Almost 50% of horses have wolf teeth. They appear in front of the molars on both sides of the mouth, in the upper and lower jaw.
Their size varies and equine dentists will easily spot them during a routine examination of the horse’s mouth. They’ll only remove them if they cause trouble.
To look for wolf teeth, put your hand in the side of the horse’s mouth and move it gently backwards until you touch the molars. There, you will feel a small, sharp spike at the base of the first molar.
Because wolf teeth have very short roots they can move in the horse’s jaw, causing pain when the bit hits them. Most horses shed them between four and five years of age.
How will I know there’s a problem?
If you have a four-year-old racehorse who suddenly veers across the track or runs into the rail because of a sudden pain on one side of its mouth, it can be a classic sign of wolf teeth.
In dressage horses, the head is tilted to one side, away from the painful tooth. This is heavily penalised in a dressage test. It may suddenly occur in a well-schooled and obedient five- or six-year-old horse as the tooth loosens in the jaw.
Western horses are moved from a snaffle to a bit at five years. Changing bits is always stressful and excessive gaping as they’re turned in the direction of the wolf tooth can make it even harder for the horse to accept.
If a horse is being backed or broken in during the time a wolf tooth is present, you can expect rearing or bolting off to one side as the bit hits the tender part of the horse’s jaw.
Possible signs to look for are resisting the bit or poking the nose in the air, while the head is held to one side.
Removal of wolf teeth
Removing wolf teeth is a job for an equine veterinarian or equine dentist. There are veterinarians in South Africa who are registered as specialist equine dentists and several non-veterinarians who have qualified internationally.
Unfortunately, there are also a few unqualified persons claiming to be equine dentists, so you should do your homework before letting anyone near your horse.
If the tooth is very loose it can be removed without local anaesthetic, as long as the horse is tranquilised and well-restrained.
However, if the roots are still firmly attached, local anaesthetic and a small operation may be needed to remove the tooth.
Wolf teeth are not canines
Most riders know that if a young horse is having trouble with its mouth, it should be checked for wolf teeth. Unfortunately, wolf teeth can be confused with the canine teeth.
Canines are found in the same part of the mouth and can also cause discomfort when they erupt, but they’re easier to spot as they erupt in the “bars” (the part of the mouth where the bit lies).
Unlike the other teeth in a horse’s mouth they closely resemble the long, pointed canines of a dog.
Canines mainly occur in stallions and are sometimes called “tushes” or “fighting teeth” as a mature stallion uses them when challenged by a rival.
They play no part in biting off or chewing grass, unlike the incisors (for biting off grass) and the molars (for chewing).
Occasionally they also occur in mares, but are generally much smaller. The canines erupt at about four and a half years and are mature by five years.
During this “teething” period inflammation of the gums at the base of the teeth is common and this can lead to “fussing” – the horse moves its head up and down or chews continually while being ridden to keep the bit from touching the irritated areas.
Canines erupt on both sides of the mouth, so the typical “one-sidedness” that occurs with wolf teeth is not seen.