June 1st, 2011 by gberoza

Dr. Gregory Beroza, DACVS & DABVP
Board Certified Equine Surgeon and Practice Specialist

          When horses bite into life, they do it in the way that was determined by their evolution as grazing animals. Their natural grazing characteristics allow their ever erupting teeth to gradually wear down in proportion to their growth.  Their 12 front teeth are designed for grabbing and/or biting and their 24 rear molars are for grinding. The condition of their teeth affects the animal’s overall health more than owners and trainers realize. Just as a horse needs four balanced feet, he must also have a well-balanced mouth to perform properly. Horsemen are acquainted with the old saying, “No foot, no horse,” but, while they can easily see the condition of the feet and legs, the inside of the horse’s mouth is not so easily accessible; but just as important. 

          The initial baby teeth, called caps, are lost or need to be extracted into the horse’s 5th year of age.  Their adult teeth emerge and change as he ages; the very long upper teeth drop down from within his sinuses and the lower ones erupt from his jaw bone each at an estimated rate of 1/16 inch per year. At first, the grinding surface of the baby teeth of a young horse meet on their flat surfaces; while those of an older improperly managed horse may eventually wear to a 45 degree occlusive angle. As a grazing animal, normally the horse is constantly wearing down his teeth. His teeth may eventually wear down to an abnormal angle, because the upper row sits slightly wider in his mouth than the lower row; thereby placing uneven abnormal stress on the horse’s jaw and TM (temporal-mandibular) joint.

Intraol Dental Examination, see sharp inside points

          If the horse cannot process his food properly, his digestion is also harmfully affected. Whole oats, for example, may be swallowed without even being ground. This is comparable to a person swallowing his food whole, without chewing it. The best nutrition is useless if the horse cannot digest it effectively. In turn, the horse may lose weight and perform poorly. He may show signs of unthriftiness, digestive trouble, and colic or he may possibly even develop ulcers or have breathing problems. Properly ground food is essential to the optimal digestion of a horse’s feed.

          Symptoms of tooth problems may be evidenced in many different ways. If the teeth are not in proper alignment, are broken, are impacted or infected, a horse might drop his food, veer out to get away from the bit because of pain, develop undesirable lead switches, shake his head, bite his tongue or the inside of his cheek, fight the bit or generally not be training up to par, achieve sub-maximal weight gain, and/or develop breathing or oral bleeding problems.

          One of many racing thoroughbreds that I recently treated at Belmont Park for trainer David Duggan had a tooth growing irregularly into his cheek, thereby causing an ulcer. After the tooth problem was corrected, there was a marked improvement in the horse’s performance. David stated that, “proper dentistry made my job of training easier. Before the tooth problem was fixed, my horse was uncontrollable and would not have made it to the races. Now there is no longer a problem with his performance.”  Additionally, I also examined and floated 5 recently claimed thoroughbred racehorses for Robert Klesaris at Belmont Park. Both he and his assistant, Raul Ruiz, noted that the very next day, 2 of those horses had “a remarkable improvement in their training performance”.

Uncle Mo Winning 2010 Breeders Cup Photo by Z

          A racing filly training at Belmont Park for trainer Jim Toner went to far as to flip over backwards to avoid training just because of her anticipated pain due to her sharp teeth. Once properly floated and balanced, her behavioral problems were resolved. During the 2006-07 Winter Aqueduct and the 2007 Spring-Summer Belmont meets, one of my regular dental client trainers, Gary Contessa, captured Leading Trainer titles following regular power floating and balancing maintenance care. There is a direct correlation between good dental health and optimal athletic performance.

          In the performance show world, Jagger Topping, of Swan Creek Farm in Bridgehampton, New York remarkably observed that, for his large population of horses, our power floating dentistry went even more smoothly and quickly than the previously conventional hand-floating methods he formerly employed. Ann Aspinol, of Topping Riding Club in Sagaponack, New York had “no doubt” in her mind, that over the past 5 years we have been taking care of her horses’ teeth, they now look better and maintain their weight better than in previous years. Even her boarders recognized a positive difference. Lieutenant Nicholas Pandolfo, former commanding officer of the Nassau County Mounted Unit, observed after several years of our improved dental care that he had been able to appropriately cut back on his feed bill, because his horses are now eating well and doing better.

