Check Your Horse's Mouth

Open wide! You can master this useful skill with a veterinarian's simple system.
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Open wide! You can master this useful skill with a veterinarian's simple system.

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Photos ? Grady Kimbrell

Your horse abruptly stops eating. Maybe he starts quidding (dropping wads of partially chewed hay on the ground). He's resistant when you bridle him or fussy while you ride. Or he yawns repeatedly, drools, bleeds or develops "bad" breath. Something must be going on in his mouth, but how do you check ? without losing a finger to those big and probably uncooperative teeth?

In this article I'll demonstrate an efficient and thorough ?system that lets you assess almost everything oral from the outside of your horse's lips to the rearmost premolar (you can't see the molars without special dentistry equipment). I'll also show you how to safely grab his tongue and pull it out of the way so you can see its underside as well as the roof?the palate?of his mouth.

It's a simple and useful skill that just about any horse owner can master. In a few minutes, you will have enough information to decide whether you're looking at a minor injury like a tiny cut that will heal on its own, a problem like a foxtail (a weed with a thorny seedhead) that you can quickly and easily remedy or a more serious situation like a deep cut or sharp hooks on the cheek teeth that need professional attention. Even if you can't decide what you're seeing, when you call your vet, you'll have very specific information to convey.

A word of caution: Few horses like to have their mouths ?examined, but most will tolerate it with some degree of fussiness. If your horse looks as if he's going to overreact and get ?violent, back off and call your vet. With a little sedation, he should be able to get the job done safely and thoroughly.

What You'll Need

  • A quiet, unlit stall or barn aisle away from distracting activity and where, when you look up into your horse's mouth, you're not squinting at the sun and so missing a lot of detail.
  • A way to rinse your horse's mouth so you can see more than chewed-up food?a gently-flowing hose works well if your horse will tolerate it, otherwise try a 60cc syringe of water. And if you have a choice, examine his mouth before feeding him.
  • Something to illuminate the back of his mouth?a helper with a flashlight will do or you can wear an inexpensive headlamp such as I have, available through sporting goods stores or websites (type "headlamps" into your search engine).
  • A loose-fitting halter so your horse can open his mouth without restriction.
  • A lead rope. Cross-ties can be ?unsafe if your horse lunges forward, rears up or runs backward.

What will you look for? Be prepared! I once found a small piece of baling wire piercing a horse's tongue and lacerating his palate every time he swallowed. But you're far more likely to encounter
broken teeth.

  • raw, dark-red ulcers, often from high doses of bute or irritating foreign bodies such as foxtails.
  • cuts, which tend to be pink and deep. If a cut is minor?say your horse accidentally bit the edge of his tongue?it may bleed copiously for a while, but it should heal quickly and completely on its own. A laceration, any kind of gaping tissue or significant bleeding that won't stop, is a vet call.
  • calluses?greenish erosions with the raised surface of scar tissue??often caused by the continual ?rubbing of sharp, overlong teeth or hooks. inflamed gums with a raised, cauliflower-like appearance (gingivitis).
  • fermented food in the spaces ?between the first three cheek teeth (premolars). This is probably the cause of any "off" odor you're detecting.

Steve Goss, DVM, graduated from the University of California at Davis in 1988 and has practiced general veterinary medicine in Santa Barbara, California, since 1990. One-third of his practice is devoted to equine dentistry.

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.