Old Horses at Home: (Not) Long in the Tooth

As your horse enters old age, dental exams become even more important

Published: January 19, 2018

Never underestimate the old horse. The old horse knows when the feed comes. The old horse knows the way back to the barn at sunset. The old horse knows how to be gentle and patient with the beginner and how to challenge the cocky intermediate rider. The old horse knows how many strides to the jump and where the steer will break. The old horse knows how much tension to put on the rope and how to load in the trailer without drama.

Never underestimate the old horse. His joints may be stiff, his coat a bit rough. He may have lost or gained weight in odd places. But he knows things the fit youngsters don’t.

But like anything worth having, the old horse takes work and care.

What is old?

Asking “When is a horse old?” is sort of like asking “When is a person old?" The answer will vary depending on who you ask, and the condition of the individual in question.

When we ask if a horse, human, or hedgehog is old, we aren’t really asking about the number of times they’ve rotated around the sun. We really want to know how active, healthy, and alert the individual is. We want to know if they can perform their usual tasks, if they have special medical needs, and we want to know how much longer they will be a part of our lives.

Just like some humans are running marathons at 104 while others are happy to retire to a lounge chair at 60, some horses may be lame by 10 while others are happily jumping fences or chasing cows well into their 20s or 30s.

That said, chronological age can give us a starting place for identifying existing or potential management and health issues. In general, horses are considered geriatric (old) starting in their late teens to early 20s. However, nowadays many horses live well into their 30s. This means our equine partners are with us much longer, but it also means they need more care for a longer time.

When it comes to horses living longer, two of the key advances in equine management have been dental care and the availability of senior feeds.

Teeth come in two flavors, brachydont and hypsodont. Humans have brachydont teeth. Once our permanent teeth erupt, what is in our mouth is all there will be. Horses have hypsodont teeth. Their teeth don’t grow as they age, but they do continue a cycle of wear and eruption throughout the horse’s life.

If you think of teeth like icebergs and the gum as the waterline, humans have about as much iceberg below the water line (roots) as we have above (tooth crown). Horses start with more iceberg below than above. The tooth lies mostly below the gum line and then slowly floats upward as the animal ages until it is all gone. As they age, the iceberg slowly erupts into the mouth and melts (wears down) as time goes. By the time a horse is “long in the tooth” there is, in reality, little tooth left.

This is where dental care comes in.

The answer to “Well, what happens to horses in the wild?” is simple. They die. They starve, colic, and/or are eaten by predators. They certainly don’t live long enough to get their AARP cards.

Ideally, to maximize tooth longevity, routine dental care should begin in early life and continue regularly. Unlike people, horses are grinders, not chompers. They don’t chew up-and-down; instead they use a side-to-side-and-around, or elliptical (oval), motion.

Remember the melting icebergs?

This elliptical chewing combined with the constant eruption of teeth wears the horse’s teeth in particular patterns, often leaving high-and-low spots and sharp, jagged edges. Filing these edges and points regularly (floating) throughout the horse’s life helps maximize the chewing life of the teeth.

As your horse enters old age, saying “Ahhhhhh” for dental exams becomes even more important. Not only can regular dental care maximize comfort for your old horse, a proper examination – by a veterinarian, under sedation, and with a full mouth speculum to hold the mouth open – can detect potential problems such as missing, loose, or infected teeth. These issues can make it harder for horses to properly chew hay or grass, leading to weight loss, choke (feed balling up and clogging the esophagus), and colic.

Even with regular care, you might notice signs of dental issues in your old horse between veterinary visits. Keep an eye out for weight loss; dropped clumps of poorly chewed hay or grass; long stems of hay or grass in the manure (yes, you should look at your horse’s poop every day; no, it’s not weird); goop from the nose or eye, especially on one side; or a nasty smell from the mouth or nose – horses shouldn’t have dragon breath. Any of these things could indicate a tooth, gum, or sinus problem.

Sinuses? What do they have to do with teeth? Well, not only is your horse’s head mostly sinus – yes, they really are airheads – but in a number of places the molars extend up into the sinuses. An infected molar can yield a sinus infection. Fun, isn’t it?

If you were paying attention a couple of paragraphs ago, you may have noticed that I listed “performed by a veterinarian” as a key part of a proper dental examination. While there are a number of non-veterinarian teeth floaters who have varying degrees of education about teeth, dental care - especially for an older horse - involves more body systems than just the teeth.

As your horse ages, you may notice the stray molar in the manger or hear your veterinarian utter the word “extraction” from time to time. This leads to two responses:

Panic: "What if my horse loses all his teeth and can’t chew??"

Apathy: “Well, doc, if his teeth are going to fall out anyway, why should I pay to have you float them?”

Both questions have easy answers.

Why bother with dental care? Simple. You don’t want your horse to be in pain. You don’t want him to suffer infections. You don’t want to have to buy more expensive feed any longer than absolutely necessary.

Expensive feed, you say? Yes, this brings us to the “What happens when my horse runs out of teeth” question.

Fortunately, when modern horses run out of tooth, they have better options than becoming a coyote entrée. There are a number of excellent, balanced senior feeds that are easy to chew or gum, and digest. They can be used as a complete feed or to supplement hay or grass in horses that can still chew well. These feeds also help address the changing dietary needs of the older horse who doesn’t need as much protein as a young gym rat type.

And this brings us to the next installment of Old Horses at Home: Metabolism. Tune in to hear Mr. Ed say “Cushings? I didn’t know I had Cushings.”

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