Dental Care: Floating, Hooks, Loose Teeth, and Wolf Teeth

[By Douglas Novick, DVM]

Dental problems are a challenging and important part of routine care and medical care in equine practice. Floating, the routine filing of horses' teeth every year to year and a half maximizes a horse's ability to chew his food and respond to the bit. Hooks are a result of a poor bite and represent sharp protrusions of teeth that can stab into the opposing gum. Loose teeth occur as a horse reaches it’s older years. Wolf teeth are naturally occurring small teeth that need to be removed when a horse is young. Each of these issues will be discussed in detail.


Floating a horse's teeth is a process of filing down sharp points that develop on the molars. The molars are the teeth that lay back in the horse's mouth behind the area where the bit sits. A horse's teeth are unlike our teeth. Our teeth erupt from under the gum, pushing out our baby teeth, when we our young. The adult teeth reach a certain size and remain that size for the entire adult life (if one is lucky). On the other hand, a horse's adult teeth start out very large, 3 inches or more in length. However, the vast majority of the tooth will lie below the gum line when the adult molars first replace the baby molars. As the molar continues erupting it comes in contact with molar erupting from the opposite direction. As the horse chews these molars grind against each other wearing the down the tooth. Unfortunately, the opposition of a horse's molar teeth is not perfect. The upper molars are spaced slightly wider than the lower molars. The result is the outsides of the upper molars hang out a bit from the outsides of the lower molars. Similarly, the insides of the lower molars underhang the insides of the upper molars. These edges, the outside on the top and the inside on the bottom, end up being sharpened over time by the grinding action of the horse's chewing.

These sharp edges cause two problems. First, they interfere with your horse's ability to chew his food correctly. This can show up as weight loss over time. I will hear clients complain that their horse is losing grain out of the sides of his mouth as he chews. This loss of grain coincides with the weight loss. The second problem the sharp edges can cause is difficulty with a bit. A horse that previously had been fine will start tossing his head and fighting the bit. These problems frequently resolve with floating of the teeth.

What the vet will do, when he or she is floating your horse's teeth, is literally take a specially designed file and file down these edges thereby smoothing out the sharp points. Unlike our teeth, a horse’s teeth do not contain nerve roots, so filing the teeth causes no pain. Although no pain is involved with the filing process, about half the horses object to the floating blades being used in their mouth. The vet will then use a shorting acting sedative to alleviate the horse's objections. I go by the " one rear rule". If the horse rears once, I sedate it.

Floating should be performed every year in performance horses and horses 20 years of age and older. Most horses should also have their teeth floated on an annual basis starting at age 3 to 4. Some horses can wait up to a year and a half.

Hooks and Loose Teeth

Other problems that can develop in a horse's mouth are hooks and loose teeth. Hooks occur when the molars do not match up in a different way. Usually the upper molars are slightly forward of the lower molars. In the back of the mouth this causes the lower molars to be extend slightly behind the upper molars. Now as the horse chews it is failing to grind the front part of the first upper molar and also failing to grind the back part of the last molar. Over time these two areas form longer and longer points. Eventually these points start to press into the opposing gum causing pain every time the horse attempts to chew. These hooks have to be removed. Most often a large scary looking tool called a molar cutter is employed for this purpose. Hooks on the front upper molars can generally be cut while the horse is standing with only light sedation. Hooks on the last lower molar typically require general anesthesia to cut. Fortunately a quick acting general anesthetic can be used in the field for this purpose so the horse does not have to be brought into a hospital setting to have the procedure performed.

Loose teeth are another problem of older horses. A horse’s tooth starts out 3 to 4 inches long and slowly erupts out of the gum over time. As a horse chews it is slowly grinding down the erupted portion of the tooth. Eventually the tooth has erupted fully. This happens sometime in the ages of 20-30 in most horses with individual tooth and horse variation. When a tooth is fully erupted is starts to come loose. Since a loose tooth is not any good at chewing, it is appropriate to pull the tooth at that time. How can you tell a tooth is loose? Your vet can reach inside your horse’s mouth and feel for loose teeth. Also, it is practically impossible to pull a tooth that is not loose. Therefore, if you can pull the tooth, the tooth was loose.

Wolf Teeth

The bit sits in the space between the incisors in the front of the horse’s mouth and the molars in that back part of the mouth. Just in front of the first molar the majority of horses sprout little teeth called wolf teeth. These teeth are less than 1 centimeter above the gum and usually have roots of less than 1/2 inch in length. They usually pop out between 18 months and three years of age. They cause a problem because they sit in exactly the same place as the bit. Therefore if they are left in the mouth they will be irritated each time the bit is pulled. Shaking of the head may result.

For this reason most horses have their wolf teeth pulled. It is a short procedure performed under sedation. It usually takes less than 20 minutes and the horse can go back to riding the next day.

It is important to differentiate the Wolf tooth described above from canine teeth. The canine teeth are about the same size as the incisors in the front of the mouth. They erupt about an inch behind the incisors on both the upper and lower jaws. They only occur in male horses and typically erupt at about 4 years of age. Knowing this you can tell a horses sex by looking in their mouth!

By understanding the importance of dental care, you can maximize your horse’s performance and life span. Problems with an inability to eat, poor hair coat, comfort level with the bit and lack of weight can be a result of dental issues. Make sure dental care is part of the routine care of your horse.

Dr. Douglas Novick is an equine veterinarian practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area. His practice is limited to the treatment of horses with special interests in equine lameness, equine dentistry and reproduction. He is also the first veterinarian in Northern California to implant horses with ID Microchips with optional freeze brands as a method of preventing horse theft.

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(C) 2004 Douglas Novick, DVM- This article is copyrighted. It is licensed for personal use only. Any re-use, duplication, re-transmission via electronic or other means without the expressed written permission of the author, Douglas Novick, is strictly forbidden.