Although geriatric horses provide owners with cherished companionship and special memories, they tend to require more attention than younger horses. Dental care, in addition to parasite and nutrition, is an important part of a complete health care program that must be provided to maintain the horse in optimum health. The geriatric horse that does not receive routine dental care will develop eating problems and lose weight.
Any change in the horse’s eating, drinking, or riding habits should receive special attention. If such changes occur, it is important to determine whether the horse now prefers one feed (hay vs. grain) over the other, or takes longer to eat than before the problem was noticed. Similarly, it is important to determine if pelleted feeds are preferred over grain, if the horse drops grain from its mouth (quidding), has bad breath (halitosis), or drools while eating. The horse’s head carriage should be noted while it is eating, specifically, whether it tilts its head to one side or the other.
Many horses with dental disease have abnormal head carriage when being ridden. Consequently, there are several important pieces of information related to head carriage that should be obtained. Does the horse resist having the bit inserted into its mouth? Does the horse fight the bit more than normal? Watch for tail wringing, pulling against the bit, over reaction to bit cues, or just a decrease in overall performance of the horse. It also is important to determine if the horse has experienced previous dental problems. Examples of questions that should be asked include: Has the horse had any previous dental work and, if so, by whom? What procedures were performed? Did the current problem develop soon thereafter and, if so, what treatment was instituted? Rarely does one find dental problems in a herd that are unrelated to a lack of routine dental care or to malnutrition.
Geriatric horses should have a dental examination performed every six to twelve months. A visual examination of the horse should first be conducted from a short distance, noting the temperament of the horse and its head carriage. A closer visual examination should be performed to note symmetry of the head. Asymmetrical areas (swellings, draining tracts) and obvious facial scars should be inspected. The horse’s breath should be smelled and the head should be palpated carefully to detect small swellings or painful areas. Care should be taken to examine for scars or abrasions involving the lip commissures and labial surface of the lips. The gums should be examined for ulcers, cuts, and contusions. The area between the incisor and cheek teeth arcades, where the bit sits, should be examined for evidence of pain, which might indicate excessive bit force, an improperly fitted bit, or osteomyelitis of the mandible in this area. The latter condition occurs in event horses (polo, barrel racing) due to excessive bit force.
Michael Q. Lowder, DVM, MS
Associate Professor of Field Services
College of Veterinary Medicine
Department of Large Animal Medicine
The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602-7385