How much does dental work help?

It stands to reason that a horse would perform better under saddle after malocclusions or other dental problems were corrected, but scientific proof of this effect continues to be elusive.

Working at the Swiss Institute of Equine Medicine in Bern, researchers examined 38 Franches-Montagnes stallions owned by the National Stud and assigned each a dental malocclusion score. The horses were then ridden twice over a seven-day period: first by their regular rider as a warm-up and then by a professional rider who evaluated their performance on a 27-point scale based on a survey asking questions such as “Is the horse relaxed on the bit?” A lower score indicated better “rideability.”

Next, the horses were divided into two groups that were assigned to one of two protocols: Half of the horses received dental treatment to address the malocclusions discovered in the initial exam, while the other half of the horses were given “sham” treatments that did not correct any dental misalignments. The first group’s treatment consisted primarily of balancing the dental arcades and secondarily of creating a more “comfortable” mouth, which involves the reduction of sharp enamel points, and creating a so-called bit seat, which is “a rounding of the second premolars to optimize comfort for the carrying of the bit and not allowing pinching between the bit and the teeth,” says Sebastien Moine, Med.Vet., CEqD.

After their dental procedures, the horses were given five days of rest and then were ridden three more times by the professional rider over the next two months. After each ride, the horses were again scored on the original 27-point scale.

The resulting data showed no correlation between dental malocclusions and rideability before the treatments, and no change in rideability scores after the treatments, even when the initial malocclusions were considered significant. This, says Moine, was a surprise.

“I was expecting a correlation since I have been building my customer pool for dental work because of the beneficial effects on riding, not only for dressage riders, but also on horses used as pleasure and as jumping horses,” he says. “I have been treating horses for the Swiss jumping team for the last decade.” Moine worked as a professional trainer during and after finishing veterinary school, experience that led him to believe that dentistry can influence a horse’s under-saddle performance.

“I saw dentistry being badly performed. So I went on to study dentistry so I could do it correctly and benefit the horses’ health and comfort,” he says. “I have been doing dentistry full time ever since. The positive change in some horses has been my motivation.”

That said, finding data to back up these observations has proven difficult. The first challenge, says Moine, is the inconsistent response to dental treatment among horses. “It all depends on the horse,” he says. “Some show major improvement after minor changes have been made, and others don’t show any change in attitude or performance even after major work has been done---every individual is different in showing comfort and pain.”

In his most recent study, Moine suspects that the limits of the professional rider used for the horses’ performance evaluation may have hampered data collection: “The rider was not familiar at all with these horses and with the special traits of the breed.” He adds that in his study, it may not have been the best approach to have an external professional rider identify changes, noting that a horse’s regular rider may have perceived changes differently after the dental work was performed.

Even without clear scientific evidence, Moine recommends dental exams at least once per year for all horses, with more frequent exams for those with known malocclusions or other dental issues.

Reference: “Evaluation of the effects of performance dentistry on equine rideability: a randomized, blinded, controlled trial,” Veterinary Quarterly, May 2017

This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #481)

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