Podcast Episode 33: Horse Health Happiness #4: Secrets of teeth floating

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Teeth floating is one of a few tasks that we hand off to experts.

But are all equine dentists, and dental techniques, the same?

Obviously some are less expensive than others. But why is that?

-the pros and cons of power floating,
-what proprioception has to do with teeth (??),
-and how head misalignment affects teeth (and your hay bill!)
-and more.

Listen anywhere the podcasts are, or here on Horse Mysteries Solved.

Renee Tucker, DVM


Dr. Renee (00:01)
Hello, friends. Dr. Renee Tucker here. Back at you with horse health. Happiness secret number four.

Dr. Renee (00:08)
Well, it’s not really a secret, but I’m calling this the Secrets of Teeth Floating. All right, let me just jump right into it. First, just want to go over the basics, which you probably know that horses do not chew their food. They grind their food totally different. And in fact, the teeth are built so differently, they kind of look best description I can come up with is they look like a cheese grater.

Dr. Renee (00:36)
They are really grinding and grating and basically ripping apart their hay, for example, into tiny little bits, just back and forth. By moving their lower jaw right to left, the food gets grinded and smallified into teeny tiny bits. The more the merrier, because the smaller the bits are as they go into the gut and the intestine, then the more surface area there is for the bacteria and the rest of the microbiome to work on it. So they really want small little pieces. Now, they are born with all their teeth in their skull, in their head.

Dr. Renee (01:18)
I say that because as they grind slowly but surely, they do wear off some of their tooth surface. So as they wear off the tooth surface, the tooth that is inside the skull then just gradually moves down totally not like us, all right? We chew, they grind. So they’re really different. Now, sometimes they do need their teeth floated, as we call it.

Dr. Renee (01:47)
And I have no idea why we call it floating, just to let you know that up front, okay? No idea. Because occasionally when they’re grinding their food, they don’t grind perfectly against upper and lower jaws. And so there can be some sharp points that remain. Usually these are on the far outside or the far inside of the teeth, all right?

Dr. Renee (02:14)
So those are just sharp points. And if those get too sharp, then they’re going to start rubbing and cutting either the cheek or the gum. So it is important to get your horse checked and floated if needed. Now let’s talk about the secrets, shall we? All right, here’s the skinny.

Dr. Renee (02:32)
What do we veterinarians learn in vet school? Just about nothing. All right? We know teeth anatomy.

Dr. Renee (02:43)
I want to say it was one class hour of teeth floating. And you know why? I realized this was a long time ago. So they probably get a little bit more now, but you can’t see in the horse’s mouth, and if you can see, you can’t really stick your hand in there and point at the same time as someone’s looking. It’s difficult to teach teeth floating.

Dr. Renee (03:05)
Now. We have a lot more abilities now because of cameras and all that kind of thing. But I had 1 hour, and we had a teeth float. And they said, you just put it in here, and you put it at a 45 degree angle right around these sharp edges and just pull back and forth until one the sound changed and it became instead of tough and hard to pull this float back and forth, it became smooth. I mean, it was pretty simple.

Dr. Renee (03:33)
It didn’t really seem like we needed a lot of time to learn that we just needed a lot of practice, and so we practiced, and that was that. Now, I know that things have probably improved a little bit, but from what I hear from the new graduates, not really that much. Don’t get too mad at veterinarians, because vet schools have to teach all species dogs, cats, horses, cows, all of it, because there’s a national board exam where the veterinarians have to pass on all species, so they don’t have extra time or extra money. Now, when I went through vet school, there was 60 students in my class. I went to the university of tennessee in knoxville, tennessee, and it was awesome.

Dr. Renee (04:22)
We had 60, which was the smallest class size in america. I think the most I want to say is 120, but even so, that’s pretty small that’s the people you stay with for four years of your life. You know them pretty dang good. My point is only about six to ten at the most of us had any interest in equine at all. To be fair, I did not want to learn anything about cat problems.

Dr. Renee (04:51)
Okay, don’t get me wrong, all right, I like cats, but I love horses. I just wanted everything about horses. But my point is, there is a smaller percentage of people in a veterinary school that want to learn about horses compared to dogs and cats. So more time, more money is spent on dogs and cats these days, has been for quite a while. And I’m sure you may be aware of we’re having kind of a shortage of veterinarians, at least in the United States, and fewer and fewer want to do equine work that’s hard.

