The Principles of Sensible Horse Dentistry
By Scott K. Greene, DVM
Sensible horse dentistry is a phrase that I use to describe my personal philosophy regarding equine dental equilibration or floating. This is the practice of dental maintenance and preventative care for the horse. The concept is built upon a foundation of four primary components: a sound understanding of how the horse’s masticatory (chewing) system functions, proper examination/evaluation techniques, sound logic and “common horse sense”.
So, what does that really mean? Sensible horse dentistry is based on the understanding that the horse, during its evolution, developed an ideal system for grazing and grinding large volumes of relatively low calorie feed for 16-18+ hours each day.
The function and appearance of the horses’ teeth has not changed in millions of years. The changes that have occurred are the results of domestication which has altered how both the horses’ teeth and hooves wear.
The principle alterations from a dental standpoint are the result of how they’re fed. Most of my patients are fed high quality hay twice daily and actively chew for only 3-5 hours each day. As a result, most domesticated horses’ teeth do not wear at the same rate or in the same manner as they would if they lived on pasture or in the wild.
Another result of domestication is the fact that most horses are asked to carry a piece (or more) of steel in their mouths. The goal being subtle communication and control from the rider, while the tongue, lips and cheeks (soft tissue) are being displaced into the teeth.
Additionally, we tend not to breed for “good mouths”, and genetics can contribute to the dental issues that need to be addressed at various times throughout a horses’ life.
We’re fortunate in equine dentistry, to have centuries of empirical evidence documented by our professional forefathers from a time when the horse played a pivotal role in all aspects of society. “No teeth, no horse” was a valid statement, and although practitioners and horsemen didn’t possess some of the diagnostic tools that we do today, they possessed an excellent understanding of the work necessary to maintain functional dentition in the domesticated horse. This empirical knowledge, as well as the personal experience of the practitioner and their mentors/educators, are all valuable tools when formulating a logical and sensible approach to maintaining the horses’ dentition.
I appreciate the importance and value of evidence-based medicine as much as any clinician, but it must be good science and not biased in its design to be of significant value. I believe that in equine dentistry, empirical knowledge and evidence-based medicine can coexist and complement one another in guiding the veterinarian in the selection of appropriate treatment protocol.
To summarize: many horses don’t eat, hence their teeth don’t wear as “nature intended”, they carry a bit (with its’ assorted head gear) that displaces the soft tissue into the teeth, and we breed horses without much consideration for their dentition.
Sensible horse dentistry takes into consideration these results of domestication, as well as an understanding of how the horse naturally acquires and chews its feed. Nature has defined the dental conformation that enables maximal efficiency. By utilizing a proper annual dental exam and evaluation coupled with experience and sound logic, the specific tooth reductions (occlusal equilibration/floating) that each horse requires can be identified and provided during each year of their life.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.
Scott K. Greene, DVM
Equine Veterinary Care of Nevada
PO Box 60009
Reno, NV 89506