          The Chronicle of the Horse recently reported in its March 28, 2011 issue about 2 top international dressage riders who were immediately eliminated from FEI World competition because their horses had blood coming from their mouths during competition. One horse was quoted supposedly as having ‘bit its tongue’. Without further information one can only speculate that these horses may have had recent or unresolved dental issues which equated to serious show consequences.

          Ideally, performance and pleasure horses should have their teeth examined and floated twice a year. According to New York State law, this should be done by a licensed veterinarian; although interpretation and regulation of these laws has been indecisive, at best. While some lay people calling themselves dentists have experience and training in this area, a qualified, knowledgeable veterinarian will provide the best opinion and the most thorough job. The veterinarian should examine the entire mouth, looking for and correcting any potential problems; and, yes, horses do get cavities, although they are not as significant a problem as they are in people. Floating is the procedure in which sharp enamel points or rough edges are removed with a dental file and it is an essential part of routine horse care.

Equine Scull and Dental Power Equipment

          The method I employ is power floating; primarily using motorized equipment rather than hand tools. The standing horse is lightly sedated (something a lay person cannot do), and the horse’s mouth is propped open with a speculum. This enables the veterinarian to look and reach far back into the caudal recesses of a horse’s mouth, where they may have sharp “hooks”; especially common to older horses. A combination diamond and carbide bit is used, which does not injure the inner soft tissues of the horse’s mouth. With power equipment, I consistently get equally balanced results in all 4 quadrants of each and every horse’s mouth. Trainers and owners should be aware that after sedation, although horses can go back to work 1 hour later, there may be show rules governing proper withdrawal times prior to showing, due to the tranquilizers used. In racehorses it is four days.

          Laws regarding professional care of the horse’s teeth vary from state to state, because there is no national code. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, this countries 2 major regulatory organizations overseeing the practice of dentistry within veterinary medicine, universally agree with the rest of today’s world of modern medicine, that both large and small animal dentistry is uncategorically a medical procedure, and that veterinary dental assistants or technicians can be utilized by veterinarians in their office and under their direct professional supervision. Although veterinarians are universally required to have nationally recognized credentials, not all equine veterinarians or veterinary dentists have proper state licenses.

Power Dentistry Equipment In Use

          To date, there is no uniform nationally recognized dental training code, although most veterinary schools include courses in dentistry as part of their professional curriculum, and areas of veterinary dental specialty are burgeoning. However, the business practice of equine dentistry in New York State is limited to licensed professionals only. Consequently, should an owner use a non-licensed individual to perform dentistry and any damage is done to their horse, the owner has little course of legal action or restitution; similar to using an untrained, unlicensed and unregulated contractor. Lay individuals performing dental procedures cannot obtain malpractice insurance for doing such.

          Power floating has its share of bonafide critics when performed improperly; however, when done right, it is vastly superior to the older manual methods. This is analogous to current use of power equipment by properly trained, skilled and licensed contractors. My fourteen years of pioneering experience utilizing motorized tools to power float and balance tens of thousands of horses’ teeth, have proven to me that it is absolutely the best method of routine dental care available to the public. Medical licensing was established in the late 1800s to protect the public against shoddy work from untrained, unskilled, unlicensed and uninsurable non-professionals. In my humble view, to practice equine dentistry today without direct supervision of or by a medical license is comparable to the dark ages, when barbers were allowed to perform surgery on their patrons.

Equipment for Surgical Removal of Cheek Tooth Under General Anesthesia

Surgical Removal of Infected Cheek Tooth Under General Anesthesia

Surgically Removed Lower Cheek Tooth

          Basic regular dental maintenance, complete routine oral examination and early problem correction help eliminate the risk of serious future trouble, such as cracked teeth, impacted teeth, dental and sinus infections, TM joint problems, secondary breathing problems such as soft-palate displacement, behavioral and attitudinal training and performance issues, etc. The well being and careers of our prized horses are at stake.

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