Dr. Renee (05:27)
It’s long hours. Horses are the best, of course, but veterinary medicine is a bit tough. Okay. My point is, we get very little hours, and they don’t have time or money to add more hours in vet school. So what they did not necessarily on purpose, but what happened was there are veterinary dental schools that you can choose to attend after vet school, which is theoretically great.

Dr. Renee (05:55)
However, these cost at least $10,000. That was years ago. It’s probably more now. And then you’re going to have to spend $10,000 to $20,000 on the dental equipment. You say, why should it be that much?

Dr. Renee (06:11)
Well, I hear you. I don’t think it should be that much either, but it’s that whole supply and demand thing. There’s just not that many people running around looking for equine dental tools. So for them to make it, the price has to be kind of high, and then also the veterinarians have to get most of them, if they do dentistry, have the equipment to keep a horse safely sedated while they stand in front of the horse. So there’s different ways to do that, but often the veterinarian has the equipment because most horse owners don’t have that equipment and they want the horse’s head to be held up and safe so that the horse doesn’t fall forward on them when they’re standing in front of them to do the work because they are sedated.

Dr. Renee (06:58)
Okay? So there’s a lot of equipment and it costs a lot of money. And frankly, that’s why horse dentistry is fairly expensive to get done by a veterinary dentist. Okay, so let’s talk for a minute about this power floating. Hey, it is easier to use a power tool, right?

Dr. Renee (07:17)
What we’re trying to do is get these sharp points off the edges of horse’s teeth, which is fine. However, power tools have a couple of problems. One is they are extremely powerful and fast. It is very easy to kind of accidentally take too much teeth off. Now, you ask most equine dentists that are using power tools and they’ll say, oh, yes, I know it’s very fast.

Dr. Renee (07:46)
I am extremely careful to not take off too much teeth. However, it’s happening, it happens in a microsecond. And the other thing that happens is these power floating tools generate heat on the tooth. Do you know, back in the day when this power dentistry thing was just getting started, I did equine relief work and I worked for this veterinarian who loved dentistry, and he was all about it. Now, he had a thing, a whole setup for squirting water into the mouth while he was running the power tool to keep the tooth cooled down and to flush out the tooth.

Dr. Renee (08:31)
I don’t know what you call it. Technically the dust. So you’re floating it and the part that’s getting floated or filed away is in the mouth and you want to clear that area so you can see properly. So he had on a whole like, helmet thing and he had piping, little tiny tubing that ran would pump the water in attached to the float while he was working. Then he had a whole, like, cave light on his helmet so he could really see.

Dr. Renee (08:57)
He was just all about this. It was great. So the thing is, I have never seen or heard of another veterinarian using water. Now, I didn’t know enough at the time to ask him, is this your own invention? I just figured everyone was going to do this because he was one of the first, but I never saw it again.

Dr. Renee (09:17)
The key is what we found out, unfortunately, later, is that sometimes this heat from the power tool can heat up the tooth roots enough to basically kill them, unfortunately. But you don’t really know that because the tooth has to, as we talked about, grow out of the horse’s skull. But you don’t know till generally two years later at least, that the roots are dead and therefore, the tooth is loose. So what happened was there was a guy who used to teach veterinarians this power floating technique. His name is Spencer LaFleur, and he’s in America someplace.

Dr. Renee (10:07)
Now, caveat here. I don’t know Spencer. I have not been to his school. I only know people who have been to his school, all right? And they seem to do a very good job.

Dr. Renee (10:16)
That’s all I can tell you. But gossip, okay? The story goes, Spencer was teaching veterinarians how to do this power dentistry, and he had done horses with this method for 20 years. So he was able to see the long, long term effects of power dentistry. And kudos to him.

Dr. Renee (10:37)
He figured this out. He figured out this is a problem, guys. He also figured out the heat thing, and that the power tools. Just even if you’re trying your very best, they take off too much tooth. It’s too fast, it’s too powerful, it’s too hot.

