An adult male horse has 44 permanent teeth and a mare between 36 and 40. Until they are about 5 years old they will be on their first set of teeth, known as their deciduous teeth, by 5 they should have their permanent adult teeth in.
About 18 million years ago the teeth in fossilised skeletons of horses changed as they adapted to an abrasive diet. The surface of the molars changed becoming more complex and better suited for chewing grasses and other tough plants. Their teeth also began to grow taller, laying the evolution for the modern horse’s teeth.
We often say that horse’s teeth grow constantly. However horse’s teeth have finished growing once their permanent teeth are in place, but they are around 12cm long and gradually erupt from the gums, around 0.3cm per year. Their abrasive diet means that their teeth wear down gradually over time, and so this eruption means that their teeth do not wear down completely until they are much older. The problems are that the constant wear on the upper surface of the teeth can lead to sharp edges and uneven wear, which can lead to a whole host of issues.
Problems that may stem from dental issues and signs to look out for
Even if your horse is showing no symptoms of discomfort some learn to live with a degree of pain, so it’s worth getting a regular check up on their teeth.
Poor teeth means poor diet and a poor diet can lead to all of the above and digestive disorders such as colic.
Short answer, yes. The longer answer means looking at the evolution of the horse and how they have adapted to nature. A horse at pasture will use the incisors to tear at the grass and the molars to grind it down. In a field of pasture there will be soft bits and places where the grass grows a bit tougher, there may even be a tasty shrub or two that they have a chew on. This full range of jaw movement and different wearing means that the teeth are more inclined to wear evenly. Added to this that a grazing diet normally needs a whole lot more chewing that a pellet or cubed diet and you can see why horses out in the pasture tend to have fewer problems. In fact that a pellet or cube diet can actively inhibit the normal chewing pattern, and can lead to problems with their teeth and jaws.
A good dentist should give your horse a once over to make sure that your horse is healthy and sound. As the list above shows poor teeth will lead to a whole host of other conditions. After this the visit may follow along these sort of line.
Most horses only have hands near their mouths if they are getting a treat or the bit in their mouth. You might need to get them used to the idea that people will be handling them around their mouth, start by touching the front of their nose. Do they try and nibble or chew your hand looking for a treat. Try and work with them so you can touch their lips without them reaching to chew or lick you.
Sadly since the horse’s teeth don’t carry on growing, rather they erupt, meaning that eventually there is no more teeth left to erupt. Older horses are more likely to develop hooks on their teeth and prone to a condition known as choke, where they literally choke or gag on their food due to poorly chewed food. This poor chewing can also lead to colic and laminitis, for older horses checks up are more vital than ever.
But the end of their teeth doesn’t have to mean the end of their life as they would in the wild, different diets and specialist senior food can help them in their twilight years.
There is an old saying, ‘No feet, no horses.’ Well what’s true for the feet is true for the teeth, and as with their feet regular checks and specialist care can leave your horse pain free for a long and happy life.