All horses and ponies require regular dental examinations - but exactly how often these are required depends on their age, diet and dental history.
A foal's teeth start to erupt within a week of birth and a full set of 'milk teeth' is present by 6-9 months. A brief dental exam should be part of a vet's normal foal check-up to identify any congenital (present from birth) issues.
Young horses aged 2-5 years should have their teeth checked prior to starting work, or at 6 monthly intervals. Pre-training checks and treatment prevent problems when working due to oral pain. Left unchecked, these can turn into deeply ingrained behavioural issues. Although we might think young horses should have nice, straight teeth where there has been little chance for things to go wrong, teeth erupt quickly at this age. Yearlings are sometimes found with points sharp enough to cut tongue and cheek tissue. Other potential problems in young horses include retained caps (baby teeth), misalignments and loose wolf teeth interrupting bitting. A lot is happening in a young horse's mouth - 24 milk teeth will eventually be replaced by up to 44 adult ones. When working with youngsters it is a good idea to get them used to having their mouths handled, showing their front teeth and - if possible - even getting them to try out a gag before their first dental.
After 5 years of age, most horses require annual check-ups. Some may require treatment every 6-9 months, depending on the amount of concentrate they eat or if there are any existing dental problems. Throughout their lives, horses' teeth erupt at a rate of 2-4 mm each year. This growth is then worn away by the grinding action of the jaws chewing up their fibrous diet. Each adult tooth is actually about 4 inches long, but most of this is hidden under the gum line. Because horses have usually been bred for factors other than good dental conformation, and rarely have access to pasture 24 hours a day to promote good balance, regular dental care is required to redress any imbalances in the mouth before they can develop into more serious issues or cause sharp enamel points which lead to soft tissue ulceration and discomfort.
Care must be taken with older or veteran horses as the rate that new tooth erupts slows down, and eventually stops altogether. Geriatric horses can lose teeth if they become over-worn. Although regular checks are crucial, and many horses require 6-monthly examinations due to age-related dental disease, aggressive rasping in later years can be catastrophic. Nowadays, with appropriate care, teeth can remain functional into a horse's third decade, or beyond.
Horses and ponies might give you a clue that they are in need of dental treatment - click to see our article on warning signs. However, some horses show no outward signs despite extreme discomfort, so don't wait for symptoms to start before booking a visit.