Horses’ teeth have always confused me.
There is no definitive tooth count, many of the teeth have strange names, some have no discernible purpose and one type is untrustworthy. So, in true #horsewordnerd fashion I’ve set out on a mission to bring clarity to this perplexing part of the horse.
I will start at the beginning to ensure we’re all on the same page, vis-à-vis horse teeth.
Foals have 24 teeth, and this is where the simplicity ends because horses have between 36 and 44 teeth. I find this discrepancy annoying because I like things to be orderly and reliable. Horses’ teeth are not that it seems.
Mares tend to have between 36 and 40 teeth, while their male counterparts are inclined to have 40-44.
Even though foals have a trustworthy number of teeth, the same cannot be said for the names of those 24 teeth. You can call them milk, baby or deciduous teeth and they all mean the same thing. However, once the adult teeth start pushing out the baby teeth, we call them caps. Why? Because one type of tooth can’t have too many names.
The incisors are the grabbers. They grab the grass, most wood surfaces and your fingers. All horses, whether male or female, have six incisors on the top and six on the bottom, and that is all I have to say about these teeth.
Next, we have the canines. These are the long pointy teeth that sit behind the incisors and in front of the molars in the area called diastema, which simply means the space between two teeth whether you are a horse or a human. We often call this area the bars of the mouth. And while these teeth aren’t smack dab in the middle of the bars, they are slightly apart.
The canines are also referred to as tushes and/or tusks. These are the teeth that separate the males from the females and account for why male horses have up to four more teeth than their female counterparts. Though once in a blue moon, you will find a mare with small canines.
Now, if you can imagine, the canine teeth are a horse’s defence weapon. These four teeth help horses in the wild protect their harem from marauding predators or wily young stallions. These canines are a far cry from that of a lion’s and much further back in the mouth than appears useful, but Mother Nature knows more than I do, so I will just leave it there.
Much debated and often hated, wolf teeth are those small teeth found right in front of the molars on the upper jaw. However, they can sometimes sprout up on the lower jaw as well.
Many people feel these teeth interfere with the bit, which may or may not be true because these teeth don’t always erupt where they are supposed to, vary greatly in size and are inconsistent in number. Just because there is one, doesn’t mean there will be two.
The uncontrollable nature of these teeth is—allegedly—why they were given the name “wolf” teeth, though I have found no credible source to confirm this statement. Apparently, in some foreign ancient language, the word wolf meant bad. Possibly.
Now, millions of years ago these teeth were part of the molar family and much larger in size, serving to help grind food when horses used to be browsers rather than grazers. The wolf teeth do not and have never grown continuously unlike the rest of the teeth.
Today, they serve no purpose other than irritate either the horse or the owner, which then initiates a debate about whether they should be removed or not. But not to worry, only 70% of horses (male and female) end up with wolf teeth, so at least 30% of you can rest easy.
Molars are also known as the cheek teeth because they are way back there in amongst the cheeks. These teeth are much like human molars and do all the grinding in preparation for digestion.
Horses have two types of molars, the premolar and the regular molar and they have 12 of each.
The precursors to the premolars are the milk teeth, the ones that fall out and are called caps. At the end of the day, the adult premolars and molars all look the same and do the same job.
And now I feel I‘ve done my job by bringing clarity to the confusing world of horse teeth.
Three interesting facts
- It’s rare for a horse to have a complete set of teeth.
- Horses’ teeth take up more space in their heads than their brains do. Sad but true.
- Horse teeth have long roots and never stop growing throughout the majority of their life to prevent the teeth from wearing away to nothing.