By Tanya Randall
The condition of your horse’s teeth not only affects how he eats, but also his performance, says master’s certified equine dentist Randy Riedinger of Weatherford, Texas.
Riders often mistake equine dental problems as “training” problems. In fact, many soundness problems are rooted in poor dental care. If your horse that can’t carry his head correctly, he can’t carry its body properly.
Here Riedinger explains how your horse’s mouth works and how it affects the way he carries his body. Riedinger also offers tips for maintaining proper dental health in your equine athlete.
Biomechanics of the Mouth
To better understand how your horse’s teeth affect his performance, Riedinger says you must understand the biomechanics of the equine mouth. Like a human mouth, your horse’s upper jaw is stationary, while his lower jaw does all the work, moving up and down and left to right.
“A horse chews toward the inside of its mouth,” says Riedinger, “not up and down. When he chews his hay, he twists it like a rope and it goes lengthwise down the row of teeth. He doesn’t chew it with both sides of his teeth. It goes down one side or the other.”
The other movement that a horse needs, Riedinger says, is the ability to slide his jaw backward and foreword. When a horse raises his head above his withers, the bottom jaw moves back. When he puts his head down, his jaw moves forward.
“All of our bridles are designed to pull on the bottom jaw,” notes Riedinger. “Anything that prevents the correct motion of the mouth, even if it’s just sharp points, affects the ability of a horse to use himself comfortably and correctly. A horse may be able to get by on his own and continue to have a thrifty appearance, but when you put a bit in his mouth and it pulls his tongue and ·gums into the sharp points of his teeth, all of a sudden the rider thinks its a ‘training’ problem when it’s really teeth problems.”
Riedinger warns that hackamore users aren’t absolved from proper dentistry.
“If a horse can’t move his jaw to the right, he can’t turn very well to the right,” he explains. “If a horse can’t comfortably slide his bottom jaw forward when he lowers his head, his head will be in your face when you try to ride him. If his jaw can’t move back so he can’t lift his head, then he’ll jerk the reins out of your hands to keep his head low, where he’s comfortable.”
If your horse’s jaw motion is limited, it places considerable pressure on the temporal mandible joint, where the jawbone connects to the skull. To ease the joint pain, your horse may carry himself differently or avoid certain motions as a means of protection.
“Take the horse that won’t lift his head,” says Riedinger. “That horse will be heavier on the front end, because he’s putting all his weight there. The’ next thing you know, you horse has a horse with sore front feet – all because he has dental problems.”
Unbalanced teeth are more often than not at the root of these problems.
The Goals of Equine Dentistry
The goals of equine dentistry are to balance your horse’s mouth in such a way that the tootheruption process is slowed down, prolonging the life of your horse and providing optimum jaw motion for better training and performance.
How’s this accomplished? The trick, says Riedinger, is to balance the mouth to where the molar table stays at rest, gliding smoothly, but not separating unless the jaw is opened.
“The ideal situation you want to have in your horse’s mouth when he’s eating or you’re riding him is called three-point balance,” he explains. “That’s equal pressure through the TMJ, the molar tables and incisors [six upper and lower teeth at front of the horse’s mouth]. So no matter where he puts his head, his molar table stays at rest. That’s a great comfort to him.”
A lot of molar problems are caused by incisors problems, he adds.
“With most horses in a stable environment, the incisor angle gets too long and too steep because eating hay or grain in a feeder doesn’t do anything for these front teeth, so they get longer and longer, and steeper and steeper,” he says. “Then they mess up the molar table.
A horse that grazes all his life keeps his incisors short and the angle shallow, allowing the molar table to stay together,” Riedinger continues. “The horse can move his head up and down, and back and forth, so he takes care of himself. In a stable environment, the can’t do that.”
To maintain proper balance, Riedinger recommends having your horse’s teeth checked every six months, starting when you ride him as a 2-year-old. Performance horses also need checks every six months. He notes that once a proper wear pattern is established, the amount of work needed diminishes. In fact, many of the older horses in his practice need only a little work once a year.