Dr. Renee (10:56)
So what he did was he saw this, and Spencer LaFleur then created his own school of dentistry, which does not use power tools anymore. I think he calls it like a natural dentist thing. Back when he started, of course, natural, the word natural wasn’t so overused as it is now. But let me explain a little bit more why it is natural. Because with the power tools, as I mentioned, the veterinarian will tranquilize the horse and needs the horse’s head kind of held up so you can see while you’re standing in front of the horse.

Dr. Renee (11:32)
Makes sense. You got to do what you got to do to get the job done and to be safe. Well, here’s the problem. If you hold the horses up, the teeth are no longer aligned in a natural position. Try this fun experiment.

Dr. Renee (11:49)
Okay? Okay, check this out. If you just drop your head down so your chin goes toward your chest as far as you want. It doesn’t matter how far, but just drop it down, chin to chest, and then relax your jaw. You’ll notice that your lower jaw will automatically move forward when you drop your head.

Dr. Renee (12:15)
And then when you pick up your head and if you lean your head back, your lower jaw will move back in your mouth. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Our jaws move now. Our jaws move to chew and talk. Theirs obviously move side to side, but nonetheless, theirs also moves forward and back.

Dr. Renee (12:35)
So when their head is down in the natural grazing position, that lower jaw is forward. When we put their head up in this kind of unnatural position that we need to do currently to float, their lower jaw automatically moves back just from the position. So now then, they’ve made these beautiful floating jobs, except when the horse then puts its head back down to eat, the teeth are no longer aligned. They were floated in an incorrect position. Right?

Dr. Renee (13:16)
They were floated with the jaw too far back and now they don’t quite match up when they put their head back down. So this is a problem. All right? So when you’re looking to find a dentist or talk to your dentist about these things, the Spencer LaFleur natural dentistry technique is to do give a light tranquilizer, just very light, so that you’re not so concerned about the horse falling on you. And their dentists put on some big hock knee pads and do the dental float with hand tools while the person is kneeling in front of the horse.

Dr. Renee (14:02)
Now, I think they’re amazing. My knees could not take this, all right? But they do. They got really cushy knee pads, so it’s all good. So that way the horse’s natural angle of the teeth and where the jaw sits is just like it would be when he’s eating.

Dr. Renee (14:21)
So it’s a more of a neutral position when they’re doing the float, not head way up high, jaw moved back. Now let’s make everything perfect. It’s completely misaligned. It’s sad. Everyone’s kind of trying their best, but things happen, and I know we’re starting to realize it, so I’m telling you guys.

Dr. Renee (14:40)
Okay? All right, so what you want with dentistry is you do want no power tools. None use regular hand floats. Now, I understand there may be some rare outliers. Certainly there are some very bad cases of wave mouth and rhyme out that a power tool may be better.

Dr. Renee (15:07)
Okay, I understand. That what I’m talking about. In all these horse health, happinesses is the general average horse. There’s always going to be your rare cases that don’t fit the profile. Okay?

Dr. Renee (15:19)
But mostly you don’t want to use a power float. I’d never put a power float in a horse’s mouth. Now, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to fire your dentist if you already have one. You could just have a conversation, say, hey, I just have some concerns. Is there any chance you could do my horse just without power tools?

Dr. Renee (15:38)
They might. You never know. Okay, worth the conversation. Now, another thing I want to mention, though, is you want to make sure whoever’s your dentist feels the teeth with their hand. I know a lot of equine dentists that never do this.

Dr. Renee (15:58)
And let me tell you a story to illustrate, okay? I knew this horse named Sunshine. Black horse, beautiful, gorgeous. I forget what breed. Think of warm blood.

Dr. Renee (16:09)
Her owner paid $100,000 for it. Now, I don’t care how much people pay for their horses, really. They’re all beautiful and wonderful. I don’t care if they’re free. I don’t care if you paid a million bucks.

Dr. Renee (16:21)
My point in mentioning that she paid $100,000 for this Grand Prix disage horse is that you would think it would be well cared for and not that it wasn’t. Everyone was trying their best. But here’s the story. So I was seeing this horse every month for body work. That’s my thing.

Dr. Renee (16:41)
I do body work. And she had her atlas misaligned the right side of her neck and the left lumbar misaligned pretty badly every single month. Now, this is not normal. You might have the same thing going on once or twice, but not all the time, forever. And the owner would tell me, Look, I can get her to do this stuff because she’s a sweet horse, but her ears are half back, she’s grinding her teeth.

