Equine Dentistry: Equine Teeth Cleaning with Equine Dentist Mark Burnell
Equine Teeth Cleaning
Equine Dentist Mark Burnell
My name is Mark Burnell and I’m a horse dentist. I’m going to
explain today about caring for horses’ teeth. There are two main
reasons for doing horses’ teeth.
The first is to help the horse eat its food more
efficiently and the second is to make the horse feel
more comfortable while it is wearing a bit. So, I want
to give this horse, Lucy, some hay. We are going to
watch how Lucy eats and also we are also going to
take this hay out of Lucy’s mouth after she has eaten
a few mouthfuls. Horses evolved into their current
form about 60 million years ago.
We’ve only domesticated them in the last two and a
half, three thousand years and we’ve certainly
modified their shape and their type to suit our
purposes. But the basic thing underlying it all is
horses can turn this long stuff, grass, into a digestible
form of energy so they have enough energy to run
away from predators, to run around with their friends
and hopefully reproduce.
Lucy is quite happy chewing this hay. What she’s
actually doing is crushing these long bits of fibre and
there’s a piece of rye grass. Before she can swallow
that and she’s going to swallow some food in a
minute, we are going to see a bolus or a ball of food
go down her throat. Here we are. There goes a ball of
food down into her stomach. Between swallowing and
her doing some poo, is about a forty-hour process.
If this is chewed incompletely before she swallows it,
that is going to affect how much of this she can digest
and gain energy to do all the things that Lucy is
required to do. So we are going to take a look at what
has happened to this food in this couple of minutes of
our standing still here. This is called a gag and we
use this as a professional horse dentist in order to
hold the horse’s mouth open and do our job which is
basically rasping sharp points off horses’ teeth.
What Lucy has done if we take a look at this food,
she has wet it, mixed it with saliva and it actually
smells quite sweet. You can see all these little short
bits of fibre here. So what she has is a really effective
food processing unit in her mouth. Those fibres went
in, this long, and within the first couple of chews, she
has made them this long and finally this long and
even finer which is approximately the length of a
piece of chaff.
So here we have a chaff cutting mechanism which
evolved 60 million years ago to convert fibre into a
digestible form. Where this fibre is finally broken down
in the most effective place is the large intestine.
Bacteria will help break this down and fatty acids will be
released as part of that digestion process. Then we get
the energy from this dried grass or hay. Her teeth, the
fact she can chop this food up so finely to a point where
it can be swallowed and digested, we know that her
teeth are fairly functional before we even feel her teeth.
Here we have some whole oats with some corn and
sunflower seed. We’ve done some research in Victoria
at the University of Melbourne, looking at how horses
eat and how horses eat different types of food whether
it is grain or hay. Horses actually change their chewing
motion according to what they eat. We’re going to hear
some really funky noises out of Lucy’s mouth in a
minute as she crushes these grains. In order for Lucy to
digest these grains, she has to break this outer casing
If she swallows those grains whole, it will go through her
digestive tract and not be digested at all. You will see
whole grains in her droppings. Lucy looks pretty happy
because she’s actually getting a sugar fix. The corn that
was mixed with the oats is rich in starch and the corn is
being mixed with saliva and in particular an enzyme
called amylase and is getting converted to sugars
before she swallows it. So if we have a look at this stuff,
anyone who’s had Uncle Toby’s oats for breakfast ever,
would know what this looks like.
It smells sweet. There we have the amylase mixing
with the starches that she’s broken, all those fibres
open and its ready to be digested and Lucy’s feeling
My job as a horse dentist is to simply rasp the parts of
the horse’s teeth off that they can’t naturally wear off.
Horses have what they call a three quarter bite. The
lower jaw rotates against the upper jaw. In that grinding
process of either breaking down hay, grass or grain,
they actually wear away the grinding surface of the
teeth. The outside edges of the upper teeth get quite
sharp, the inside edges of the lower teeth get quite
sharp, we rasp those off and just help the horse more
efficiently grind in that sideways motion. The sharp
points can cause ulcers especially where your
noseband on your bridle goes, if the noseband is too
tight or if the teeth are quite sharp.
So it is important, for horse comfort, and for function as
an eating mechanism that everything works properly.
This is Lucy and we are going to start rasping Lucy’s
teeth. The diet Lucy is on, she gets her teeth checked
once a year. My job is to simply rasp off what Lucy
can’t naturally wear off. So I just introduce this rasp to
Lucy. These rasps are made of tungsten carbide steel
which is a fairly hard substance. The other rasps are
actually sharpened up with a diamond cutting wheel.
Horses’ teeth are the hardest structure in their body.
They’re harder than their bones, so hard, that they
actually slab fracture. The enamel is quite a brittle
material even though it’s hard. It will shatter when it
gets too long. There’s a point at which horse’s teeth
get sharp and get no sharper, which is what happens
in the wild.
People often ask what happens in the wild. Most
wild horses, only live to be seven or eight years of
age. There was a study done by the federal
government looking at our brumbies as a feral
nuisance and their life expectancy unfortunately is not
that good. The white stuff that you can see on the
rasp is actually sharp enamel points I’ve started to
take off Lucy’s upper molars. It is important that you
use an accredited and insured equine dentist and if
not, a properly trained veterinarian.
If anyone comes on to your property to sedate your
horse who is not a veterinarian, you are breaking at
least two if not three laws. You may find that if
something goes wrong that you probably will have no
claim with insurance. It’s fairly rare that you need to
get a horse sedated in order to do its teeth. In that
case, legally it must be done by a properly trained
The situation where she was on a high grain diet, the
harder you feed a horse, say if it gets two hard feeds
a day like an eventer, a show horse or in some cases
a racehorse, you’d need to check her teeth more
often. Some racehorses are checked every eight to
ten weeks their whole racing life because of the high
grain diet. Most performance horses on two hard
feeds you’d need to look at least twice a year. One of
the many myths you’ll hear about horse dentistry is
is that lay dental practitioners like myself struggle to
get up around the last sheet tooth, that’s where the
first ulcer will appear. These tools were specifically
designed to get up around that last sheet tooth on an
unsedated horse, standing here quite relaxed. You
can see it’s a fairly thin profile and there’s a special
angle to get to that point exactly. Once again, the
white material here is excess enamel, dentin and
cementum which I have rasped off this mare’s mouth.
It is important to talk to your horse dentist about what
you do with your horse. If your horse is going to wear
a bit, the type of job that we need to do on their teeth
is vastly different to say a brood mare who would
never wear a bit. We need to change the shape of the
teeth nearest the bit to make it as comfortable for the
horse as possible while it is being either ridden or
driven. If we have a look in Lucy’s mouth, you will see
we have the upper jaw, the lower jaw and the tongue.
There is no room for a bit. So it is crucial that your bit
fits, that it’s comfortable and your horse’s teeth are
done appropriately. She’s got good bite, good
occlusion and Lucy’s ready to be ridden today.
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