How Dental Health Affects Athletic Ability
by Jennifer Warmke with Dr. Hannah Mueller
How could a young, well-cared for performance horse end up with behavioral issues and a handful of medical problems that could have been easily prevented? By neglecting regular dental care.
“Whether dealing with a young horse in training or a seasoned performance horse it pays to look at the horse’s mouth,” says Dr. Hannah Mueller of Evergreen Holistic Veterinary Care – Equine. “A horse’s teeth will grow continually until sometime in their 20’s; therefore, it stands to reason that many equine performance problems and dental issues are intimately related.”
While some people consider the horse’s mouth merely another part of the digestive process, many major medical issues like chronic weight loss, choke, colic, and behavioral problems are actually due to oral pain. For this reason, a preventative dental care program for your horse is an extremely important part of their health care.
Equine dental problems manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Because horses adapt to pain and discomfort, they may not show noticeable signs of dental problems. As a result the issues often go undetected, resulting in a progression of the problem until the health and performance of the animal has been adversely affected. The horse’s performance often becomes limited as it modifies behavior to avoid the pain.
Trainers and owners are well aware that one of the most important avenues of communication with the horse is through contact by means of a bit in the mouth. Performance horses are expected to maintain a steady head carriage while showing no resistance, all while accepting the bit(s) and performing complicated maneuvers. The bridle and bit place pressure on the cheeks, gums, tongue, and teeth. Nosebands, cavesons, hackamores and bosals also pull the cheeks onto the sharp enamel points of tooth edges. This pressure can result in behavioral and performance problems if the teeth are not level, sharp, or creating inflammation in the mouth resulting in pain.
Correction of these abnormalities can greatly enhance performance and the longevity of the teeth and health in horses. Dental issues that are overlooked can further undermine the health and well-being of the horse by causing uneven stress on ligaments and joints due to tension patterns established by its efforts to avoid pain. These tension patterns influence not only how the horse feels and performs, but how he may learn, think and even react. Most major dental problems do not manifest themselves overnight, but rather stem from misalignments of the teeth or uneven tooth wear. Without attention and maintenance, minor dental issues can turn into much bigger problems.
The frequency with which your horse should receive a comprehensive dental exam depends on several factors. As a general rule, many equine veterinarians recommend at least a brief dental exam bi-annually until the horse reaches the age of 5 years. During this time frame, a tremendous amount of activity is occurring in your horse’s mouth and early identification of any potential problems will allow for intervention and minimize the impact of the problem over the horse’s lifetime. If dental abnormalities are found, your veterinarian will perform a float procedure. “Floating” is using a specialized file or rasp to remove sharp points and excess tooth material in order to create a balanced grinding surface. Canines and incisors will also be checked and the edges of the first cheek teeth may be rounded (commonly referred to as “bit seats”) to ensure that there is no irritation in the horse’s mouth from bit pressure.
Between the ages of 5 to 15 years, many horses only need a yearly dental exam. However, Dr. Hannah warns that it is not uncommon to see new dental-related conditions in a performance horse within six to ten months of their last dental maintenance. The most common problems she experiences are minor hooks, ramps, points and wave complexes that have resulted in lacerations and ulcerations to the oral soft tissues. As your horse ages and its mouth wears, your veterinarian may once again recommend biannual exams. Over the years, teeth begin to wear out, becoming less effective at grinding and processing feed. More frequent, minor adjustments in your horse’s diet and dental care can ensure that your aging companion stays healthy and vital for many more years to come.
With any equine health program, equine dentistry involves prevention. Early detection of abnormalities and regular maintenance, at least on an annual basis, will help avoid many serious dental and health complications that result in unnecessary pain and suffering for your horse.
Jennifer Warmke is a Certified Hoof Care Specialist and has worked in disaster and emergency management for over a decade in two states. She is an avid trail rider with a focus on dressage and horsemanship and currently resides in the Pacific Northwest. For more information visit her website at www.HolisticHoof.com*.
Dr. Hannah Mueller (formerly Evergreen) is a 2004 graduate from OSU, College of Veterinary Medicine with a focus in equine dentistry and sports medicine/lameness. She is also certified in veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic. She runs both her holistic equine veterinary practice, Evergreen Holistic Veterinary Care- Equine (www.ehvcequine.com) and her non-profit, Northwest Equine Stewardship Center (www.nwesc.org), out of her state-of-the-art equine facility in Snohomish, WA.
*This link was no longer active at the time this article was added to the website.
Published July 2012 Issue
The Colorado Horse Source is an independently owned and operated print and online magazine for horse owners and enthusiasts of all breeds and disciplines in Colorado and surrounding area. Our contemporary editorial columns are predominantly written by experts in the region, covering the care, training, keeping and enjoyment of horses, with an eye to the specific concerns in our region.