Have you ever heard the phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”? Have you ever wondered what it meant? I’m going to answer all of that and more because my first semester of veterinary school has taught me so many interesting animal teeth facts that I never knew!
First, the reasoning behind not checking your gifted horse’s teeth is because it’s impolite to question the value of a gift. Teeth can be used to age a horse, so by looking your horse in the mouth, you can estimate how old she is, and therefore how much she might be worth. One thing I’ve learned this semester is that you can check for Galvayne’s groove on the upper third incisor. This groove is simply a dark line that is said to begin forming at about 10 years of age, be fully formed by 20, and disappear at 30. At first, I thought this was absolutely crazy, but using this groove to age horses is actually pretty common practice. You can read more about it here.
Another interesting fact, did you know that there are different kinds of teeth? Humans, as well as carnivores have a full set of brachydont teeth. Brachydont teeth have an enamel crown, and they only grow for a short period of time. However, horses have hypsodont teeth which are covered with cementum and are continuously growing. Ruminants have a mixture of brachydont incisors and hypsodont cheek teeth. Why the differences? Horses and ruminants need those continuously growing hypsodont teeth in order to continuously chew the fibrous diets they consume. Hypsodont teeth are especially good at this grinding. Carnivorous and omnivorous species that eat a more meat-based or varied diet do not need teeth that grow continuously.
While those continuously growing teeth are great for consuming fibrous hay, it does cause them to wear down. Repetitive chewing patterns can cause spikes or sharp points to develop in the horse’s mouth. Ouch! That would be like biting your lip every time you tried to take a bite of food. To manage this issue, it is important to have your horse’s teeth floated regularly. “Floating” means sanding off those sharp edges so they don’t cause any pain while chewing.
Now the next time you see a horse, you can check their teeth to make an estimate of how old they are! But don’t do it if the horse is a gift!