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Equine dental care is about health and welfare — not performance

Using dentistry to make a horse perform better can cause all sorts of problems down the road

The terms ‘bit seat’ and ‘performance float’ are often used to indicate a seemingly higher, more sophisticated level of dental care for the performance or sport horse — implying that the horse will perform better with such dentistry.

The duty of the equine dental provider is not to make horses perform better — even though it is often a benefit that comes along with the work.

The duty is to remove pain, address pathology, and prolong the integrity of the dental arcade by providing high-quality dental care. All other benefits are secondary.

This applies across all types of horses that are presented for dental care. Ideas and techniques that are aggressively imposed upon the horse to ‘make it perform better’ can become physically problematic for the horse over time and often fail to address what really needs attention.

The bit seat is marketed as a place for the bit to sit in the horse’s mouth. This procedure involves rounding or tapering the front aspects of the upper and lower first large cheek teeth (i.e. premolars) of the horse with dental instruments. A gentle rounding of the edges of these teeth so that no sharp points are present will make sure that no soft tissue is pulled into enamel points that could cause pain. This is all that is required and no teeth will be damaged or killed in the process.

However, carving and aggressively shaping these teeth into a particular profile to fit the “bit” removes valuable tooth structure. This tooth structure not only provides stability to the arcade it also covers the underlying pulp cavity. Unfortunately aggressive shaping of these teeth can expose the pulp cavity on the frontmost part of the premolar. The exposed pulp chamber leaves the tooth vulnerable to bacteria, inflammation, infection and eventually abscessation. Pulp damage leads to a host of dental problems down the road with damaged teeth becoming increasingly sensitive and painful. Less is more.

The horse expresses discomfort to the bit in its mouth in a number of ways. It may resist or avoid the bit, gap the mouth, head sling, mouth the bit, froth, drool, salivate, become one sided, toss its head, lug or lunge at the bit or it may even buck or bolt to avoid the discomfort. Unfortunately, mechanical devices which tie the mouth shut (i.e. cavesson or devices which restrict head movement such as draw reins, chambons, tie-downs or running martingales) do not address the horse’s discomfort. They only redirect or suppress the symptoms of discomfort the horse is displaying.

When a horse is properly bitted, the bit lies across the bars of the mouth, the interdental space, and the tongue. This placement is usually midway between the lower canine tooth and the front edge of the premolars. When the horse properly carries the bit, the bit will lie about an inch in front of the cheek teeth — negating the ‘idea’ for a bit seat. The bit will barely touch the corners of the lips and will not create wrinkles — remember, ideally it is the horse that is carrying the bit. There will be one-half to one inch of space between the edge of the lip and the inside edge of the bit ring or shank, depending on the kind of bit being used. This allows the bit to function without pinching while still staying centred in the horse’s mouth.

Both the type of bit and how it is used factor into its usefulness to communicate effectively to the horse. It is equally important to acknowledge that the horse can and does communicate back to the rider’s hands through the bit. The conversation is a dialogue not a monologue. It is part of the rider’s responsibility to discern this refined type of communication from the horse. When the head carriage of the horse is natural and rider contact with the bit is appropriate the bit will lie at least one inch forward of the cheek teeth. Quality dental care cannot and should not override improper bitting and the insensitive hands of the rider.

When the horse is uncomfortable with the bit in its mouth it will brace and lean or push its tongue into the bit. The tongue is one of the strongest muscles in the body. This pressure and tension in the tongue creates downstream biomechanical faults in the horse’s body and alters body carriage. Tension in the tongue creates tension in the horse’s neck, back and diaphragm through direct physical and mental connections.

The young horse is rarely given the opportunity to learn to properly carry the bit before its schooling begins. Often the bit is placed in the young mouth while the horse is still teething. As a result, many young horses develop an aversion to the bit early on in life and carry this forward throughout their entire lifetime.

Dental care is only one component of a healthy bitted horse. Responsibility for keeping the bitted horse’s mouth healthy also lies in the hands (literally) of the rider and in the judgment of proper bitting and proper bitting practices.

Tailoring the horse’s mouth and teeth to fit the bit is the least favourable option when considering the welfare and best interest of the horse.

About the author

Contributor

Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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