One of the essentials of owning a horse is to study, know and understand the anatomy of the animal. Most horse books contain diagrams marking the body parts and their workings.
I wonder how many of us can name the "points of a horse", know them off by heart and their functions, right down to the ergot?
To try to understand and handle a horse without this basic knowledge would be disastrous.
Looking after a horse or pony is a different proposition than caring for your domestic pet.
If your horse in the paddock is expected to lead a working life, don't just presume that he can live happily and perform well on a diet of grass alone, with only an occasional visit from his owner.
The most basic knowledge can help an owner diagnose problems and prevent them from making unreasonable performance requests.
Owners may not have expert veterinary knowledge, but learning how the horse's system works can help significantly when an accident or injury happens. Such knowledge will also help when you have to give the vet details of an injury, to know whether it is urgent or not.
In the weeks to come we will look at the various systems of the horse: the bone structure, digestive system, respiratory and circulatory systems, conformation, general horse care, floating and saddlery.
This week we will look at teeth.
Regular dental care will reduce problems. Horses require preventive dentistry to ensure comfort when they are eating and when the bit is in their mouth.
The main equine dental disorders stem from the fact that many horses are no longer on uncultivated pasture. Prepared feeds — oats, chaff, bran and others — cause a reduction in the effort needed to chew the food to the size required in order to swallow.
This leads to teeth wearing down in an abnormal manner, where the inside of the lower teeth and the outside edge of the upper teeth might develop sharp edges that can cut the cheeks and the tongue severely, causing extreme pain.
These sharp edges require careful re-shaping (rasping). This abnormal wear is a common condition and may be improved each time the horse is treated by either an equine dentist or veterinary surgeon.
Horses between 2 and 4 years of age lose 24 temporary teeth (milk teeth) in their early years and these may cause discomfort, abnormal positioning of the new teeth, infections, gum disease, while feed fragments may impact in the gums surrounding the teeth.
It is sometimes difficult to diagnose if a horse has a dental problem, but careful observation of its behavior may point to the teeth.
Signs can be the unwillingness to accept the bit, head shaking and tossing, pulling or lugging to one side. Others are the spilling of the feed while eating, slow eating, excessive salivation, undigested feed in the manure, some forms of colic and a poor appetite.
If the horse has not been treated for some time there is a good chance there has been some deterioration of the teeth sufficient to cause some of the above symptoms.
Here is a basic dental program for horses:
If stabled and on hard feed, under four years: Inspection every three to six months. More than four years: About every six to 12 months.
In the paddock: Under four years: About every six months. More than four years: About every 12 months.
With an old horse, it will be necessary to revert to six-monthly inspections.
There are other mouth problems apart from teeth.
A common one is caused by grass or cereal seeds. Coarse grasses have large seeds which sometimes can pack up between the lips and the gums, or behind the molar teeth. Further problems can occur when the small sharp spikes of the seeds become embedded in these areas, making it painful for the horse. You may be able to remove the spikes with the appropriate sterilized instrument but it may be a job for the veterinarian.
Teeth and mouth problems affect the horse's behavior and digestion.
It is vital that the bit fits correctly and that teeth are checked regularly.