Just as in human medicine, routine dental care is of extreme importance in the overall health of our horses. Horses are grazing animals, and their teeth have developed specifically for that purpose. Their front teeth (incisors) are designed to cut off forage, while their cheek teeth (molars and premolars) are made for chewing and grinding their food. Our domesticated horses are often limited in their grazing time and area, and we supplement their diet with grains and other commercial feed products.

Horses are often born with their first set of incisors already erupted, and the rest of their “baby teeth” are usually in place by 8-9 months of age. Permanent (adult) teeth begin to erupt in horses at approximately 2 ½ years of age, and are usually all in place by age 5. Juvenile horses have 24 teeth, and typical adult horses have 36-40 teeth (mares often lack canine teeth). Below is a list of approximate ages at which teeth should erupt:

Deciduous (Baby Teeth)
1st incisors (centrals) Birth – 1 week
2nd incisors (intermediate) 4 – 6 weeks
3rd incisors (corners) 6 – 9 months
1st, 2nd, 3rd premolars (cheek teeth) Birth – 2 weeks for all
Permanent (Adult Teeth)
1st incisors (centrals) 2 ½ years
2nd incisors (intermediates) 3 ½ years
3rd incisors (corners) 4 ½ years
Canines (bridles) 4 – 5 years
Wolf teeth (1st premolars) 5 – 6 months
2nd premolars (1st cheek teeth) 2 ½ years
3rd premolars (2nd cheek teeth) 3 years
4th premolars (3rd cheek teeth) 4 years
1st molars (4th cheek teeth) 9 – 12 months
2nd molars (5th cheek teeth) 2 years
3rd molars (6th cheek teeth) 3 ½ – 4 years

Common Dental Problems and What to Watch For

As horses chew, their teeth are continuously worn down. Numerous issues may interfere with normal eruption or wear of teeth, leading to further problems for your horse. Among the most commonly reported dental issues are:

  • Sharp edges on cheek teeth – may irritate or cut cheeks or tongue
  • Retained caps – baby teeth that are not shed
  • Hooks on upper and lower cheek teeth
  • Canine (bridle) teeth interfering with bit
  • Lost or fractured teeth
  • Abnormal / uneven bites
  • Excessively worn teeth
  • Abnormally long teeth
  • Infected teeth / gums
  • Misalignment / poor bite – congenital or due to injury
  • Periodontal (gum) disease

Some horses can be very stoic, showing no signs of dental problems. Others may show one or more of the following:

  • Dropping feed, difficulty chewing, or excessive salivation
  • Loss of body condition
  • Large / undigested feed particles in manure
  • Tilting or tossing of head, bit-chewing, tongue-lolling, fighting the bit, etc.
  • Poor performance
  • Foul odor from mouth or nostrils
  • Blood from mouth
  • Nasal discharge
  • Swelling of the face, jaw, or mouth

Preventative Maintenance

It is highly recommended that a thorough oral exam be a part of your horse’s routine annual exam. Based on the findings, it may be determined that your horse requires dental floats as frequently as every 6 months, or as infrequently as once every few years. Regular exams and maintenance (floating / filing) can help keep your horse at peak performance and avoid more serious issues later in life. Stabled horses may be more likely to require more frequent dental floats, as softer feeds require less chewing than continuous grazing.

Another consideration is that a horse’s lower jaw is normally narrower than it’s upper jaw. This natural conformation, combined with the fact that horses chew in a side-to-side motion, leads to sharp edges forming on the outside of the upper teeth and the inside of the lower teeth. Other conformational issues may include missing teeth, or misalignments that allow the formation of hooks on the first and last cheek teeth. Routine maintenance helps prevent ulceration and irritation of the soft tissues in the mouth, as well as allowing the horse to more effectively grind their food material.

Age Considerations

There are several age-related considerations to keep in mind when considering the appropriate dental care for your horse:

  • Foals should be examined shortly after birth, and periodically during the first year to catch developmental abnormalities
  • At least bi-annual exams are recommended from birth to about 5-6 years of age
    • Yearlings can have extremely sharp points
    • Horses starting training, especially at 2-3 years of age, should be checked for sharp points and retained caps (baby teeth)
    • Between 2 and 5 years of age, horses may require more frequent attention because baby teeth are softer and wear more quickly than adult teeth
  • Annual exams are recommended for mature adult horses (over 6 years of age)
  • The risk of periodontal (gum) disease is increased in horses over 17 years of age

Additional Considerations

  • Abnormal behaviors can be a sign of dental issues
  • Sedatives and pain relief medication may help relax the horse during dental procedures. These medications should be administered by your veterinarian.
  • Most dental procedures, including basic floats, cause permanent changes in your horse’s mouth. It is advisable that these procedures be performed by your veterinarian.
  • If a loose tooth is identified, extraction may be recommended
  • Depending on the severity of dental issues, more than one visit (or referral to a specialist) may be required
  • Addressing dental issues early is important for successful correction