Over the past couple of months, I have been having some trouble with my 5 year old gelding tossing his head while I am riding. He takes the bit normally, and then shortly after we begin working, he starts throwing his head around, and gets quite agitated. We can usually work through it, but it is troublesome. I don’t remember him doing anything like this last summer, could there be a medical issue?
There are a number of possible reasons for the head tossing. The most common reason that we find here at MVS for head tossing, is dental issues.
One of the most important lines of communication with our horses can be through the mouth. Halters, bridles and bits are all a means of communicating our intentions when riding and also when leading our horses. An often overlooked reason for this line of communication to break down can be due to problems with the horse’s mouth.
Dental work in horses has progressed quite a bit in the past 10 years. Gone are the days of simply running a float up in a horse’s mouth with no sedation or restraint. To perform a full dental exam, we will most likely want to sedate your horse and use a full mouth speculum. This allows us to examine the entire mouth, all the way to the teeth in the very back of the mouth. Routine exams of the mouth usually find sharp points on the outside surfaces of the upper teeth, next to the cheeks. These sharp points can cause painful oral ulcers, which can be exacerbated when bridles/headstalls place pressure over the area of the ulcer with their cheek bands. A common complaint from a horse that is in need of dental work is that the horse has been “throwing his head” or “fighting the bit”. This is a result of these painful oral ulcers being aggravated with the bridle. We will be able to assess this type of problem with a full mouth speculum exam.
A good time to think of getting your horse’s first dental exam is around the time that your horse begins training/riding lessons. This corresponds with the first time that we ask our horses’ to take a bit as well. A common misconception is that only older horses need dentistry performed. Young horses actually get much more out of routine dentistry than their older counterparts. Young horse teeth are softer than older horse teeth and as a result can change more quickly than old horse teeth. This means that the edges of your young horse’s teeth can develop points on them that are as sharp as puppy teeth! Imagine trying to learn about a bit and bridle with those needle sharp points digging into your cheek or tongue. With a complaint of training difficulties in a young horse, one of the first things to is his mouth.
Horses that receive dental work on a regular basis are able to avoid some of these uncomfortable conditions. Regular dental work will also give us the opportunity to detect other abnormalities in the mouth as well. Malocclusions, or disruptions to the normal chewing surface of the tooth, can lead to fractures, tooth root infections, and a decrease in feed efficiency. Timely diagnosis and treatment of these problems will help to keep your horse healthy and making the most of his feed for years to come. We recently were able to work on a horse that just celebrated his 30th birthday. Since he has had regular dental work done for over 20 years, he still has a VERY healthy set of teeth left with which to chew. In contrast, I have seen 30 year old horses without regular dental care have very few healthy teeth left with which to chew hay. This can lead to weight loss, and a host of other health problems.
Communication with our equine friends is always an important aspect of enjoying our time riding. Doing everything that we can to eliminate distractions to the horse will only ensure that we have the most open lines of communication, leading to the optimum performance from our trusted mounts. When your horse clearly understands what it is that you are asking him to do, then he is much more likely to respond well to your request. With proper dental care, you can make the most of this season riding, and communicating, with your horse.