I often wonder about the word “need” as it applies to working on horse teeth.

Need means: “To require something because it is essential, or very important.”

So, it seems that, at this point in time, it’s common knowledge* that horses need to have their teeth ground down at some point in their lives (this has not always been so—read on). In common parlance, this would be called “teeth floating,” with the “floating” part of the term meaning “to make level and smooth,” like workers do when they lay cement.

IMPORTANT ASIDE: Tooth floating has served as a reasonably useful term for a long time, and the definition of “floating,” though somewhat obscure, is apt. However, some folks may describe the process as “occlusal equilibration,” which, to me, is mostly a way to make a relatively mundane task sound exotic and important. Sort of like describing someone who cleans a floor as a “sanitation engineer.” Furthermore, there aren’t any standard measurements that allow for individuals to agree on when this mythical state of equilibration has been reached. So, if someone tells you that he or she has just “equilibrated” your horse’s mouth, it’s probably so, at least in his or her mind, but not necessarily in the mind of the next equilibrator, who may have something else in mind. The horse, as always, even when confronted with complete nonsense, stands silent.

QUESTION #1: “Why does someone think that my horse needs to get his teeth floated?”

Let’s briefly talk about the “why” that is. It’s not like people need to drive to the dentist a couple of times a year to get their teeth ground down. Why horses?

Horse teeth are different from people teeth (perhaps obvious, but needed to be said anyway). Both people and horses get baby teeth, then permanent teeth. Except for brushing and flossing, nobody ever really thinks much about their own teeth, unless they are injured (say, from a punch in the mouth), or diseased (from never flossing, for example).

Eruption, volcano-wise

Horse teeth are different. They get baby teeth, and then permanent teeth, but horse teeth also have very long roots, which, over the course of the horse’s life, “erupt”—the same term as is used in talking about volcanoes.

In the case of horse teeth, erupt means that the teeth are constantly pushing upwards, like lava, but without the heat and the speed. As the teeth are erupting, they are also chewing on things like hay, pasture, stall doors, and fencing (the last two are not considered desirable). With all of the chewing, the teeth wear against each other, and grind themselves down.

However, over the course of time, that grinding occurs unevenly in many horses.

©Virgonira

ANOTHER IMPORTANT ASIDE: When I say “over the course of time,” it’s reasonable to ask, “How much time?” Well, horse teeth are thought to erupt at a rate of something like two–six millimeters a year. That’s not very much, and, as such, the teeth shouldn’t be in danger of changing very fast. Think about that when you’re talking to folks that tell you that your horse needs to have his teeth floated twice a year.

The teeth don’t sit flat on each other—the upper teeth hang over on the cheek side) of the lower teeth, and the lower teeth aren’t in contact with the tongue side of the upper teeth, and they’re at a bit of an angle.**

As they chew, the sides can wear unevenly, and this uneven wear can form points and edges that can be surprisingly sharp. Uneven wear can cause things such as “hooks” on individual teeth, and the rows of grinding teeth in the back of the mouth—six upper and six lower, on each side—may also not be level, resulting in a “wave” mouth. And all of these things are said to need “correction” when recognized by an enterprising entrepreneur/examiner.

The front tooth of this horse has a large hook on it

QUESTION #2: “So what? That, is, what difference do those points and hooks and waves make?

According to what’s being said currently, horses need all those things addressed:

  1. To help them eat.
  2. To help them perform (those sharp points are alleged to cause discomfort when the bridle pushes the cheeks onto the teeth).
  3. To prevent future problems with the teeth and gums.
  4. To help him maintain his posture.***

Eating—It seems plausible that mouth irregularities might make it uncomfortable for the horse to eat. On the other hand, they came up with the phrase “eating like a horse” for a reason, and horses generally don’t let a little thing like uncomfortable teeth stop them from eating. So, I think it’s fair to say that, for most horses, in the absence of any real disease or pathology, a few points on the teeth aren’t going to bother the horse at all, particularly when it comes to eating.

This prehistoric horse skull, from the LaBrea Tar Pits, has lots of points on its teeth. It died because it got caught in the tar, not because of its teeth.

ANOTHER ASIDE: I believe two things. First, I don’t think that many people are smarter now than they ever were. They know more, but they aren’t smarter. In fact, people who lived a long time ago were so smart that we keep talking about them: Plato, Socrates, and those jolly fellows. Second, I think that they were much more closely associated with their horses than we are now. I mean, in the past, whether it came to getting to the grocery store, plowing the fields, or throwing one of the nine kids into the cart to go to ballet lessons or soccer practice, the horse was pretty valuable, and people lived with them and observed them closely. So it may come as something of a surprise to you to learn that it wasn’t that long ago (relative to man’s association with horses) that people were not worried about the horse’s mouth being level and smooth at all. In a book that I republished, first printed in 1682, The Anatomy of An Horse, Andrew Snape, “farrier” to King Charles II, discussed how important it was for the horse’s teeth to be really sharp. As everybody apparently knew at the time, smooth millstones don’t grind grain well, so you wanted to make sure that the horse’s teeth were sharp and pitted, so it could grind its grain.*

Scientific research has also been regularly and perhaps frustratingly unable to show any benefit for the horse in having its teeth floated. Several studies (12345) have failed to show that horses that get their teeth floated digest feed better, or gain weight better. So you wonder how important it is sometimes.

Performance—Again, it makes some sense that horses with sharp teeth would resent having those sharp teeth pressed into the sides of their cheeks by a bridle. But, in the one study that looked at dressage horses with or without their teeth having been floated, no difference could be detected.