Riedinger advises taking an active role in your horse’s dental care. It’s the best way to learn about proper dentistry to ensure your horse is getting the best care available.
The first thing he likes to do is observe the outside of the horse’s head for a symmetrical muscle pattern. Is one forehead muscle overly developed? Is one jaw muscle bigger than the other? Has the jawbone been broken? Is there any evidence of dental cysts, where teeth of young horses are erupting backward through the jawbone?
Next, he checks for lateral movement of the jaw to see if the horse’s teeth meet and function properly. Then he puts his fingers inside the horse’s mouth, checking for the presence of wolf teeth (small, functionless teeth usually found just in front of the upper second cheek teeth, also known as the first premolars) and bit seats (rounded and smoothed surfaces of the second premolars created to enhance a horse’s comfort when packing a bit).
Next, Riedinger uses a speculum to hold the horse’s mouth open for further examination. The speculum allows him to see and work on the molars far back in the horse’s mouth, which are often missed without it. With the horse’s mouth open, he not only looks for problems, but also feels for them.
“All these things can be done without sedation,” says Riedinger. “An equine dentist should ask you questions about your horse and they darn sure should be able to tell you how old your horse is. He should show you what’s going on inside your horse’s mouth, let you feel it and explain what he’s going to do. When he’s done, he should let you feel the difference so you know for yourself that the work was done.”
For the horse’s comfort, Riedinger has someone hold the horse’s head steady, instead of hanging the horse’s head with his halter.
“I won’t hang the horse’s head by a halter because it’s bad for the horse’s neck,” he explains. “A horse’s neck wasn’t designed to go that way. It’s better to have a helper hold the horse’s head still. You need less sedation that way. It’s better to have a helper hold the horse’s head still. You need less sedation that way.”
Sedation is a major point of contention in equine dentistry. Reidinger believes mild sedation is needed for proper dental care.
“If you’re going to working on horses that are high strung and strong, and need lots of corrections, they’re not all going to stand there,” he explains. “They don’t like the dust and the smoke. Some will stand still. Others will move around. It doesn’t hurt them, but they do feel the vibration and hear the noise. If you’re just going to scratch off some points, you can do a lot of those horses without sedation, but you’re not going to be doing what the horse really needs.”
Equipment is another point of contention. Riedinger uses speculums, hand floats and power floats in his practice.
“When I’m working on a horse, I’m going to open his mouth with a speculum to check him, and then I’m going to close his mouth. I know what I’m going to do. I take one instrument, do the work I need, close the mouth and give the horse a shot of water to rinse his mouth. I’ll open the horse’s mouth again, work another area, close and rinse again,” he says.
He notes that horses weren’t designed to have their mouths’ open for prolonged periods of time. Horses with significant TMJ pain, resulting from unbalanced teeth will be extremely uncooperative when the speculum has been opened too long.
He also warns against using someone who abuses the horse’s tongue by pulling it or holding to the side of the horse’s mouth.
“If someone is pulling and yanking your horse’s tongue out the side of his mouth while working on the teeth, the person can damage the hyoid apparatus, a bone that controls the horse’s tongue,” he cautions. “It’s like a knee, it only goes one way. A horse needs his tongue to chew his feed. If you’ve done your dentistry over and over, and it doesn’t help, there might be something wrong back there. Don’t let anyone jerk or pull the tongue.”
Riedinger believes it takes both hand and power equipment to do an efficient job.
Hand floats alone, he says, take too long. They also do a less precise job because you touch teeth that don’t need to be floated.
Power tools, on the other hand, he says, generate heat when left on one area of teeth for several minutes, which can damage the tooth. This potential danger is averted when properly conditioned equipment is used by an experienced technician who rinses the horse’s mouth frequently. The rinses not only comfort the horse by eliminating heat and dust, but also cool down the equipment and keep it functioning effectively.
Article originally published in the October 2006 issue of BHN.