The mouth is made up of teeth, the hard and soft palates the tongue, cheeks and lips, as well as all of the associated muscles, nervous and circulatory elements. Horses have three pairs of salivary glands located near the poll, in the jam and under the tongue.
Horses select forage and pick up finer foods with their sensitive prehensile lips. The front set of teeth, known as incisors are used to clip forage such as grass from the roots before the food is pushed deep into the mouth by the tongue where it is ground up by the molars and premolars into a more easily digested form before being swallowed.
The mouth is where digestion begins, should the mouth become unhealthy causing pain digestion can suffer causing malnutrition and associated illnesses, untreated dental problems can lead to starvation and death.
Although much of this site is dedicated to horses an equine dental technician is able to carry out procedures on all equine species, including horses and ponies, much of the detail included in this page is true of most equine species.
Equines are both heterodontous and diphyodontous, these are both long words that mean that horses have teeth differently shaped teeth for different jobs and that they have two sets of teeth in their life time the deciduous or baby teeth and the adult permanent teeth.
As grazing animals a healthy mouth and teeth are essential for survival, the patterns of wear caused by years of almost constant grazing as well we the eruption of teeth can be used a rough guide to ascertain the age of a given horse using techniques dating back as far as 600 BCE and recorded in ancient China.
By adulthood, around 6 years of age a horse will have between 36 and 44 teeth including twelve incisors and a mixture of molars, premolars, some but not all horses also have canine and wolf teeth.
The twelve incisors are at the front of the mouth and used mainly for clipping food, most often grass when grazing, they are also used by the horse in self defence and the ones that equine dental technicians need to need a close eye on or expect to get the odd bite, painful!
Behind the incisors is the interdental space where no teeth grow, this is where the bit is placed for controlling and working the animal, sometimes the bit can cause damage to the tissue or pain making the horse less responsive, this can be helped by rounding the first premolar to form a bit seat. Behind this toothless area all horses also have twelve premolars and twelve molars which are used to chew the food before swallowing. The molars and premolars are often referred to as cheek teeth or jaw teeth.
Some also can also have canine teeth these are much more common in males horses than mares with only a quarter of females having them. Stallions that have canines or tusks normally have a set of four.
Between a quarter and a third of both male and female horses also have wolf teeth, which are not related to and should not be confused with canines. Wolf teeth are vestigial (meaning they no longer have the purpose for which there ancestors developed them due to evolution, much like our own appendix) and erupt just in front of the premolars in the interdental space. Wolf teeth are small peg like teeth normally around 3mm diameter and with a 2cm root and are much more common on the upper jaw than the lower. Wolf teeth can often be missed even when present if they have no erupted through the gum and in this case are referred to as blind.
A normally healthy wolf tooth is not normally painful and should caused no problem to a wild horse, however horses working with us can be caused significant problems due to the interaction between the bit and the wolf tooth. Wolf teeth are likely to cause problems if the bit forces the cheek against a sharp wolf tooth, if the wolf tooth prevents the bit from moving normally, if the bit put pressure directly upon the wolf tooth causing pain or where the wolf tooth is large and in close contact with the buccal mucosa (inner lining of the cheek).
Wolf teeth are often extracted from working horses as the procedure is simple and low risk and removes the possibility of pain when the horse works with the bit. We will discuss this with you and consider a number of key factors to decide upon the best course of action, chief amongst these is the use of the horse and the animals response when working with the bit.