Horses are creatures of habit. They want to eat at the same time every day. They routinely sleep in the same area of the pasture each night. Understanding your horse’s normal behavior patterns will aid you in keeping your horse healthy his entire life. When something is not right they will let you know.
Eating with the head tilted to one side. This sign alone can mean several things may be happening in your horse’s mouth. Rule outs will depend upon the age of your horse. Some things to consider include:
- If your horse is less than 4 yrs old, the eruption of one of the permanent cheek teeth may be pushing the baby tooth (cap) into the mouth, causing discomfort since it is now the tallest tooth in the mouth.
- An older horse may have a tall tooth that is rubbing the gum where the opposing tooth used to be.
- An older horse could have a loose tooth that hurts when your horse chews so he adjusts by tilting his head and chewing on the opposing side.
- A horse of any age might have sharp enamel points that have caused ulcers on his cheek or tongue (Fig 1). Your horse tilts his head to avoid the pain.
Salivating more than normal. The horse’s body might increase saliva production in an attempt to lubricate something sharp or possibly make it easier to chew and swallow his feed, again in response to pain. (Fig 2). All of the rule outs mentioned above could apply here since the instigating factor is pain.
Losing weight. Horses can lose weight at any age due to a dental or mouth problem. The most common clinical cases of weight loss involve aged horses that are no longer able to eat long-stem hay because of the normal age related decrease in grinding capacity of their cheek teeth. However, even the young horse may lose weight due to a dental issue. Horses get all of their teeth by age 5 so they can teethe just like children during ages 2-4 when they are losing baby teeth and gaining permanent teeth. Changes in the cheek teeth especially can be very painful. Your horse may eat more slowly or not at all which can certainly cause weight loss. (Fig. 3) Exams twice a year in horses under 4 years of age is recommended to monitor all of the changes. Yearly exams are sufficient for horses older than that, given there are not any dental issues.
Fussy with the bridle; resistant on one side more than another. Pain within the mouth can cause the horse to react negatively when asked to work. How many times have you asked your horse to give right, give left and all you get is a refusal? (Fig. 4) The negative effect pain has on the horse’s mouth can set you back in the training process. So, it would be a great benefit to have a dental examination done on the horse to see if the mouth/teeth might be an area that needs to be addressed to help determine the cause of the resistance.
Another important issue is how a bit fits in the horse’s mouth. How does it lay across the tongue? Is there enough tongue relief with the bit currently being used? Horse’s tongues vary greatly in size and thickness. Be sure to find out the anatomy of your horse’s mouth. Is the bit too small or too large for the horse’s mouth? For the type of work or discipline the horse is being used, ask yourself, is it the correct bit? Part of the oral examination the veterinarian performs should involve proper fit of the bit and the headstall. Even improper size of the headstall may cause discomfort to the horse and thereby have a negative effect on schooling and training. And remember, not one size fits all!
Addressing the health of the horse’s mouth and teeth is as important as addressing his hoof health, his nutrition and all the other aspects of his overall well being.