“Always look a gift horse in the mouth”

16 May 2017
“Always look a gift horse in the mouth”

Tips on how to ‘age’ a horse and keep your horse’s mouth healthy by Redwings Horse Sanctuary

Redwing Horse Sanctuary run the ‘Best In Show’ horse and pony competition every year at Appleby Horse Fair.

Older generations of Gypsy and Traveller horse owners tend to have a good understanding of how to age a horse but some fear this is a skill that has been lost over generations. Meanwhile, ageing is not the only reason we should check our horse’s teeth. They can often be overlooked as the reason for a horse’s poor condition.

The trouble with teeth…

Horses are grazers and so they’re designed to be eating for most of the day (around 16 hours on average!). That means, unlike for humans, their teeth are almost constantly in use and if there is a problem it has major implications for their welfare.

It’s the constant change and use of their teeth throughout their lifetime that create opportunities for different dental problems. Like us they grow and lose baby teeth. Meanwhile their teeth are constantly pushing up from the jaw bone as they grind and wear away the upper and lower sets of adult teeth. As a tooth pushes through there is less of the root to keep it anchored in the skull and adult teeth can eventually be lost too.

Common dental problems include; decay, sharp points, ulcers, infections, misalignment and gaps and, if not dealt with, they can lead to pain, poor health and poor performance.

These dental problems can even contribute to veterinary emergencies, such as colic or choke. But minor dental problems can also deteriorate with time until they cause more significant problems for the horse which then impacts on how much the horse is willing or able to eat.

The best way to avoid this is to have at least an annual dental check from a vet or qualified equine dentist. Redwings Vet Nicola Berryman explains more below…

Why do horses need their teeth checked?



Toothache – what are the signs of dental problems?

Sometimes horses need more urgent attention that cannot wait for the annual check and so it’s worth knowing the possible signs of dental pain.

  • Problems eating: When horses drop balls or lumps of food while they are attempting to chew and swallow (known as ‘quidding’), this is a definite sign that the horse needs to be examined and may need its diet changing.
  • Bad breath or runny nose: Infection in the tooth or gums, which is often caused by rotting food stuck between the teeth, may cause bad breath or even persistent nasal discharge from the nose.
  • Behavioural problems: Pain is communicated to us through a horse’s behaviour as the horse reacts to avoid pain (or something associated with it). Toothache can cause both extreme and subtle changes in behaviour. Watching for unexplained ‘bad behaviour’ such as head tossing when riding or driving or rearing and barging, which could all be signs of a painful mouth.
  • No signs at all: Yes, horses being horses, they can often have advanced dental disease and show virtually no signs.

Needless to say, as signs of pain are sometimes difficult to spot, a dental check at least once a year is a simple and basic step to ensure your horse’s mouth is in good health.

(Picture caption: Gaps in teeth can trap food, leading to rot and infection in the gum. This horse has a gap (diastema) which needs to be checked and cleaned to prevent disease. Image credit: Westover vets.)

Diastema with food and cleanWestover Vets (550px * 208px) 

How to ‘age’ a horse

Before the era of passports and microchips, horse traders would have relied on examining the horse’s teeth to get an idea about whether they were getting the right price for it.

Although passports became law in 2005 and all horses born since 2009 need to be microchipped, knowing how to estimate the age of a horse is still a useful skill. Having some idea of the age of your horse can help you make decisions about the horse’s care and prepares you for any age-related health issues for example.

Specific changes to the teeth up to the age of 8 years old mean we can assess age fairly accurately up to that point. The further we go beyond 8 years, the more approximate our guess is. 

The 4 things we look at to age a horse:

  1. The presence of baby teeth (Rule of 8)
  2. The order adult teeth emerge and are ‘in wear’ (top and bottom tooth meets)
  3. Pattern on the grinding surface
  4. Angle and length
  1. The ‘rule of 8’

Although some horses may be born with their incisors already in place, in general the front teeth come up (erupt above the gum) following a ‘rule of eight’:

  • Central incisors appear at approximately 8 days
  • Intermediate (central) incisors appear at 8 weeks
  • Corner incisors appear at 8 months
  • Premolars (the front 3 back teeth) erupt within two weeks of birth, but we usually focus on the changes to front teeth throughout the horse’s life.

