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What are the signs that a horse needs dental attention?

The most obvious sign of dental trouble is a change in chewing habits.  A horse may hold its head to the side when eating, or "quid" the food - dropping it to the ground instead of chewing.  A horse may swallow before chewing is complete which can result in indigestion and colic.

Other signs of dental trouble include ptyalism (excessive salivation), halitosis (bad breath), swelling of the face or jaw, refusal to eat hard grain, and loss of condition.

A horse with dental problems may become nervous and develop habits such as stall weaving or cribbing.  Under saddle, a horse may head toss, lug, rear or generally be unsettled and unwilling to perform correctly and consistently.

Horses are creatures of habit.  If dental-related problems are not attended to, bad habits may be difficult to break once the dental problems are alleviated.

How many teeth do horses have?

Between 38 and 44 altogether. 

  • 12 incisors for prehension - all incisors erupt as milk-teeth and are later replaced with permanent teeth.
  • 24 molars for mastication - the first 12 molars erupt as milk-teeth and are replaced between the ages of 2.5 and 3.5 years of age.
  • 4 canines - these erupt at 4 years (lowers) and 4.5 years (uppers) in the male horse but are usually absent or very small in mares, and are used for fighting.
  • 2 upper wolf teeth, and less common, 2 lower wolf teeth - these are positioned in front of the first molars and cause interference with the bit so need to be extracted.

When do caps need to be removed?

Between the ages of 2.5 and 4.5 years horses lose 24 milk teeth - 12 incisors and 12 molars, referred to as "caps".  Stable fed horses often have trouble losing these naturally so the equine dental technician will remove them at the appropriate time.

Will sedatives and other drugs be needed for a dental examination and float?

Most horses experience little discomfort from routine dental care and sedation is not required.  When a horse is particularly apprehensive, or where more extensive or painful procedures are necessary, various sedative combinations are useful.  Legally, sedatives can only be prescribed and dispensed by a veterinarian.


Equine Hero: Bucephalus

The horse famously known for being afraid of his own shadow, Bucephalus became Alexander the Great's victorious counterpart in numerous military campaigns.  Plutarch records that, as a boy, Alexander (having recognised the shadow as the source of the horse's fear) tamed the wild Bucephalus by turning his face towards the sun thus enabling him to mount the horse and ride him.  In doing so, Alexander demonstrated a courage, wisdom and ambition beyond his years prompting his father, King Philip II of Macedon, to exclaim "O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee."  Bucephalus eventually died at 30 years of age and the grieving Alexander commemorated his life by founding the city of Bucephala in his honour.

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