The condition of a horse’s mouth can affect his performance, health and attitude. A horseman generally equates tooth problems with inability to eat properly (and loss of weight), but there are many other undesirable factors associated with tooth abnormalities. The horse may resent a bit, toss his head, or travel with his head crooked. He may hold his head stiff or cock it to one side in an effort to avoid pain. This affects his balance and freedom of movement and he may travel stiffly. A horse with pain or discomfort in his mouth will not give his best effort, and may also injure his legs due to a poor way of traveling. If the head is not held correctly, the rest of the body is unbalanced.
One of the most common and least frequently diagnosed problems is poor performance due to teeth that hinder normal movement of the mouth and jaw. Mike Barter, an equine dentist in Belen, New Mexico says many horses improve dramatically in their performance careers (particularly their speed and willingness) after the tooth problem is corrected.
Some behavioral problems (head slinging, refusals, reluctance to respond to a rider’s requests, mouth gapping open) are due to a mouth problem. “Even a horse ridden with a hackamore will open its mouth when you ask him to halt, or try to make him break at the poll–due to the problem in his mouth,” says Barter.
A horse often develops a malocclusion (mismatch between top and bottom molars). If upper and lower teeth are not in perfect match-up, the horse may develop hooks where part of a tooth is unopposed. When a horse is slightly parrot mouthed, for instance, with the top teeth more forward than the bottom teeth, he will develop a hook on the top front molar and on the back bottom molar, since there is nothing to wear that portion of the tooth. Uneven wear can also create sharp points on the inside of the lower cheek teeth and outside of the upper cheek teeth. This is because the upper molars are slightly farther apart than the lower molars, since the upper jaw is wider. Feel free to check horse t shirts on Amazon.com
When the horse has hooks on his molars, this inhibits normal movement of the jaws; the opposite tooth catches on the hook and the jaw cannot move freely. For a horse to flex at the poll, the lower jaw has to slide and move forward. It’s the same in humans when we change the position of our head and neck. If you raise your head up and arch your neck backward, your lower jaw slides back. If you put your head downward, your lower jaw moves forward. It’s the same with a horse; to change the head and neck position the lower jaw has to move.
“If the mouth has hooks blocking that movement, the jaws are essentially locked together; the lower jaw cannot slide forward or back. Then the horse has to open his mouth–to create more space between the jaws–opening it bigger than the malocclusion. This is the only way he can create enough room to let his jaw slide so he can flex at the poll,” explains Barter.
The obstructed movement of the jaws also causes pain in the temporal molar joint at the top of the head. But the rider often thinks the horse’s reluctance to flex (or constant mouth opening) is a training or behavioral problem. Some riders put tie-downs on a horse and a noseband to keep his mouth shut, inhibiting his efforts even more, and creating more pain.
The bit is the way a rider communicates with the horse, and the horse’s actions are all dependent on proper head and neck angle–and being able to position his head properly. You want this communication to be as close to perfect as you can get it, so you need to make sure the mouth has no problems.
If a horse is not doing quite what he’s supposed to, or not performing as well or as willingly as he once did, it’s wise to check the teeth. Even if his mouth is not the problem, you will have eliminated that possibility and realize you may have to change something else in the horse’s training or the way he’s ridden.
Barter does a lot of dental work on problem horses–and often the horse’s trouble started from a mouth problem. If you can take care of the mouth problem, you can usually make a lot of difference in a horse’s willingness to work. Horsemen have always said, “no hoof, no horse,” but they also need to say, “no mouth, no horse.” If a horse can’t handle his head properly he can’t perform.
Some horses are not top performers–exhibiting some resistance or reluctance–just because of pain or discomfort. Today more horsemen are learning the importance of dentistry, realizing the benefits of having a horse’s mouth in good condition.