The horse’s mouth has in it about 40 teeth (mares often have fewer). There are incisors, premolars, molars, and sometimes canine and wolf teeth. It’s a mysterious place for most horse owners. Vets suggest protocol for floating (the process of rasping teeth with hand and power tools) and often perform floats. Equine dentists work on horses, too, and are sometimes praised for being more qualified since that’s all they do.
Their authority and ability to work, however, is dictated by state laws, which may or may not require them to work with or under a vet.
Equine dentist Phil Ratliff, owner of Rite Bite Equine Dentistry, occupies rare territory in this miasma of professionals working on horses’ teeth: he’s an equine dentist conducting research with a university professor. Neither an academic, nor a vet, Ratliff is nonetheless uncovering some impressive findings that tie the teeth to the gut and to the feet.
For the past several years, Ratliff, with the counsel and collaboration of Dr. Robert Bowker (a 2017 Best Horse Practices Summit presenter and director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University), has focused on the connection between metabolic concerns (like Cushings Disease, laminitis, and insulin resistance (the horse’s version of diabetes)) and teeth anatomy.
What they are uncovering is a fascinating, multi-dimensional connection that at once makes perfect sense and yet seems confounding:
Those ‘fat’ horses? They are actually starving, regardless of their diet. And, if you correct their teeth, while keeping all other factors (including exercise and diet) the same, those horses’ health will improve.
“It sounds totally wrong,” said Ratliff with a smile during a recent interview.
Ratliff, a graduate of the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho, has studied scores of horses with insulin resistance. Generally speaking, their teeth needed correction; because of their teeth, they were not able to chew their hay well. Their manure was full of fibers measuring eight millimeters or longer on average. Healthy chewers yield manure with fibers measuring two millimeters or shorter.
Why does poop fiber length matter?
Hay heads to the gut where a host of microorganisms facilitate its digestion. It’s a bacterial world with heroes and villians. In horses with healthy teeth, specific ‘good’ bacteria help convert those tiny fibers into energy and nutrients.
In horses with poor teeth, the gut’s microorganism populations are negatively altered. Optimal nutrient conversion is not possible. Instead, these microorganisms, ‘bad bacteria’ as Ratliff calls them, convert the fibers to sugar. That alteration in nutrient processing is what leads these horses to have insulin resistance problems. As we know, insulin resistance concerns often include or lead to hoof problems like laminitis and founder.
In his work, improving the efficiency of mastication (chewing) has vastly improved the health of these overweight, nutritionally starved horses.
Another finding in Ratliff’s decades of observation:
In the wrong hands, power floating can be extremely detrimental to the horse. Ratliff suggests that the thermal friction inherent in the use of power float tools damages the teeth and can eventually lead to tooth death. Bowker cautions, though, that power tools can be effective if used properly and that we should focus more on the operator and less on the tool.