When I’ve looked at high level performance horses imported from overseas, it’s not been uncommon to find very sharp teeth in their mouths that didn’t also prevent them from jumping very high or being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you’d think that if the sharp teeth were cutting into the sides of the horses’ mouths, you’d see a mouthful of blood after riding a horse that needed its teeth floated. But that’s not common at all.

Again, not to say that horses never need their teeth floated, but they certainly don’t need it every six months.

©Jennifer Lawrence

Preventing future problems—This is a real selling point of dental interventions. It’s the old, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” adage. And, while the adage is certainly true, it’s hard to say if it’s apt when it comes to floating teeth or not.

I mean, I’ve seen plenty of older horses that have had their teeth regularly floated that also eventually ended up with problems in the mouth. And I’ve also seen plenty of horses that ended up with problems in the mouth after having had their teeth aggressively ground down. But on a more basic level, it’s hard to understand how grinding a tooth away can improve the longevity of that same tooth, as some folks may assert.

Still, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assert that horses may need something done, sometime. Otherwise stated, it’s good to have someone take a look in your horse’s mouth sometimes but not necessarily to go grinding away each time they do.

FINAL ASIDE (I promise): Horses do develop oral pathology. They do get diseased and broken teeth. Those need to be treated, when they occur. However, we’re talking about routine floating in this article, not real oral pathology that requires veterinary attention.

Excessively worn incisor teeth on a cribber. ©Jacqueline Nix

LAST QUESTION (FINALLY): “So, does my horse need to get his teeth floated?”

Here’s the kicker: there aren’t any standards when it comes to determining the “need” for a horse to have its teeth floated. Everyone is kind of doing what they want.

So, depending on who you employ to work on your horse’s teeth, he may need his teeth floated more or less often. (For what it’s worth, I generally vote for less). The job that one person thinks is perfect may be completely inadequate to someone else, and especially if that someone else wants your business or needs something to do to fill out the afternoon.

I mean, it’s not like you’re likely to stick your fingers inside your horse’s mouth (it’s a good way to get bitten if you’re not used to doing it); you’re likely to trust the person that you’ve asked to do the job, especially if he or she is an “certified,” or represents themselves as an “equine dentist,” ready to help you because veterinarians are untrained/unwilling/or unable to do the job. In fact, it’s been my experience that if someone tells a horse owner that his or her horse’s teeth need to be floated, the owner is generally inclined to go along.***** Caveat emptor.

©Anke Van Wyk

Now I don’t want to get into a debate about who should be working on your horse’s teeth. If routine dental care of the horse were extremely difficult, you wouldn’t find people who may have spent as long as a few days or weeks in some “school,” (or who may not have been trained at all) asserting that they were experts. Doing colic surgery is hard—that’s one reason why you don’t find lay colic surgeons roaming the barn aisles.

I’d suggest that you trust someone who can do other things besides grind teeth to make a living (e.g., sew up cuts, treat colics, etc.). If the only tool that one has is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.

Still, before you let anyone start putting your horse’s mouth into a state that he or thinks is “needed,” maybe you should ask for the person to show you what the problem really is. Maybe you should ask why what is being seen is important. If your horse looks great, and is doing great, maybe you should ask what the big deal is. Ask about qualifications (a veterinary degree is something worth having), and ask about things like liability insurance, in case your horse is injured during the process (injury doesn’t happen often, but it happens). Ask for some data to back up what you’re being told.

Getting your horse’s mouth examined periodically, to look for signs of oral disease is a good idea. Floating your horse’s teeth once in a while probably isn’t a bad idea either. But need? Well, that’s a subject for a good bit of discussion.

©Tania Cataldo/Flickr CC by 2.0

* “Common knowledge” is one of the more dangerous phrases out there, particularly when it comes to medical practices. The assertion that something is common knowledge is sometimes associated with the fallacy called argumentum ad populum (Latin: “appeal to the people”). Even if everyone believes something is true, it isn’t necessarily true. Misinformation can be easily perpetuated by people spreading the same “common” message.

** The “occlusal angle” of the teeth is something that some may assert is critical to the horse. According to several studies, it’s not. Click on a number to see the studies: 123.

*** I am not making this up. I am merely reporting this assertion. There are a few people who assert that if a horse’s teeth aren’t floated properly, his posture, among other things, will be affected. If someone tells you this, ask for supporting data. And a handkerchief to cover your mouth to keep you from being seen laughing.

**** Here’s the exact quote. “Neither are the reft of the Grinding-teeth without fome hollownefs or at leaft roughnefs in their tops; but his is of a different nature from the other: which roughnefs or unevennefs is very neceffary, for by it they are made more fit for the comminution of the Meat: For as Millers when their Millftones are grown fmooth do pick them anew, to make them grind the better; fo hath Nature made the upper part of thefe Grinding-teeth, elegantly to imitate the rough fuperficies of a Millftone, having here and there formed little pits in them.” (The “f” that occurs in the text is an “s,” which represents the writing style at the time.)

***** For goodness sake, don’t go for getting your horse’s “cavity filled.”


Interested in horses, medicine and medieval Japanese history? Take Dr. Ramey’s survey!

Dr. David Ramey is a 1983 graduate of the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to being a full-time equine veterinary practitioner in Encino, California, Dr. Ramey is also an internationally recognized author, lecturer and blogger. Dr. Ramey is a vocal advocate for the application of science to medicine, and—as such—for the welfare of the horse.