EQUUS ‘Farm Calls’ Podcast Episode 2: Equine Dentistry

Dentistry is a critical part of keeping all types of horses healthy—from youngsters to seniors, and from trail horses to top-level athletes.

horse open mouth underneath angle
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The EQUUS “Farm Calls” podcast is brought to you in 2022 by Farnam—Your Partner in Horse Care.

In this episode of EQUUS “Farm Calls,” we talked to Dr. William (“Bo”) Rainbow, a veterinarian who specializes in equine dentistry. Rainbow is a lifelong horseman who grew up in Ocala, Florida, on a commercial Thoroughbred farm. He graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. After veterinary school, he completed an internship at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and worked in Western Australia and Katy, Texas, before returning to Versailles, Kentucky. He started Lexington Equine Dentistry LLC.

We discussed things for which horse owners should be alert when it comes to their horses’ teeth and oral health. Topics included:

  • General oral exam
  • Things to look for
  • Why an annual check is important
  • How often to do dental exams, and why
  • Reasons a dental specialist might be called:
    • nasal discharge
    • strange or bad smell in a horse’s mouth
    • horse shaking his head when bridling
    • horse losing weight
    • horse dropping feed/quidding hay

Rainbow said that just like in humans, an annual (or more frequently, if necessary) dental exam should be used to catch problems in your horse early. He recommended that young horses have bi-annual exams until the last “baby” teeth shed at about 4 years of age.

Some senior horses might not have had regular dental care or perhaps the previous owner didn’t have any dental care done with the horse. As equine teeth erupt throughout the animal’s life, dental care is needed to ensure that teeth are meeting properly and giving the horse a competent grinding platform for forage and feed. He also said that older horses can get abscesses in their mouths.

During an oral exam, Rainbow said the veterinarian will look for tooth fracture, diastemas (gaps in teeth) or whether the horse has trouble moving food to the back of the mouth to chew. Quidding, or balling up feed in the cheeks and spitting them out, usually is a sign of dental issues.

Swelling on the horse’s head can be due to a kick, a tumor, a cyst or a tooth issue. These can occur in any age of horse.

Rainbow said savvy horse owners will understand the pressure of various bits on the horse’s mouth, but occasionally horses will have issues in the bars of the mouth. “Not every bit works for every horse,” he noted.

Some horses can have unerupted wolf teeth that interfere with bitting, cause “steering issues,” or make the horse shake its head when bridled. Wolf teeth can be extracted fairly easily in most cases.

He also said vets will examine the bars, mouth and lips for damage that might be caused by bitting. He noted that hard plastic or acrylic bits sometimes can have burrs on them that irritate the horse’s bars. “Some horses are more reactive to different metals,” Rainbow noted.

He added that a lot of mouth problems can be due to hay, and with hay shortages this year, owners need to be paying close attention to this issue. Some hays have foxtail that can be irritating or other grasses that can leave awns stuck to the horse’s gums or soft tissues of the mouth.

Rainbow said that when he looks at horses during an annual dental exam, he can see what is changing with that’s horse’s mouth. “I think it is important for your dentist to be a vet because they can sedate legally and will be prepared if emergencies arise,” he said.

He said hand or power tools are both safe for the horse if they are “in the right person’s hand.” He warned that not everyone is properly trained to use power dental tools. “You can ask the provider if they have CE [continuing education] in dentistry,” he said.

Rainbow said a lot has been learned about equine dentistry in the last 50 years. “We understand more, but sometimes we can’t fix every problem in one session,” he said. “If the horse has a big hook on a tooth, we might take it down substantially, but the horse can be [in pain] if you leave the pulp horns open.”

Observing a horse’s manure—as well as watching the horse chew—can tell you how well the horse is chewing. If the horse’s manure has a lot of short fibers and is not loose, then he should be good.

“A horse can have dental disease and still hold his weight,” said Rainbow. “And sometimes horses with a low body condition … it’s not always caused by the teeth.”

He said about 20% of horses with chronic weight loss do have dental issues and need a good dental exam. If a horse has a snotty nose and his breath smells bad, then the teeth in the back of the mouth need to be examined: “Those tooth roots go into the sinuses, and the horse might have a tooth root infection.”

EQUUS “Farm Calls,” a production of the Equine Network LLC, is brought to you in 2022 by Farnam—Your Partner in Horse Care.