Jan Swan Wood: Horses need dentists too
Whether ranch horse or performance horse, our equine counterparts are expected to do alot for us. Most of the time, the horse doesn’t let on when something is bothering it, which stems both from its prey animal desire to not appear weakened in any way and its desire to please. But, if the owner is paying close attention, the horse will actually tell quite a lot about what’s going on with subtle behavioral changes.
The first signs that my favorite saddle horse was having dental problems were two-fold. First, he was hard to bridle. He didn’t even fight me, he simply didn’t want to open his mouth to accept the bit. Second, when I would ride him, he was anticipating any lifting of the reins with a lifting of his head, which in turn, hollowed his back and made it harder for him to collect himself and turn.
I made an appointment with the vet to have his teeth looked at right away. Sure enough, when Dr. Scott Cammack, Northern Hills Veterinary Clinic, Sturgis, SD, took a look inside Rush’s mouth, there were hooks on his molars and sores chewed in his cheeks and tongue. With Rush standing in the stock and under sedation, Dr. Cammack proceeded to grind off the hooks, smooth the molars and fix any problems he could see in his mouth.
Dr. Cammack also ground down the 11-year-old gelding’s big wolf teeth. Dr. Cammack explained, “These teeth continue growing and cause problems not only with bridling, but also are what causes the most damage when they bite.” He added, “They can be ground down and smoothed but cannot be pulled as that could break the jaw.”
Incidentally, this same horse had bit another horse and left a terrible looking wound on her hip that took several months to heal. It was primarily a skin wound, but was nearly seven inches across and looked as though it had been done with a knife.
Stallions use those same wolf, or canine, teeth when they fight. The wounds those teeth can produce are frightful. In the case of a gelding that was attacked by a stallion (see photo), the wound was about five inches deep and almost a foot long on the top of the hip. Dr. Cammack was the attending veterinarian in the gelding’s case, and said, “The wolf teeth on a stallion should be ground down so they aren’t as dangerous in the case of a stallion attacking another horse or a person.”
Other dental problems that horses have can cause digestive problems, weight loss, sores in the mouth, and changes in behavior.
The molars of a horse grow and are ground down constantly with the chewing of grass and hay. When a young horse starts shedding the caps (primary teeth) as the permanent molars grow in, a cap will often become stuck to the tooth and not allow proper chewing to take place. The tooth with a cap will be longer and protrude into the mouth further, causing even more trouble chewing and an uneven pattern of wear in the mouth. This can lead to a condition called “wave mouth” and can start at a fairly early age.
Signs that a horse is not able to chew correctly is chewing with the head at an angle, some horses will pack their cheeks with hay to keep from biting their cheeks when they chew, and those little wads of hay will appear in the manger. The manure of a horse with tooth problems will often contain very coarse pieces of grass and hay, due to the inability to grind the feed properly. Colic can also occur when the feed isn’t ground up sufficiently or when it causes a blockage. Weight loss can be significant as well.
Behavioral issues related to dental problems can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Some horses become very hard to bridle, toss their heads, rear, become stiff through the body when ridden, and develop odd, seemingly unrelated, issues, such as running off or bucking.
Not every veterinarian is well equipped to deal with dental problems in horses. There are also people that specialize in equine dentistry without being a veterinarian, though laws about practicing equine dentistry vary from state to state. One must find someone, whether veterinarian or not, who has the education and experience to do a good job on the horse, as damage can be significant if the work is improperly done.
Modern equine dentistry involves specialized power tools that make the work much easier than the old fashioned floats that were operated by hand. Those power tools do generate heat, though, so it’s essential that the tooth is kept cool with water while the work is being done.
The work that Dr. Cammack did on my horse took less than a half hour, plus a little more time for Rush to wake up enough to ride home in the trailer. After letting his mouth heal up for several weeks, the test came when it was time for my horse to go back to work. When I bridled him, he willingly opened his mouth and took the bit. When I rode him, he was back to being collected, rounded in the back, and happy to do his job. None of his behavioral changes remained with him since they hadn’t become habit due to waiting too long to get his mouth fixed.
For just over $100, I had my willing partner back and no further issues to deal with. Maintenance from here on out will be simple and less costly in the long run, than letting the problem get out of hand. Also, in the case of equine dentistry, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so, it’s wise to have a young horse’s mouth gone through before training ever begins, then maintenance exams thereafter.
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As a routine management matter, the Teddy Roosevelt National Park plans to remove a few horses from its herd.