When you hear horse “dental health” it’s natural to think “tooth health”. But did you know dental health extends much further than just the health of your horses’ teeth?

Dental health, or oral health, in horses, is currently a hot topic, with many owners now trying their best more and more to improve the oral health of their horses. In this article I thought we would touch on some of these areas of oral health, and what you can do at home to improve it yourself.

Horses have 4 rows of dental arcades (long rows of teeth) on their upper and lower jaws. These are called “cheek teeth” and they can be straight, waved, missing, sharp or have gaps between them.

Then there are additional teeth such as the wolf teeth, canines and incisors.

The main two sets of teeth we are considering when we talk about dental health or oral health (that can be hindered or improved by diet) are the CHEEK TEETH and the INCISORS.

horse dental health chaff

Horses Cheek Teeth

These are the main chewing teeth, and they are often what is floated when you get a dentist out. Horses are born with very long roots on these teeth, and these teeth continue to be pushed down through the skull for the majority of the horse’s life. This is called eruption.

In basics – the horses have teeth in their mouth. They chew. The chewing and the food grinds the surface of the tooth down, often in an uneven fashion. The body responds by pushing more tooth out (so they don’t get ground down to the gum line), and the remaining tooth that was not ground down is what creates the “sharp edges”.

Diet plays a huge role in this process. A horse that is on a higher bucket feed ration (ie: more bucket feeds than hay) will grind less of their feed, meaning you will likely have abnormal wear of the teeth. This goes both ways – they can get abnormally sharp OR they don’t get sharp at all.

You want to encourage chewing and grinding for your horses. An absence of chewing and grinding will cause several flow-on consequences that will affect your horse.

Proper and prolonged chewing produces saliva. This means a good healthy chewing action, that is drawn out promotes saliva production. Pelleted feeds produce a shallow chewing action that is short. Hay provides a healthier chewing action that is longer. You can refer to one of our previous articles in terms of why saliva is so important. But I’ll give you a hint – gut health!!

Smaller chewing patterns and smaller chewing lengths will promote a horse to finish its’ food faster than a horse on a lot of hay. This means less time is spent chewing their food, less saliva production, and faster movement out of the stomach and intestines. We know from previous articles we want to encourage a stomach to have feed in it for as long as possible.

There is also evidence to say that the teeth need the grinding action and vibration to promote tooth eruption – so it suggests horses that chew less can slow the tooth-eruption process, leading to shallow crowns and more difficulty chewing hay in the long term. All of this is being researched currently, however, there is enough evidence to support a high-forage based diet for horses and its direct link to dental health.

The Overlooked Joint – TMJ

The TMJ is your horse’s temporomandibular joint (jaw joint) and it needs to move in order to be healthy. The less chewing your horse does, the less movement this joint does. This joint then in turn can affect your horses’ ability to chew long term. If it becomes restricted it can be harder to then change your horse onto a higher forage diet. This is because the joint becomes used to only small movements, and its supporting jaw muscles have not had to work very hard so they become underused and weak.

The constant use of hay bags has been a direct cause of this. Hay bags, whilst great for slowing down hay consumption, promote small bites and small chewing action. So if you’re using hay bags a lot you need to offset this restriction by allowing your horses to chew or by doing directed TMJ exercises. Feeding your horses hay in hay bags only will also have a negative effect on your horses’ incisors long term. These horses tend to wear the centre incisors a lot and damage the crowns from constantly biting on nylon or rope.

There is also a very direct link between TMJ restriction in horses and body dysfunction (such as problems in the bridle or under saddle). This is becoming a more known link between head carriage, bit connection, and even gait changes.

So what can you do?

This all sounds good in theory, but how can you change a few simple things to help your horse? For most of us, it’s often not as simple as removing hay bags and feeding a lot more hay.

This is where hay cubes come in!

Put simply, these promote chewing. Their shape and consistency encourage a wider bite and more natural jaw action when chewing. This encourages stretching of the TMJ, movement of the TMJ, and saliva production. They can also be introduced in stages and altered according to your own horse by:

  1. Breaking them into smaller pieces – You can break hay cubes up by peeling them apart to help get your horse used to their shape and consistency. This means for horses with TMJ restriction or who will inhale their feed you can rest assured they are only getting small pieces initially, to help them work up to bigger pieces.
  2. Watering them down – Hay cubes absorb water very well and are very adaptable. So again, you can tailor their consistency to what works best for your horse. Adding in a small amount of water will soften them a small amount, versus adding in a lot of water will soften them a lot. Click here to read more on feeding hay cubes.
  3. The different blends cater to different horses – The Teff & Lucerne Cubes are the lowest in sugars, making them safe for laminitic ponies and other metabolic horses. These are also the softest cubes, making them easy to peel and soak if you are worried about your horses’ ability to chew. The Lucerne Cubes are the biggest and hardest of the cubes. They can also be peeled and soaked but are great for those horses used to the form and for when you really want to maximise the chewing advantages. Click here to view hay cube varieties.

Consider adding hay cubes to your horse’s feed plan to help promote some of the above advantages. The simplest is to switch out other fibre sources (such as chaff and beet pulps) that only encourage small jaw actions, and add in hay cubes instead.

Alternatively you can add hay cubes in to supplement your current feed plan. If your horse has a set bucket feed and needs hay only from a hay net then that is fine. Add some hay cubes in through your horses’ paddock or yard to encourage chewing. Or better yet use the Hay Cubes during grooming, training, or stretches. Not only will this help with their jaw action, but it is also a great way to bond with your horse.

Article by Dr. Sabine Ware BVSc CERP.

Sabine has been riding and competing horses for over 20 years, and working as an Equine Vet for over 10 years.

She currently runs an Equine Practice at her farm in Seymour Victoria aimed at a whole horse, holistic approach to their care and she has a particular interest in balance dentistry, nutrition, pain management and rehabilitation. Her business is known as Equine Health, Spine & Dentistry.