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Horse health: Teeth provide indicator for health issues

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The horse was an offspring of one of the most famous speed sires in the United States, yet it ended up as a 4-H project for a beginning barrel racer in Nebraska. It failed on the racetrack. It failed as a barrel horse. In fact, the horse that started out worth thousands of dollars and held so much promise was sold to a 4-H member for a few hundred dollars.

It was during a routine check floating its teeth that Cory Heath, a veterinarian, noticed something peculiar in the horse’s mouth.

“There was a wolf tooth fragment in there,” Heath says. “It probably happened when the wolf teeth were knocked out when the horse was gelded. I pulled it out, and that same horse became the one to beat in barrel racing in Nebraska for many years. The horse that was virtually worthless became a gold mine.”

Heath is a licensed veterinarian and a graduate of the American School of Equine Dentistry in Virginia.

For the last eight years, she has made a career of floating teeth and performing equine dental services for at least 100 horses a month. Heath is licensed in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and Texas and travels to clients in those states.

Focus on dentistry

“After being a large animal veterinarian for 15 years, I was tired of working with emergencies, and horse teeth are rarely an emergency,” Heath explains.

“Equine dentistry gives me a chance to do scheduled work,” she continues. “The other thing I noticed is, not enough people know what is really going on in a horse’s mouth.”

“When I was in vet school, I asked one of my professors to show me how to float teeth. He went through several drawers and finally found a single rasp, rattled it around in the horse’s mouth a little bit and told me that’s how to float teeth,” she says. “I felt sure there was more to it than that, so I investigated a little more. About the time I was tired of doing emergencies, I spent a month going to an equine dentistry program. There has been a lot of continuing education since then.”

Equine teeth

Many people don’t realize that, unlike most animals, horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout their life. In fact, their teeth come in at three millimeters a year, both top and bottom, most of the time.

“If our horses are not eating coarse enough feed or things are not lining up so their teeth wear away at the same rate they are coming in, we end up with extra teeth that continue growing until they get into the jaw. The teeth can wear away the jaw, and when the horse is out of teeth, it will die,” she explains.

Heath outlines the importance of regular checkups, especially for horses between three and four years old, before training starts.

“Three- and four-year-olds are shedding their teeth,” she explains. “They definitely need dental checkups to pull off any caps on baby teeth but also to make sure the teeth are the same height.”

“Floating at three or four will make things normal at seven,” Heath adds. “Most malocclusions that kill horses at 15 started at three or four.”

Starting horses

Heath also notes that teeth are important to consider when starting and training horses.

“Most people start colts with a snaffle bit, and because it bends in the middle, we get metals contact against the tooth with only the lip in between,” Heath explain. “If teeth are sharp, every time we pick up the reins is difficult for the horse because it’s in pain.”

Everything needs to be kept straight and balanced.

“Horse’s teeth will slow down their growth at about 15, so to make a horse last longer, we need to make sure everything is straight, level and normal by the time it is 15,” she comments.

“If we want our horse to last until it’s 30, don’t wait until it’s 18 to float its teeth for the first time,” she adds. “It is important to have dental care when our horses are young while their teeth are still growing, so everything can be fixed.”


As Heath talks about the importance of dental check-ups for horses, she emphasizes that not all performance issues are the result of problems in the mouth.

“The purpose of a bit is to allow us to communicate with our horses,” she explains. “If the bit is not working, we need to find out why.”

Heath says she frequently gets calls from girls who have been away at college four years, and when they come back and ride their horse for the first time, it bucks them off.

“It is because the teeth haven’t been wearing down while they were gone, so hooks develop,” she explains. “When they ask their horse to collect, it stabs the horse in the soft palette, so it responds by bucking them off.”

Heath continues, “The horse that was in shape, in tune and fun to ride four years ago is now a disaster and needs dental care.”

Dental procedures

In addition to floating, Heath can extract teeth – especially molars, because of their three-inch roots. She can also do root canals and fix broken teeth. 

“If a horse has a broken tooth, it can be painful. Every time they breathe, the horse will experience pain because they have an exposed pulp cavity,” she says. “If I can fill that pulp cavity, not only are they no longer in pain, it may save the tooth, so it can continue to erupt. If a horse’s tooth dies, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear it down, so it can create permanent dental issues.”

“There is nothing magical about equine dentistry,” Heath says. “I’ve seen lameness disappear, and horses that could never take a left lead on cue now can after their dental issues have been addressed.”

“When I balance their mouth, it balances the neck, the shoulder and the back,” she explains. “I have seen horses with chronic back pain, and after I fixed their teeth, the chiropractic adjustments work.”

“Good dental care doesn’t just affect a horse’s mouth. It affects the balance and the whole body,” she states.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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