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High Tech/High Performance Dentistry

After years of de-emphasizing equine dentistry, veterinary medicine has realized that we can make a great improvement in our horse’s health and performance by taking better care of horses’ mouths. As a result, equine dentistry is an area of veterinary medicine that has expanded greatly over the last few years. From this has come a greater understanding of how the mouth and bit work, and how to treat the problems and diseases that arise.

Horses’ teeth and the problems that occur with them differ greatly from human dentistry. Normal equine teeth continually erupt, similar to growing, until approximately age 20. At the same time the tooth is wearing away as the horse chews. This constant cycle of eruption and wear results in new grooves constantly being created on the tooth. These grooves act like the grooves on a horseshoer’s rasp and breakdown the food into tiny pieces. The constant creation of new grooves prevents the teeth from becoming dull, similar to a self-sharpening food processor. This allows the horse to be better able to breakdown plant material for digestion. Problems occur, however, when the teeth don’t wear evenly. The most common occurrence of uneven wear is the development of sharp edges on the sides of the teeth. This occurs because the upper teeth sit farther out than the lower teeth. If you feel your own teeth, they are arranged similarly. As a result, the outside edge of the uppers and the inside edge of the lowers don’t wear away as quickly as the rest of the tooth. Grinding one edge of the tooth causes it to become beveled like the edge of a knife which can cut into the cheek and tongue. It is these sharp edges that the veterinarian floats. Floating is simply an archaic term for smoothing or removing rough edges.

The first improvement in today’s dentistry is that we are paying attention to the mouth and catching problems earlier. In the past, dentistry was an area that was avoided until a horse was loosing weight or dropping feed. Now it is recommended that all horses have, at minimum, an annual dental exam. Show horses should have semi-annual exams because a comfortable mouth can make the difference between being in the ribbons or not. (More on this later.) The second difference we see is the use of tranquilizers. Modern tranquilizers are safe and allow the veterinarian to perform work on the entire mouth, not just the front 2 or 3 teeth. In the past, the back teeth were seldom floated because the large cheek muscles press tight against the teeth. This lack of space made it painful to move the float back and forth in the mouth. Think how uncomfortable most of us are when the dentist is cleaning our back molars. As uncomfortable as that is, we humans have it easier because our cheek muscles are smaller giving the dentist more room to work. The third difference we see in today’s dentistry is the equipment used. There are a number of high tech power instruments that can increase the amount and the quality of what is accomplished in a float. These “power floats” allow the veterinarian to correct problems that hand floats can barely begin to touch. Other equipment such as irrigation systems, similar to that used by human dentists is being used to treat problems like periodontal disease. Even the use of equipment to hold the mouth open makes a huge difference in how effective dentistry can be. If the horse is chewing on the float it prevents the veterinarian from accomplishing as much in the same amount of time.

The last major difference between dentistry today and years ago, is the realization that it can make a difference in performance. By placing a bit in the horse’s mouth we create a very powerful contact point between horse and rider. The bit and bridle push the tongue and cheek against the sides of the teeth. If there are sharp edges on the sides of the teeth they will cut into the cheek and tongue and cause pain. If applying pressure on the reins transmits pain, our communication with the horse breaks down. Rather than receiving the intended signal, the horse is forced to protect himself or herself by resisting the bit. In addition, if going forward into the bridle causes pain; the horse will be reluctant to engage their hind end. An irritated horse that can’t go forward comfortably is a horse that won’t perform to their full potential. Would John Elway perform as well if he had a toothache? Would you?

Finally, whether your horse is a high performance show animal or a companion you wish to keep healthy for years, routine dental exams and today’s modern dental techniques can make a big difference in achieving those goals.

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