Why Horses Need Dentists
Good tooth care will keep your horse happier, healthier, and better able to do his job on the racetrack.
By Tracy Gantz
Just when you thought you’d paid every bill possible on your racehorse, along comes one for “floating teeth.” Okay, you tell yourself, do teeth really float and why do I have to pay for it?
Actually, “floating teeth” is the horse term for going to the dentist, that annoying chore that most of us put off as long as possible. But whereas humans must pay attention to gum disease, regular flossing, and tooth decay, horses’ teeth require different care.
The term “floating” comes from the masonry industry, meaning to smooth, because that is what an equine dentist does. Unlike human teeth, which are designed to process meat, a horse’s teeth are designed for a herbivore diet of grass, hay, and grain, which can quickly wear down teeth. Thus, nature dictated that a horse’s teeth constantly grow, unlike a human’s teeth.
With the roughage horses found in the wild, they kept their teeth in fairly good condition. Man has produced better quality food that isn’t as hard on the teeth, however, and that coupled with the tasks we ask horses to perform require floating or smoothing of the teeth.
In California, equine dentistry is done by a veterinarian or a lay person working under a vet’s supervision. Southern California racetrack vet Rick Arthur has floated teeth for 25 years. His assistant of 20 years, Ruben Tovar, has floated teeth for 15 years.
According to Arthur, one of the primary reasons that horses need dental work is “just a bad design flaw.” As he explained, “The upper row of teeth is wider than the lower row of teeth. So as the horse grinds its food and wears down its teeth, he develops sharp points on the outside of the upper teeth and on the inside of the lower teeth.”
These points can cut the cheek and tongue, causing pain. That can keep a horse from eating properly and lead to bad habits when training and racing. If a horse has his teeth floated regularly, these sharp points won’t have a chance to bother him.
Arthur said trainers usually notice teeth problems when monitoring a horse’s eating patterns.
“If a horse is quidding—dropping chunks of partially masticated food into their water—then we look at the teeth,” Arthur said. “Also, sometimes they’ll start salivating excessively if their teeth are bothering them.”
In addition to watching for any eating irregularities, trainers make teeth checkups a part of their regimen.
“We weigh our horses once a week,” said trainer Matt Chew. “That’s when we look at their teeth—as part of a regular routine that we follow. That way we can stay on top of it.”
Performance problems can also require a call to the dentist.
“Whenever a horse starts throwing its head, doesn’t want the bit in its mouth, pulls his head sideways, tries to get out, or those sorts of things, we’ll check the teeth,” Arthur said.
When floating teeth, racetrack dentists pay particular attention to the four teeth that sit directly behind the bit (two teeth on either side of the mouth both top and bottom). Keeping these teeth especially smooth helps avoid bit problems.
“You want to get all four of those teeth nice and round like a quarter of a billiard ball so that there are no sharp edges,” Arthur said.
Racetrack dentists tend to make this more pronounced than a dentist would with other performance horses.
“The horse is going faster, and it takes more of a pull on a horse at the racetrack than it does for a horse doing other work,” Arthur explained.
Most trainers are conscientious about floating teeth regularly (hence, the bills). Arthur said the cost ranges from $50 to $100. Sometimes, particularly with a nervous horse, he tranquilizes the
animal, which will cost more.
You might find your dental bills rising somewhat in younger horses as they lose their baby teeth, called caps. As the permanent teeth grow, the caps loosen and eventually come off. A dentist will pull them if it appears they could interfere with the horse’s ability to eat or train.
“When the caps are starting to come off, they can move a little bit and cut a horse’s cheek,” Arthur said. “They can be very discomforting to a horse.”
Horses lose the caps of about a third of their teeth at a time in three stages, at roughly 2½, 3½, and 4½ years of age. Bear in mind that this is the horse’s actual age, not the Jan. 1 universal birth date of Thoroughbreds. Because these are also a horse’s prime racing years, trainers and vets pay particular attention to the caps.
Imported horses sometimes need more teeth work than horses raised in this country. Last year Jenine Sahadi began training two horses from South Africa that required a dentist.
“Both of those horses looked like they’d never had their teeth done,” she said. “Their mouths were ripped to shreds, and you wonder how they ever got a bit in their mouths.”
Tovar floated the horses’ teeth and solved the problem. One of the horses, Delta Form, won the Oct. 8 Henry P. Russell Handicap at Oak Tree.
Arthur said that a horse’s mouth problems don’t always stem from bad teeth.
“A heavy-handed exercise rider can be hard on a horse,” he said. “That’s why it always irritates me to see someone snatching on a horse. The bit gets in the wrong position, and you can actually do damage to the mucosa (the lining) around the teeth.
“Another problem can be the bit. Some bits just don’t fit well in some horses, and that’s why it’s really important to get the proper bit for a horse. For example, ring bits can be very severe. Something like a leather prong bit is a lot gentler on the mouth.”
Horses can also be hard on themselves. Arthur cited one filly he works on who is difficult to train and consequently cuts her mouth.
“We have to overcompensate for that,” he said. “We actually take her teeth down lower than we would with an ordinary horse.”
Once in a while a trainer can move up a horse he has claimed just by floating the teeth. Back when Bobby Frankel ran an active claiming barn, he made sure that any horses he claimed had their teeth
“If the horse’s teeth have not been properly done, you’re at a real advantage once the teeth are floated,” Arthur said. “because you’ll have a healthier, happier horse.”
Today Frankel has top-quality stakes horses that can compete anywhere in the world, and he continues to pay close attention to an animal’s teeth.
“The first thing you do is look at their teeth,” Arthur said. “It’s the easiest thing to take care of. I try to encourage my better stables to float horses’ teeth every three to four months. I think it saves a lot of problems. It’s like deworming—it’s money well spent.”