Equine Dentistry - Why NOT to Have It Done.

Before I give you the number one reason you should NOT float your horse, I need to acknowledge a few things.

First, I would like to thank Barn Mice for featuring my blog on their site. They pick someone who they think is interesting and has something to say and then ask them to contribute weekly for a month. So May is my month. Thank you for the opportunity to spread my opinion on equine dentistry, which you will soon find is a lot different than the rhetoric given by the "modern" equine dentists.

Second, for those of you who do not know me, I am an equine veterinarian (The Equine Practice) who was a horseman before I became a vet. Five years away from school on a Thoroughbred breeding and training farm helped shape my horsemanship skills. In 1983 my mentor at Cornell showed me how to insert my hand into the horse's mouth without using any speculum. Since then I have floated over 43,000 horses so maybe I might know why you should NOT float your horse's teeth. Are you interested?

There are two questions we need to try to answer: 1) what is the purpose of floating teeth? and 2) how can you tell if it has been done well?

From my experience the ONLY purpose of floating teeth is to remove all sources of pain. Everything else is secondary such as balancing the jaw and reducing the incisors. A fact that was observed and documented was that horses chew between 10,000 to 40,000 times a day. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. If we pick an average of 25,000 chews a day, then about a third of the day is spent chewing.

If the sharp points found on every tooth of every horse's mouth create painful ulcers of the cheek or tongue, the horse will chew in a way to avoid this pain. And what is the purpose of chewing? It is to form a bolus of food that is acceptable for swallowing. In another good study, horses with various degrees of bad dentition were given the same diet. They concluded that as long as the food got past the mouth, all feed was digested the same. But you who have mucked stalls know that most horse poop looks the same. We didn't need a study for that! What it also says is that kernels of corn in the manure is not a teeth issue but a lack of effective digestion.

Another important point is that the tongue needs to be able to move freely within the mouth to clean it as well as to stimulate and strengthen the attachment of the teeth within their sockets. Where this tongue movement is limited by sharp points, pathology occurs including local gum infections and loosening of teeth with premature tooth loss.

So removal of pain is why we float the teeth, but how do you tell if it was done well on your horse? This is actually tough unless you can go inside and inspect the job yourself. But I have found that the horse will tell you. In other words in most horses, if all the points are addressed, your horse should be more comfortable in chewing and in bit response. If you continue floating regularly then your horse should remain comfortable. If after floating your horse still shows bit discomfort or if he still tilts his head and lets grain spill out, then it is possible they were not floated well. But not always. Other factors need to be considered such as nuchal bursa inflammation, cervical vertebral lesions, and other things located outside of the mouth.

So what could be the reason NOT to float your horse? Simply this. Once you have had your horse floated and all sources of pain removed, he will now know what normal is. To keep him happy in the bit you will need to repeat the floating on a regular basis. Because in the next 864,000 seconds your horse will chew another quarter of a million times and the sharp points will return.

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Comment by Marlene Thoms on April 19, 2015 at 3:27pm

Thankyou, interesting article. I would just add, for those who use bitless bridles or are thinking of using them: Remember  that keeping teeth comfortable is still an issue, even if there is no bit. Sore teeth or cheeks can also cause an unhappy horse (and training problems)  with a bitless bridle.

Comment by Geoff Tucker, DVM on May 10, 2010 at 12:58am
Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I understand your frustration with riders who blame other things rather that blaming themselves. Unfortunately floating horses is an art form. It is not a mechanical process like a tire alignment. Just because the horse was floated does not mean he was floated thoroughly or effectively.

I think my humor failed to come through in this blog because it was a little tongue-in-cheek. The humor is this: Once your horse has been floated well, he now knows the difference between having no pain in the mouth and having pain. Once there, you have committed your horse to a lifetime of floating, which is why maybe you should not float him in the first place. One more thing to do and to pay for. Kind of funny don't you think?

But on the serious side is this: How many times are you going to dip into your purse and pay for an inadequate float job? Unfortunately so many horses have areas in their mouths that are missed in the floating process. If the source of pain remains, then the floating is ineffective and all you have left is training. From experience, I have found so many horses that trainers were having trouble with the bit response that have responded to one small area of floating. Remember it is not how sharp the teeth are, it is the horse's threshold of pain. Some with no tolerance for pain are susceptible to even the most minor sharp point making any riding unresponsive except to the softest of hands.

A comment on the bit seat - This is a very misunderstood issue and a misnomer as well. The first cheek teeth are not grooved or notched and it is not something made for the bit to sit in. I have two words for the "problem": FLABBY CHEEKS. Some horses have excess cheek tissue that lays in the interdental space just in front of the 1st lower cheek teeth. When a large bit or a double bridle pushes this soft tissue against the sharp 1st lower cheek teeth, pain occurs. Again, it is the threshold of pain that will cause the response. Most horses are OK with flabby cheeks, but I have seen many horses that I could float easily with out medication until I got to the 1st lower cheek teeth. In these horses the teeth could not be addressed without pain killers being given.

For a visual of the bit seat, imaging the un-floated tooth looking like the bow of the Titanic and the properly floated 1st cheek teeth having the appearance of the bow of a tug boat. With the smooth and rounded edges, excessive soft tissue (flabby cheeks) has an escape route. This is why a thinner bit works better on these horses and why it is important in many horses using a double bridle to adequately address the 1st cheek teeth. Here is a link to an article on Flabby Cheeks along with a picture: http://www.theequinepractice.com/Blog/bid/11473/Flabby-Cheeks and here is a video on it: http://www.theequinepractice.com/Blog/bid/11674/Flabby-Cheeks-In-Eq....

Again, thanks for taking the time to bring up these issues. I agree with you that many other things could be at the root of training issues. However, until all sources of pain are removed from the mouth, please don't rule out the teeth! Doc

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