(Picture caption: Adult incisors in a 5-year-old horse)

horsemouth1 (550px * 315px)

  1. Know the difference between baby and adult teeth

Baby teeth are shed one by one and replaced by permanent adult teeth:

  • The central front teeth are lost and start emerging at 2.5 years and are in wear (fully through the gum) at 3 years.
  • At 3.5 years the next two front teeth middle incisors are shed and adult teeth start emerging
  • At 4.5 years the corner front teeth are lost, the adult teeth start emerging and are in wear by 5 years of age.

A 5-year-old horse will have lost all its baby teeth and have a mouth full of permanent teeth, all in use – that’s between 36-44 teeth in total for an adult horse!

Test your skills!...Can you work out the age of this youngster?

horsemouth2 (550px * 399px)

(3.5 year old with two adult teeth and baby teeth still present)

Beyond five years old, we can piece together information from the grinding surface of the tooth and the tooth shape, the angle and length of the teeth to solve the age puzzle of the horse.

  1. Read the surface pattern on tooth

As the horse begins to use its new permanent teeth, the surface of the tooth changes and the pattern on the grinding surface changes as the tooth is worn down.

The circular indent in the middle (called a cup) disappears as the tooth is used. Meanwhile the top of the dental star appears and its position changes as the tooth is worn away. The cup disappears from the central incisors at 6 years old, the middle incisors at 7 years and finally the corner incisors at 8 years.

(Diagram caption: The changing pattern on the grinding surface as a horse ages)

Tooth diagram (550px * 322px)

There is often overlap in the disappearance of the cup and the appearance of the dental star and so both may be present at the same time.

Beyond 8 years, the shape of the whole grinding surface of the tooth can be a useful for estimating age as the tooth changes from a rectangular surface at 9 years old, to a rounded shape between 9 and mid teenage years, and lastly, a triangular shape in the older horse as you can see in the image above.

  1. Angle and length of the tooth

As more of the tooth becomes visible above the gum the teeth seem longer. This is where describing an old person as “long in the tooth” came from. Length of tooth combines with the angle of the teeth, with a vertical alignment seen in younger horses and older horses having a more protruding appearance.

(Picture caption: Smaller breeds tend to suffer from tooth problems caused by overcrowding more than rasping sharp points…)

Smaller breeds (550px * 733px)

Dental checks by a vet or qualified equine dentist are more than an occasional rasp of the cheek teeth. This is not enough to spot infection and if not rasped correctly it can cause more damage than good.

Here’s what to expect from a qualified dental check:

  • Assessment of the facial muscles – no swelling or abscesses
  • Health of the gums and front teeth
  • Appropriate restraint and sedation before internal examination
  • Internal examination of soft tissues and tongue
  • And of course… checking the teeth themselves

As well as all this you should expect to see a record being taken so that the specialist is able to keep note of any things that may be of concern that can be monitored to prevent problems in the future. 

In reality dental checks are prevention, maintenance and treatment all rolled into one – bargain!

(Picture caption: Redwings Vet Nicola Berryman examining the teeth of a mare who was causing some concern to her Traveller owner)

nicola rasping (545px * 373px)

Contact your vet to arrange a dental appointment alongside your horse’s vaccinations and annual check-up. Or alternatively finding your local Equine Dentist (BAEDT qualified) may give you a competitive price and the assurance you need. http://www.baedt.com/

The British Association of Equine Dental Technicians have recently updated their members list with telephone numbers, which can be found here http://www.baedt.com/?c=5432

On Facebook? The Equine Dental Ltd is an excellent page to follow for fascinating insight into the complexity of the equine dental issues

More about Equine Dental Disease from a leading Equine Hospital in the UK: https://www.rossdales.com/wp-app/uploads/2016/11/rossart21_dental_disease.pdf

See other Redwings horse care blogs published on the Travellers’ Times by following these links:



For more information or if you have any concerns or questions about horse care contact Redwings 01508 481008 or email welfare@redwings.co.uk