A Lesson in Equine Dentistry

This is the weirdest self-care post in history. Inspired by weird but true events.

Did you know that a horse’s teeth are continually erupting? Each tooth starts out four or more inches long, even though only about half an inch is visible above the gumline. As the horse eats, the tooth wears away. This phenomenon is what allows an experienced horseman to tell a horse’s age by looking in its mouth; the teeth have a predictable shape and angle of incidence according to how old the horse is (with some caveats; a horse that eats sandy, dirty, or very rough feed will appear older because its teeth have worn down faster than usual).

Continually erupting teeth can have drawbacks, however. If the horse’s teeth don’t line up perfectly, they wear unevenly, causing sharp hooks and points on the opposite teeth. So, domestic horses have their teeth filed down, or floated, periodically, to even out any points that might cause discomfort. Most horses need their teeth done once a year; some might go a few years without any problems.

I’ve owned Bailey for just under a year, and her previous owners said it had been a little while since she’d had her teeth floated. So, time for a dentist appointment. Unlike human pros, the horse dentist makes farm calls, thankfully. And she knows how to administer appropriate amounts of sedative, because although floating a horse’s teeth isn’t painful, it is upsetting; the ‘float’ is a cylindrical file attached to a drill.

So Bailey got some really groovy drugs, and had her teeth dremeled. (As an aside- sedated horses are funny as hell to watch. She walked like she was drunk, swaying from side to side, head down, lower lip drooping; I’ve never seen her that relaxed. But she retained a lot of her spatial recognition; we had to go through a narrow doorway, and she navigated it without mishap, with only a couple of inches to spare on either side. Like a cat using its whiskers to navigate a narrow space.)

But it gets weirder. The dentist also removed a ‘blind’ wolf tooth. This is a vestigial canine that lies just under the gum, not visible to a casual inspection. It’s located on the bars of the horse’s mouth- the gap between their incisors and molars, where the bit sits. And until the dentist pointed it out to me, I’d never heard of such a thing or noticed the funny bump on Bailey’s lower jaw that was actually a tooth the size of my thumbnail.

Think about this, ladies and gents. My poor horse has lived her entire working life (anywhere from 5-8 years, depending on when they started training her) with her gums getting pinched between that tooth and a chunk of steel, every time her rider pulled on the reins. And the only sign of it was a reluctance to open her mouth for the bit, and some generalized anxiety; she hasn’t killed or maimed anyone that I know of.

Now, lest I get reported for animal cruelty, I’d had previously noticed that she was much more relaxed with a bitless bridle, and altered my equipment accordingly. But that’s not a perfect solution for the way I ride, and I was wondering what made her so anxious in the first place.

Now I know.

This happened a few weeks ago, and Bailey hasn’t magically turned into an ultra-relaxed, dead-broke, kid-safe horse. This isn’t a Disney movie. But she’s much happier, much more relaxed in general, and I can ride her with a bitted or bitless bridle without wondering if I’m hurting her.

So I’m much happier. It was a knotty problem, and I’m glad the dentist was able to solve it.

There doesn’t have to be a moral to this story, but if you must have one, try this: If all your usual self-care routines aren’t working, look deeper. Try something new. It could be that there’s something buried, that you never noticed before because it was always there, that is causing your trouble.

And it’s much easier to fix a problem if you know that it exists.

10 comments

  1. Continually erupting teeth can have drawbacks, however. If the horse’s teeth don’t line up perfectly, they wear unevenly, causing sharp hooks and points on the opposite teeth. So, domestic horses have their teeth filed down, or floated, periodically, to even out any points that might cause discomfort. Most horses need their teeth done once a year; some might go a few years without any problems.

    Can go beyond that, “our” horses didn’t need it…but solidly in the “if you have horses think about this” thing.

    1. It’s always interesting to put in problems like that without betraying the hand of the author.

    2. Magic, of course. Historically, the horse’s teeth got worse and worse, until it started to have difficulty eating and starved or was taken down by a predator (still happens in the wild). Or if the horse reacted violently to the pain, it might be deemed ‘vicious’ and sent to the knackers.

      1. And it could be as simple as a farrier who could actually communicate sensibly with the horse and go ‘I’m going to fix your teeth. It’ll feel a little bad now then feel better’

      2. Magic. Of course. The rogue was making bank selling the wildshaped druid to various horse ranchers. Until that one day.
        Rogue, “You walking kind of funny their partner.”
        Druid mumbles.
        Rogue, “Speak up I can’t hear you.” The druid stabs the rogue and whispers, “You fool. You missed the farrier! He filed my teeth down. And it gelding season!”

  2. Thinking about another post by the BBESP and some intermittent and unidentified health problems…has the BBESP ever had her teeth floated? Just asking. And a hidden wolf tooth could explain a lot. And I am going to go run and hide now.

  3. Yeah but the BBESP has never been bridled as far as I can tell….

    More like full of unbridled passions, anger etc. and occasionally getting the bit between her teeth as she works flat out to finish a book….

  4. Could have used this post a couple of weeks ago, when (city-bred) husband asked, out of the blue, “So what is this thing about not looking a gift horse in the mouth, anyway? Why would anybody want to look in a horse’s mouth?”

    I didn’t explain it this clearly, but did convince him the saying made sense.

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