterinary dental practitioners. I recommend scheduling an annual check-up for adult horses. Younger horses and foals may benefit from more frequent check-ups to ensure their dental health. I’m happy to answer whatever questions you might have on equine dental care. Reach out to me below.

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