Caring for your horse’s teeth

By Wendy Talbot on 08 September 2017

What can you tell me about horse’s teeth? 

The horse has a highly efficient grazing and grinding machine in the form of up to 44 teeth, set in a powerful jaw. Horses are herbivores and munch their way through on average 2.5% of their bodyweight in forage and feed every day to maintain their weight – that’s a whopping 12.5kg (dry matter) of food chomping for a 500kg horse. This is why it’s so important to keep your horse’s teethin good working order.

Twelve incisors at the front of your horse’s mouth are used to graze or cut forage. Next, come twelve premolars and then twelve molars. Their job is to chew and grind food before it is swallowed.

Most males will also have up to four canine teeth. Their purpose was originally for fighting and they are usually absent in mares. Up to a third of both sexes may also have wolf teeth. These are usually removed so that they don’t interfere with the bit, which sits in the interdental space behind the front incisors. Wolf teeth are the remnants of what were once functional cheek teeth millions of years ago.

Do horses’ teeth wear out?

The short answer is yes. This is largely because improved healthcare and nutrition is enabling horses to live for longer and often their teeth can’t stay the distance.

A young adult horse’s teeth are very long with the majority concealed below the gumline at this stage.  The teeth slowly emerge from the jaw at a rate of about 2-3mm every year as the grinding surface is worn down through chewing. In old age when there is no more tooth left to emerge the crowns of the teeth become very short and may eventually fall out.

How often should my horse’s teeth be checked?

It’s all about preventative care. Your horse’s teeth should be examined by your vet or qualified equine dental technician every 6- 12 months. Just like humans, horses can have many problems with their teeth such as loose or broken teeth, excessively worn teeth, infections and gum disease. It’s crucial to identify problems early, preferably before symptoms occur, to minimise discomfort and maximise chances of successful treatment.

How do I know if my horse has a dental problem?

This can be tricky because you can’t see inside your horse’s mouth and often the horse will not show any obvious symptoms. This is why regular check ups are so important.

If your horse is showing any of the following signs you should book a dental examination:

  • Dropping food from the mouth while eating – referred to as ‘quidding’
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Undigested food particles in dung
  • Weight loss
  • Nasal discharge with a foul odour
  • Facial swellings
  • Abnormal behaviours when ridden, such as irregular head carriage, head tossing or tilting and resistance to the bit

Who should check my horse’s teeth?

You need a vet or a qualified equine dental technician to carry out this job. They will thoroughly examine your horse’s teeth and the surrounding soft tissue. They may carry out routine treatment to reduce any sharp points and to balance the angles and lengths of teeth so that they match, to make sure your horse is comfortable and can chew correctly. Any abnormalities such as cavities, abnormal spaces and diseased teeth can also be identified and treated.

It is often best for your horse to be lightly sedated before a dental examination as this allows for a safer and more thorough procedure with minimal distress for your horse. Only your vet is qualified to sedate your horse. The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) offers guidance to horse owners to help them understand the rules surrounding equine dental care.

What’s new in equine dentistry?

There have been significant advances in equine dentistry over the past 20 years. Equipment, diagnosis and treatment techniques continue to progress and vets can now take specific qualifications in in equine dentistry to enhance their knowledge and skills. It’s all good news for horses.

Other related content:

Easy on the sugar cubes: The easy way to treat your horse 


National Research Council, Nutrient Requirements of Horses 2007 Sixth Revised Edition


Equine Dental clinic 




Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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