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“Pony was awful. Vet truck drives by. Now pony is good. Something has gone on.” – Ken Johnson

Ever get a piece of food stuck in your teeth? It can get pretty annoying after awhile.

Now imagine a performance

horse with a similar problem, which could be a sharp sliver of tooth that’s digging into the cheek or tongue, causing non-stop irritation or even an ulcer.

Add a rider, with his or her expectations of immediate response to subtle commands, and you have a recipe for conflict, disobedience, or worse.

Luckily, human knowledge of equine dentistry problems goes back a long way. Painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs – as was their habit with all technological advances of the time – are graphic illustrations of horses’ teeth being filed.

“It certainly has been around, and that’s because just like the Egyptian chariot horses, if you’ve got one that doesn’t have a very good mouth, it doesn’t perform very well,” said veterinarian Dr. Ken Johnson, in a presentation at StockFest 2009.


The dead giveaways for tooth problems are behavioural, such as head tossing, sudden changes in behaviour, reluctance to turn on one side, or physical, including poor thrift, with undigested, whole grains in the manure.

Fixing horse teeth problems can often have dramatically positive results, said Johnson, who practises near Oak Bluff.

In one case, the effect of a few strokes of a file on a pony was so profound that he was accused of drugging the animal by a judge at a competition event.

“Pony was awful. Vet truck drives by. Now pony is good. Something has gone on,” he said.

“When those points start showing up, chances are the horse is either going to show you, tell you or quit.”


Horse owners can check for tooth problems by pressing a finger along the animal’s cheek and feeling for sharp “points” in the teeth. If the horse won’t let you do this, it might mean that the condition is present and causing some pain already, possibly the beginnings of a cheek ulcer.

Unlike humans, who chew up and down, a horse chews its food in a half-moon motion. Proper function means that the large molars need to mesh together smoothly, without any blockage.

Other tooth issues might involve excessively long canine teeth on geldings that need to be ground down to better accommodate bit movement in the mouth.

“Wolf” teeth are generally tiny slivers of tooth that erupt from the gums just ahead of the first set of molars. In some cases, they may never bother the horse. When castrating colts under a general anesthetic, Johnson also checks for and removes wolf teeth if they are present. Fillies may get wolf teeth, too, but they are generally very rare.

“The vast majority of horses, if they get them, when the bit slides to the back, it bothers them,” said Johnson. [email protected]

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