Dental Problems Can Masquerade As Training Problems

Spock, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, worked hard to avoid contact between the bit and the right side of his mouth, but when the two met, you could be sure he’d plant his feet, veer to the left and rear. And if you managed to stay on and get him going forward again, you’d either have 100 pounds of pressure in your right hand or his head constantly would flip like a flamingo sifting water and food through his beak.

More extreme indications are discomfort while chewing (sometimes indicated by dropping grain from their mouth), loss of body condition, large or undigested food particles in their manure, nasal discharge or swelling of the face or jaw.

Nasal discharge and swelling are symptoms of periodontal disease or infection, probably of the sinuses, which happens because the long roots of equine teeth extend into the sinuses. Miller said that tooth or sinus infections could require multiple surgeries and years of treatment to eradicate.

A more common indication that your horse needs dental work is his behavior. Does he toss his head up and down when you bridle him or when he feels bit pressure’ Does he refuse to bend his head one way or both ways when you ride him’ Will he not accept bit contact at all’ Does he tilt his head to one side or another, or stick his tongue out’ Yes, all of these behaviors could also have other causes, but teeth are an excellent place to start looking. And if teeth are causing these training or behavior issues, it’s a relatively easy and relatively inexpensive remedy, usually for between $100 and $150.

Plus, dental problems left unattended almost always cause problems elsewhere in the horse — most commonly stiffness and pain in his neck, in his back and in his sacrum. ”The horse has to be supple in his body and has to be willing and able to accept your aids to do any sport,” said Miller. ”So if he’s pre-occupied with pain in his mouth, and if that pain has caused him to compensate in other parts of his body and cause pain there, then you really have an issue.”

And that’s why Miller highly recommends dental care for young horses, especially before you put them to work. The deciduous teeth of youngsters are softer than permanent teeth, so they develop sharp points much more quickly. And since from age 2 to 5, the 24 deciduous teeth are replaced by the 36 to 40 permanent teeth, the sharpening process actually can be accelerated.

Miller often examines foals’ teeth, to check for congenital problems and because the sharp points of deciduous teeth can ulcerate the tongue and cheeks. But he more regularly floats the teeth of 2- and 3-year-olds, ”because generally they’re starting their training, and I want them to be as comfortable as I can make them.”

Bottom Line

Riders and trainers often encounter 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds who’ve never (or only once) had their teeth floated, and often they’re horses whose previous riders or owners were confounded by their unruly behavior or poor performance.

Miller said that he doesn’t understand why some horse owners doubt the importance of dental care. He’s confounded by people who lump dental care in with such optional services as massage or psychic communication.

For instance, if a horse can’t chew properly, he can develop secondary effects, like tempo-mandibular joint syndrome. Miller noted that the horse’s jaw is at the end of his spinal cord, so if his jaw is stiff or unable to move properly, that stiffness or crookedness will usually be transferred down the line. Fixing that will likely require chiropractic or orthopedic work to correct, and it will likely negatively affect muscle development in the neck, back and hindquarters.

”Saying, ‘I don’t believe in equine dental care’ is like saying, ‘I don’t believe the sky is blue,’” said Miller. ”It’s a simplistic concept that dentistry is important to avoid very serious training, behavior and health issues.”

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California. John has written two books, ”John Strassburger: the Things I Think Matter Most” and ”George H. Morris: Because Every Round Counts.”

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