Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Dental & Oral Exam



In order to grind feed effectively, a horse must have a healthy mouth and teeth. Permanent teeth replace a set of deciduous (baby) teeth over the first 3-4 years of a horse’s life. There are 12 cheek teeth, which are the large grinding teeth located far back in the mouth.

Horse teeth erupt throughout their lives. The teeth start out very long, but are buried in the jawbone and sinuses and only visible via radiography. The embedded part of the tooth is called a reserve crown and is not akin to a true root (as in humans).

Over time, the reserve crown erupts through the gum and is worn off by the opposing tooth, and the abrasive feeds that horses eat.

Horses are prone to the development of overgrowths and other dental problems because of the way horse’s teeth erupt and wear. Periodic veterinary oral examination is an important part of equine health maintenance.

Veterinary examination of the equine mouth is both art and science. Horsemanship plays a big role in a vet’s ability to properly examine the mouth in the field. In my practice, I often perform a quick field exam, in which I use a powerful light to look back into the mouth of an unsedated horse after washing out the mouth.

I often palpate the mouth without the use of a speculum and roughly assess the grinding action of the cheek teeth by sliding the mouth side to side. The purpose of this exam is to look for major dental overgrowths and loose or missing teeth, and determine the need for dental work.

If I suspect a horse has a dental problem, I sedate the horse and use a “full mouth” or Macpherson speculum to pry the mouth open and keep it open for a more thorough exam. Again, I use the very bright light to visualize the mouth carefully. I place my hand back and feel each tooth for looseness. I use a mirror to view the grinding surface. I often use a pick to probe the grinding surface and the gum around the tooth looking for periodontal pockets. I also examine the tongue, palate and cheeks as these tissues may be injured or damaged by sharp dental overgrowths.

In rare cases, foreign bodies (wire, wood, etc.) are found and removed.

Reasons to UseRelated Observations

Cannot Chew, Chewing Abnormally
Dropping Grain or Feed Abnormally when Eating
Weight Loss, Thin, Losing Weight
Eating Slowly, Taking Long Time to Finish a Meal
Twisting or Gaping Mouth
Lip Curl, Flehmen Response
Resists or Roots Against Bit
Foul Odor from Mouth or Face, Bad Breath
Discharge from One Nostril (White, Yellow or Green)
Dropping Chewed Feed or Hay Balls, Quidding
Teeth, Sharp Dental Points Felt or Seen
Wound or Cut to Tongue
Manure has Corn, Grain or Oats in It
Difficult to Bridle or Work with Mouth
Dunks or Soaks Hay in Water Bucket
Starving or Very Thin Horse
Tooth, Lost & Found
Swelling on Side of Jowl or Cheek
Rearing while Under Saddle
Head Tossing or Shaking, while Ridden
Shear Mouth, Angle of Occlusion is Steep on Oral Exam
Suddenly Stops or Resists Moving Forward Under Saddle
Rearing or Pulling Back when Led in Hand
Foreign Body, Plant Awns Stuck in Mouth, Lips, Tongue or Gums
Sores or Blisters on Mouth, Lips, Tongue, or Gums
Slobbering, Drooling or Salivating
Cheeks or Jowls Look Hollowed Out
Manure has Long Hay Fibers in It
Drainage from Under or Behind Jaw
Lip Quivering, Lip Flapping, Strange Movement of Lips
Wound to Lip or Mouth
Tongue Sticking or Hanging Out
Abnormal Movement or Twitching of Lips
Front Teeth (Incisors) Abnormally Worn
Head Tilted or Cocked to Side
Cannot Swallow, Difficulty Swallowing
Swollen Tongue
Wolf Teeth Present
Extending or Stretching Out Neck
Foal or Newborn, Underbite, Lower Jaw Protrudes Forward
Underbite, Lower Jaw Protrudes Forward (in Adult)
Teeth are Discolored, Stained or Caked in Material
Lump, Bump, Growth on Face or Head
Front Teeth (Incisors) Appear Broken Outward
Swelling on One Side of Head or Face
Breathing Noise at Rest
Not Drinking Water, Difficulty Drinking or Not Thirsty


A properly performed dental/oral exam may identify a variety of dental abnormalities, some of which may benefit from treatment.


Even with a mirror and dental pick, this exam only evaluates the mouth side of the teeth. Diseased teeth can look normal on oral exam.

Helpful Terms & Topics in HSVGWritten, Reviewed or Shared by Experts in Equine Health

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.