The process of digestion can be considered to be mechanical and/or chemical. The first stage of (mechanical) digestion starts as the teeth cut and grind the food. The teeth of a horse are constantly erupting, which means they emerge more from the gum over time. They do not look to get longer as they are continually being worn down. However the angle of the incisors (front teeth) changes as they get older, which is one factor we consider when ageing a horse.
The premolars and molars are the chewing and grinding teeth. As these emerge they are worn down, but if they are not worn down evenly they can cause, waves, hooks and sharp edges. Dental problems can include cracked or loose teeth, fractures and jaw problems.
We may notice when we ride that out horse may not be happy, settled or even in the contact, so we look for other signs that their teeth and mouth may be causing discomfort or problems.
A horse has evolved to have very strong molar teeth with a ridged grinding surface. This breaks down the fibre content of the forage they eat that would otherwise be indigestible within the gut. Older forage has a greater lignin and cellulose content which makes chewing even more important. We can assess how effectively their teeth are working by regularly checking their droppings for evidence of long fibre that has escaped their teeth and also be watching them chew. You might notice small round semi-chewed ‘balls’ of hay or haylage in the stabled horse or pony. These occur when the part chewed food drops from their mouth before swallowing.
If their forage is not chewed sufficiently, digestive enzymes and micro organisms are unable to do their job. You may notice weight loss, or loss of condition. Horses may look better and gain condition when turned out to grass as is it less lignified, therefore requiring less chewing for digestion to be continued.
Regular dental checks are essential as well as knowing your own horse. The diet of a horse with dental issues can be supported with chopped fibre, or ground fibre, but this needs to be on a case by case basis. Diets for these horses must be high in digestible fibre to support hindgut function. Keyflow® Pink Mash® is an excellent source of highly digestible fibre with added Protexin® and prebiotics to support and stabilise the microbial balance in the hind gut.