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So the expression “long in the tooth” isn’t just an old farmer’s saying – it’s reference to one being “very old’’ comes from the fact that old horses do in fact have “longer” teeth. Like humans, horses are born with two sets of teeth – their “baby teeth” which fall out as their “adult teeth” erupt from the gum line. Unlike humans, however, horses are grazers meant to be chewing food 23 hours a day. That’s a lot of grinding of the teeth over a lifespan that can range up to 30 years or more! So horses are born with their “adult teeth” a considerable length, which continuously erupt from the gum line as a horse grinds down the surface of the teeth.  Of course to fit neatly into the horse’s skull, these adult teeth are curved, appearing to change shape as the horse wears down the chewing surface and more tooth is shown. The fact that younger horses teeth are more upright and show less above the gums, and as the horse gets older more of the longer curved tooth appears, gives us the expression “long in the tooth”.

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While we were told that Snowy was an old mare, we did in fact get confirmation at her first vet visit that she indeed was “long in the tooth”. Because horses’ teeth erupt in a set timeline you can use their teeth to estimate age.  When Dr. Bradford came to give Snowy her first veterinary exam (more on that in a later blog) she was able to estimate Snowy to be at least 25 years old, probably 26 or 27. She also was able to tell us that her teeth were in horrible condition, and as soon as she was stable she would need to be seen by a dentist (which in NC is a licensed veterinarian).

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Snowy’s teeth before being floated. You can see the sharp points and edges on each tooth, and that teeth are missing in between.

You see, very few horses have perfect chewing patterns, and as they wear their teeth down the majority of them do it unevenly. At the very least this can result in sharp points on the edges of individual teeth that can cause ulcers in the mouth and make chewing painful. Left unattended, horses can develop odd shapes to their chewing surfaces, including something called wave mouth, where the surface of the teeth actually resemble a wave with some teeth being longer and some shorter than others. This causes the opposite affect on the upper jaw, as “short” teeth on the lower jaw will have a corresponding “long” tooth on the upper, and vice versa. Why is this a problem? For one, the “bumpier” the chewing surface the harder it is for a horse to grind his food correctly. This results in partially chewed food traveling down the rest of the digestive tract from the mouth, causing choke if the pieces are large enough, and making it harder for food to be fully digested by the stomach. In addition, if left uncorrected the teeth will continue to wear down unevenly, and eventually the “short” teeth will be worn away completely and the “long” teeth will have no partner to grind against. All of this results in less digestible food making it to the stomach, making it harder and harder for horses to hold a healthy weight. And as a horse grinds it’s food by moving it’s jaw from side to side, irregular teeth can make chewing itself extremely painful.

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Snowy’s teeth after being floated, minus the sharp points.

So how do you correct this? Its quite simple – horses require regular dental checkups just like humans do. While they don’t have to worry much about cavities (although horses have been known to develop abscesses and rotted teeth), they do need to have their chewing surfaces checked annually and often filed down. Either a licensed vet or equine dentist will do what’s called “floating” the teeth, using a long handled file to remove hooks from individual teeth and keeping the overall chewing surface level.  At this time the vet will check for any loose teeth (common in older horses as the tooth gets worn down closer to the root) as well as any other issues including abscesses. How often should this be done? At least once a year for young horses, although certain breeds like Arabians often need to be floated more often due to the conformation of their heads (the classic “dish” causes a change in the chewing surface of their teeth as there is less room for all the teeth to fit). This can also be true of very small mini horses, as there is just only so much room to fit 36-40 teeth! Older horses usually need to be checked every 6 months at least, as the natural progression of the tooth will cause them to become loose and start falling out. When should a dentist first check your horse? Definitely before you put a bit in his mouth, or at least by age 3 to make sure he doesn’t have any baby caps that have become “stuck” as the adult teeth erupt.

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Example of a worn down molar from a 27 year old Arabian mare (not Snowy) that had to be pulled. This mare had proper dental care her whole life, however as horses approach thirty they start to run out of tooth, and with little real estate left in the gum they become loose and either fall out or must be pulled.

In poor Snowy’s case, her dental health had been neglected for quite a long time. Coupled with being fed hard to chew corn for 5 years, her teeth were a complete mess.  A mild “wave mouth” had turned into what resembles a jack-o-lantern smile, with the lower jaw made up of tall tooth –short tooth- tall tooth – no tooth and the vice versa for the top jaw. She literally squeaked when she chewed! In addition she had some very sharp points on her rear teeth which had caused a massive abscess on her cheek, and one or two teeth were loose and threatening to come out. With the rescue of any elderly horse there is always the risk that they have something systemically wrong causing them to be skinny. We were pretty sure in Snowy’s case it was just improper nutrition and dental care, and from what we discovered it seemed that was definitely the case.

Because Snowy was so underweight when Dr. Bradford first checked her upon arrival at Race2Ring, we decided to hold off on floating her teeth, as we didn’t want to stress her anymore than she already was from the move. Fortunately by the end of December Snowy had put on enough weight from proper nutrition that our other veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Baucom, was able to float her teeth when she was at the farm for another visit. We had hoped that Snowy could be floated with hand floats and not require sedation, but as typical for this tough little mare that was not the case! With mild sedation Dr. Baucom was able to use power tools to minimize the time it would take, and Snowy was able to have her first dental exam in over five years. Unfortunately she had so much damage that there was no way to give her a complete level chewing surface, as that would mean filing her tall teeth down so much to match her short teeth that she’d have very little chewing surface at all. So what Dr. Baucom had to do was focus on taking off the very sharp points, and leveling her teeth as much as she could to make chewing comfortable. We did find that the loose teeth were not loose enough to require pulling yet, but will have to be watched. Snowy will require fairly regular dental checkups from now on to make sure we remove any teeth that become dangerously loose, as well as to keep her mouth as comfortable as possible. At Race2Ring we always soak our horses feed, but with Snowy’s irregular teeth its all the more reason to soak her feed down, to make it as easy as possible for her to get her complete nutrition.

I’m happy to report that since Snowy’s arrival the first week in December, she has put on over 200lbs!  She still has a long way to go, but she’s come such a long way in a short time! For more information on Snowy’s rehab, or to make a donation towards her care, please visit our website www.race2ring.org. or contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Next month’s topic: Snowy’s First Doctor’s Visit