Lame in the mouth
Head bob is a widely recognized indicator of lameness as a horse will lift the head in order to shift weight off a lame foreleg as it strikes the ground. A horse with a loose tooth or retained cap may show a similar behavior, raising the head in rhythm while jogging in response to pain elicited from a tooth being jarred. Though most observers would agree that the head bobbing horse is lame, few would consider that the horse might actually be lame in the mouth.
Resistance may be pain response
Similarly, when bitting a horse, excessive head tossing is often interpreted as the horse being unwilling to accept the bit. Consider, however, that the time frame when the horse is shedding baby teeth (deciduous) and permanent teeth are erupting coincides with the time we are placing a bit in the horse’s mouth, and asking the horse to submit to pressure. Head tossing might be explained as a pain response to bit pressure applied over a small, sharp tooth just below the surface of the gum.
Significance of eruption patterns
It is helpful to understand eruption patterns of consequence to the young horse going into training. Horses have both temporary and permanent incisors (6 pairs top and bottom, front) and premolars (3 on each side top and bottom, cheek). Deciduous incisors erupt around 6 days (centers), 6 weeks (intermediate), and 6 months (corners) and are successively shed around 2 ½, 3 ½, and 4 ½ years old, starting with the centers and moving outward to the corners. Premolars come in by 2 weeks of age and are replaced front to rear between 2 and 4 years of age. Molars (3 rear cheek teeth on each side, top and bottom) occur only in the permanent form and erupt at 1, 2 and 3 ½ to 4 years of age front to rear.
Baby teeth are pushed out by the erupting permanent teeth. Some baby teeth are slow to fall out and are referred to as retained caps. It is not uncommon to see lumps develop on the lower jaw of 3 year olds because pressure from retained premolar caps causes bone remodeling. When the caps are lost and the permanent tooth breaks through the gum, the lumps typically go away. A retained but loose cap can cause significant irritation to the surrounding gum which can be exaggerated as the horse is asked to work. In addition, inflamed gums can lead to secondary sinus inflammation that could be mistaken for an infectious respiratory disease. Like small children cutting teeth, a young horse with teeth erupting may simply not feel well.
Another concern is wolf teeth, which are technically the first premolars. Wolf teeth are typically quite small, occurring on the upper jaw of some horses and more rarely on the lower jaw between 6 months and 3 years of age. Wolf teeth can cause a number of problems for the horse that is beginning to carry a bit.
What should be done?
Before putting a horse into training, it is wise to prepare the mouth with some fundamental dentistry practices. If the horse has wolf teeth, they should be extracted. This is a fairly simple process in young horses, even if the tooth is still below the gum. After removing the wolf teeth, a “bit seat” should be created on the front edge of the first cheek teeth. A bit seat is simply a rounding or contouring of the edge of the tooth to prevent pinching of the cheek or tongue by the bit. Retained caps should be taken off so that the permanent teeth can come in unimpeded. Because the upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw, sharp edges often develop on the outer edge of upper teeth and the inner edge of lower teeth. These should be filed so that they do not cut the tongue or cheeks and so the horse can chew more efficiently. Filing the teeth is referred to as floating, because the traditional hand tool used is called a float. Horses that receive dental care early on are much less likely to develop dental problems like wave mouth later in life. The equine dentist is much like a skilled farrier who balances a horse’s foot, allowing for more even weight distribution and wear.
Who can do the work?
Some confusion exists over who is allowed to perform dentistry. Because human dentistry requires a professional degree, many would assume equine dentistry would require the same. Though equine dental schools do exist, they differ from human dental schools in that they are trade schools, not professional schools. Certainly dentistry is taught in the curriculum of veterinary schools but the broad scope of veterinary training does not afford students time to perfect the skills necessary to be proficient right out of school. Most veterinarians who specialize in dentistry seek additional training in certification programs or intern with veterinarians who specialize.
There are people who perform basic dentistry practices called Lay Dentists. They are not licensed veterinarians so they cannot sedate horses, use controlled substances nor diagnose diseases and/or prescribe antibiotics. Some work under the direct supervision of veterinarians and some work as independent contractors.
In understanding what is legal, it is good to look at current Florida Statutes. The Veterinary Practices Act provides some clarity:
(13) “Veterinary medicine” includes, with respect to animals, surgery, acupuncture, obstetrics, dentistry, physical therapy, radiology, theriogenology, and other branches or specialties of veterinary medicine.
(b) A person hired on a part-time or temporary basis, or as an independent contractor, by an owner to assist with herd management and animal husbandry tasks for herd and flock animals, including castration, dehorning, parasite control, and debeaking, or a person hired on a part-time or temporary basis, or as an independent contractor, by an owner to provide farriery and manual hand floating of teeth on equines.
Historically, the floating of teeth was done exclusively with hand tools, many of which were fabricated by the dentist himself. Using hand tools is extremely physically demanding and time consuming. Excellent horsemanship skills, strength and stamina as well as being ambidextrous are hallmarks of the person using hand tools. Most veterinarians were happy to have lay dentists perform routine dental care, when hand tools were the only option. Today, with the advent of power tools, more veterinarians are working in this specialty field. In order to use power tools, the horse must be sedated and fitted with a mouth speculum so the dentist can view the teeth and file with an electric dremel. On the positive side, the process is more rapid and the mouth is easier to view. On the negative side, sedation is required, heat generation from the tool could damage the pulp of the tooth and over- zealous practitioners could take off more tooth than necessary.
For the young horse, performing routine dentistry prior to the bitting process may be one of your best training techniques. Hiring an experienced professional is crucial. As in so many aspects of the business world, let the buyer beware. Price and value are not synonymous. The lowest price may not be the best value and the highest price does not assure the best quality.