Horse Dentistry:
The Best Investment You Can Make in Your Horse's Life 
By Dr. Tom Allen

If you could increase the chance of your horse living ten years longer, would you be interested?  Let's see if your horse qualifies.   Do you feed good quality grass, hay, grain, and water enough to satisfy all the nutritional needs of your horse?  Do you keep him or her current on the necessary vaccinations and deworming?  Is the stall and exercise area kept up in a safe manner?   GREAT!  Now, if you have provided all these things, surely you are doing everything that can be done to help your horse live a long, happy life.  NOT QUITE! 


Even if your vet checks your horse's teeth every six months, if your horse has not had a thorough dental within the last six months, chances are very high that there are points on the outside of the upper premolars and molars (cheek teeth) which are causing either discomfort 24 hours per day or, even worse, digging ulcerations (holes) in the cheeks. 

(A thorough oral exam requires the use of a full-mouth speculum and for most professionals, the only complete exam is accomplished with the horse under mild sedation.) 

Equine dental technician Carl Mitz working on an Arabian under light sedation, 
with a full-mouth speculum.
How many horses need this kind of frequent dental care?  All of them!  At the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association in January of this year, Dr. Jack Easley presented a lecture and a "wet lab" (a hands-on study session using horses).  Dr. Easley has been doing in-depth equine dentistry for several years now and is a highly respected authority in that area of veterinary medicine and surgery.  When asked how many horses he sees that don't need some kind of dental work, he replied, "They all need it!"

I don't claim to be an expert, but I do try to "spread the word" about the benefits of thorough dentistry. 

Dr. Allen giving a horse dentistry talk at a horse short course at 
Jefferson  College in Hillsboro, MO.
Why would our horses get inadequate dental care from their usual health care provider?  A few horses (probably less than 5%) do get adequate tooth care from their vets.  The problem has been that, until recently, most veterinary schools have not been teaching thorough equine dentistry! Because of this lack of formal education in this important aspect of horse health, many owners have successfully sought help from non-veterinary horse dentists.  These individuals picked up a ball that we dropped several decades ago, and they ran with it.  Many of them have done excellent work, but just as in any other field of endeavor, there are a few less-than-desirable providers amongst them, too.  In the last few years, veterinarians have begun following the lead of the "lay dentists," with mostly good effects (nothing is absolute, so there is a downside to everything, isn't there?) The cost may be higher per session of dental work, but the advantages far outweigh them in terms of increased longevity, superior performance, and much higher feed efficiency.   Quite often veterinarians and dental technicians work together. 
Equine dental technician Gregg McKee and Dr. Allen working on a Miniature together.

We find that horses that have gone more than six months since their last good dentistry almost always have points forming on the outer edge of the upper cheek teeth.  Even though the teeth of the horse erupt throughout life, too much or uneven wear leads to severeproblems in a very high percentage of our horses.  Grass, hay, and grain contain silica, a very abrasive substance which causes the teeth to be ground down continually.  Since the upper cheek teeth are set wider apart than the lowers, sharp protuberances are left on their outer edges.  These points cut into the lining of the cheeks. 


Why all the concern about a few little points?   How could little sharp edges on teeth cause a big strong animal to die before its time?  According to Dr. James Turk, a pathologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, the abrasions in the lining of the mouth allow bacteria and toxins to enter the horse's system, putting stress on the heart, liver, and immune systems, all of which takes its toll on the horse over the years.   It naturally follows that we can most likely extend the life expectancy of horses by providing thorough dental care twice yearly, as opposed to waiting until they are beyond help as is too often the case now. 

(Paul Simon's words don't really apply to the information about horse dentistry, but sometimes it seems to be that way.)

I recently asked several of my classmates (who have been practicing veterinary medicine for over a quarter of a century) if they were familiar with bit seats, incisor reduction, wave reduction, and several other terms familiar to competent equine dental technicians.   They were not familiar with the terms.  There's a good reason for that!   When they have a busy practice, whether it's horses-only or a mixed practice, they usually do not have time to become proficient at in-depth equine dentistry. 

Therefore, they may overlook seemingly obvious catastrophes in the mouth. 

This "cap" was the cause of the young horse fighting the bit. 
Again, a routine "float" had been provided ten days previously by the busy attending veterinarian.

(Many of these "new" terms can be found in literature from the late 1800's - early 1900's, but they were not popular for several decades - after the advent of internal combustion engine-driven vehicles.)

incisor reduction:  the front teeth become too long, so the cheek teeth can't come together to grind food. 
Reducing, or shortening them gives life-saving relief.

performance float:  after the basics of removing offending points, the fronts of the first cheek teeth, the ones right behind the bit, are rounded off additionally, giving noticeable improvement in performance.

wave reduction:  waves are "humps" in the line of the dental arcade, from over-long cheek teeth (and the opposing short ones).  Leveling these defects prevents the undesirable "tooth-grinding-into-bone" seen too often in older horses.

step reduction:  a missing or weak tooth causes abrupt changes in the level of the grinding surface.  These uneven areas are equilibrated, giving much better masticatory performance and comfort.  These are like "hooks," but farther back.

These "upper 6 hooks" were causing much discomfort. 
After removal, the horse performed like a new champ!

The common knowledge has been that horses will show us when they have dental problems. This myth has cost thousands of horses' early death!  They are tougher than we thought! We find split molars and many, many severe abnormalities in fat, good-doing horses! 

This split molar...
invphoto4.JPG (14354 bytes)
was from this fat, good-doing horse
with no outward signs of needing dental work...
invphoto5.JPG (30350 bytes)
Many older horses begin to show the effects of years of dental stress only after irreparable damage has occurred.  Then they get long hair, lose weight, become poor doers (this is commonly referred to as "old age") when they could have another five to fifteen years of healthy, comfortable life! 
Dr. Allen received his B.S. from Texas A&M University and his D.V.M from the University of Missouri.  He has been involved in many different aspects of Equine Practice, from racetrack to rural.   For the past several years his practice has been limited to Equine Dentistry.   Dr. Allen incorporates the use of sedatives/analgesics, reversal pharmaceuticals, and power dental equipment to provide oral relief to horses with dental malocclusions.

Tom Allen, D.V.M. is licensed in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California, and performs dentistry in other states on a referral basis.  He is a member of the MVMA (Missouri Veterinary Medical Association), AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners), and the IAED (International Association of Equine Dentistry).  Dr. Allen provides dentistry for 30 to 50 horses weekly, and has presented the opportunity to learn more about dentistry to a variety of groups, illustrating the advantages with experience he has gained in limiting his practice to this often overlooked aspect of horse health care.

Contact Dr Allen by email at
or by phone, toll-free 888-603-5628.
Dr Allen's Website


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