By: Geoff Tucker, DVM
Before I give you the number one reason you should NOT float your horse, I need to acknowledge a few things.
First, I would like to thank Barn Mice for featuring my blog on their site. They pick someone who they think is interesting and has something to say and then ask them to contribute weekly for a month. So May, 2010 is my month. Thank you for the opportunity to spread my opinion on equine dentistry, which you will soon find is a lot different than the rhetoric given by the “modern” equine dentists.
Second, for those of you who do not know me, I am an equine veterinarian (The Equine Practice) who was a horseman before I became a vet. Five years away from school on a Thoroughbred breeding and training farm helped shape my horsemanship skills. In 1983 my mentor at Cornell showed me how to insert my hand into the horse’s mouth without using any speculum. Since then I have floated over 43,000 horses so maybe I might know why you should NOT float your horse’s teeth. Are you interested?
There are two questions we need to try to answer: 1) what is the purpose of floating teeth? and 2) how can you tell if it has been done well?
From my experience the ONLY purpose of floating teeth is to remove all sources of pain. Everything else is secondary such as balancing the jaw and reducing the incisors. A fact that was observed and documented was that horses chew between 10,000 to 40,000 times a day. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. If we pick an average of 25,000 chews a day, then about a third of the day is spent chewing.
If the sharp points found on every tooth of every horse’s mouth create painful ulcers of the cheek or tongue, the horse will chew in a way to avoid this pain. And what is the purpose of chewing? It is to form a bolus of food that is acceptable for swallowing. In another good study, horses with various degrees of bad dentition were given the same diet. They concluded that as long as the food got past the mouth, all feed was digested the same. But you who have mucked stalls know that most horse poop looks the same. We didn’t need a study for that! What it also says is that kernels of corn in the manure is not a teeth issue but a lack of effective digestion.
Another important point is that the tongue needs to be able to move freely within the mouth to clean it as well as to stimulate and strengthen the attachment of the teeth within their sockets. Where this tongue movement is limited by sharp points, pathology occurs including local gum infections and loosening of teeth with premature tooth loss.
So removal of pain is why we float the teeth, but how do you tell if it was done well on your horse? This is actually tough unless you can go inside and inspect the job yourself. But I have found that the horse will tell you. In other words in most horses, if all the points are addressed, your horse should be more comfortable in chewing and in bit response. If you continue floating regularly then your horse should remain comfortable. If after floating your horse still shows bit discomfort or if he still tilts his head and lets grain spill out, then it is possible they were not floated well. But not always. Other factors need to be considered such as nuchal bursa inflammation, cervical vertebral lesions, and other things located outside of the mouth.
So what could be the reason NOT to float your horse? Simply this. Once you have had your horse floated and all sources of pain removed, he will now know what normal is. To keep him happy in the bit you will need to repeat the floating on a regular basis. Because in the next 864,000 seconds your horse will chew another quarter of a million times and the sharp points will return.