-- by Vikki Fowler, veterinary equine dentist
Why do horses need their teeth tending to? What about those in the wild? I get asked these questions all the time. Why do our domesticated horses get sharp points, overgrowths, decay? What would happen if they were in the wild?
The answer is multi-factorial -
Firstly, horses evolved to live on scrubland and moorland. They evolved to graze tiny amounts of tough, low calorie fibre constantly. Nibbling here and there while walking miles and miles. A good portion of that intake is from the ground, but also foraging in hedgerows and trees, stripping bark and eating whatever they could find. In domestication, humans provide long fibre hay, haylage or straw, along with lush green grass, grains and cereals. This is not natural. To slow the horses down and protect their guts and feet, we use haynets, feed troughs and grazing muzzles. Or we give large amounts of forage loose, pre cut, for the horse to wolf down very quickly then stand with nothing. It is impossible to recreate a wild environment with a wild diet available, unless you are lucky enough to have vast amounts of the perfect wild land. Unless this is the case, even horses with perfect teeth will not wear their teeth down correctly and will get sharp points.
Secondly, wild horses have a much shorter life span. It is unusual for a wild horse to make it past 16 years of age. Nature is cruel and harsh, any dental issues that prevent robust health will result in weight loss and death by predator or starvation. These issues will therefore not be passed on to offspring. Whereas in domestication, we expect our horses teeth to last well into their 20s and even their 30s+. We can achieve this with regular, appropriate dental care which ensures the teeth wear evenly and allows the horse to utilise every millimetre of their teeth. They do not have an endless supply of tooth. Whilst they start with 10-15cm of tooth height as youngsters, they can not grow more. They can only erupt what already exists, once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Thirdly, humans have massively interfered with the horses shape. Most modern horses look nothing like their wild predecessors. We have the dished faced Arabs, the shortened noses of the Welsh ponies and the tiny heads of the miniatures, the broad faces of the Welsh Cobs, the massive Roman noses of the heavy breeds, the long thin noses of thoroughbreds and every imaginable shape and size in between. This amount of manipulation away from the natural, results in malocclusions and malalignments of the dentition. We get teeth that are too small or too large for the horse’s mouths. Sometimes the teeth don’t fit into their correct placement and they erupt crookedly into the tongue or cheek. We manage and correct parrot mouths and sow mouths, then breed from them and allow these problems to continue in the offspring. How often do stallion stud adverts include “perfect teeth”? How many mare owners ask, or even consider the teeth in their breeding plan? When breeding for the “seahorse” or “Disney” head, do the breeders stop to wonder how the teeth are suppose to fit in the mouth? Dogs can survive on a wet food diet with no health complications. Horses can not, not long term. Horses need a constant supply of fibre to maintain their gut health and survive. Humans created these problems and have a responsibility to ensure these horses are not in pain. Whether you bred the problem or bought it.
Finally, and this is the lowest and least point, wild horses don’t wear bits or bridles. Bits pull the lips into the teeth, nosebands and bitless bridles pull the cheeks into the teeth. Even halters draw the cheeks between the teeth. If the teeth are sharp or hooks are present, this will result in pain, and as a result, bad behaviour. But remember, a horses teeth are for eating and every horse must eat, therefore every horse must have routine dentistry. It is not only a luxury for those that are ridden. Ridden horses may need dentistry more regularly but every horse, pony and donkey must have routine dentistry at least once every 12 months.
By the time the horse is struggling to eat, the problem is very advanced, at best it will be expensive to fix and at worse, it may not be fixable. Horses DO NOT show oral pain until the problem is very severe, this is part of being a prey animal. Showing weakness in the wild means certain death by predation.
-- Text by Vikki Fowler, veterinary equine dentist
Photos © Fowler