Dr. Renee (17:11)
She grunts when she does it, and she swishes her tail, and she’s the sweetest I mean her name’s Sunshine. She was that sweet. It was incredible. We did the ulcer stuff. She checked for everything.

Dr. Renee (17:25)
She just kept up on the body work, which was great. And I kept my instinct, my gut because of her misalignments and trying to deal with her TMJ and stuff like this. I’m like, Sunshine’s owner, I really think it’s the teeth. I said, I know that who you bought her from said she had her teeth done, but could we please check it again? Because I don’t do teeth, right?

Dr. Renee (17:50)
I totally believe in if you’re jack of all trades, you’re the master of none. So my thing is body work. I do know a lot about other things, but I don’t necessarily do them. So she got a veterinary dentist out who did a few things but said, overall, it wasn’t too bad. I’m like, Shoot, I wonder what the heck?

Dr. Renee (18:07)
It’s so weird. And months go by, and unfortunately, same thing over and over again. No relief. She’s trying vitamins and minerals and supplements and blah, blah, blah. Saddle fit.

Dr. Renee (18:19)
You name it, we got it. Okay? She’s checking all this stuff. I’m finally like, I know that you had this veterinary dentist, but can we please try it again? Because it’s just got to be the teeth.

Dr. Renee (18:29)
Has another veterinary dentist, same thing. Can’t really find a problem. Everything looks pretty good in there. They might have smoothed over a few rough spots, but nothing for teeth grinding, ears back grunting, none of that. And they looked you know what I’m saying?

Dr. Renee (18:48)
They did their deal. And then I just kept saying to Sunshine’s, Mama, look, I hear you. What else can it be? We’ve done everything. And finally one time, I show up there for our 30 day check, right?

Dr. Renee (19:07)
And she says, guess what? I have figured it out. I’m like what? Really? She goes, Put your hand out.

Dr. Renee (19:13)
I said why? She hands me she said, Be careful. She hands me something that looked like a white shark tooth, like, flat and triangular, and the point was sharp. Like, I picked it up, and there’s a sharp point there. Naturally, I want to know how sharp it is, so I stick my finger on it, and it poked a hole in it.

Dr. Renee (19:35)
She said, I told you to be careful. I’m like, what the heck? It was so sharp, I can’t even believe I’m like, what is this? Where’d you get it? Looks like a tooth, sort of.

Dr. Renee (19:43)
She says, yeah. So there was a Spencer LaFleur graduate who one of her other barn mates had called in and she said, Look, I didn’t know you were coming. Do you have time to look at my horse because I’ve got this problem. Blah, blah, blah. So he does does his usual thing, and one of their usual things, which is why I’m telling you this story, is he put his hand all the way in her mouth.

Dr. Renee (20:10)
Now, he has a mouth speculum, so his arm is safe, right? But you have to go all the way up to your elbow to reach the back of the mouth, right? Horses teeth go all the way through their whole face, practically. Okay? So he found this giant, like, the size and shape of a shark tooth in the back of her last molar.

Dr. Renee (20:32)
The horses last molar. Poor Sunshines. That was so sharp that shark tooth, guys, was digging a hole into the opposite tooth. No wonder she’s grinding your teeth as best she can and grunting. And he had to use special tools to cut it off because multiple veterinary dentists did not feel.

Dr. Renee (20:56)
And where the area is where this can happen, you cannot see it. It doesn’t matter what kind of speculum, what kind of special lighting you use, you can’t see it, you have to feel it. So again, if you’re a veterinarian or whoever dentist, is not feeling the teeth, you’re going to miss it. So hopefully that stay. You might remember, you’re like, well, I don’t know remember why I want my person to stick their arm in their mouth.

Dr. Renee (21:27)
But I know there’s a reason. It was Sunshine story. Because they had to cut off a chunk of her molar that was shaped like a shark tooth. Ow. Only on one side.

Dr. Renee (21:41)
All kind of weird. But the point is, she was fixed. He cut that off, and the owner just said she just dropped her head inside the next time she wrote her perfect, no grinding, relaxed, beautiful collection extension, gorgeous. She’s like, it’s been almost a year and a half since I got this and I finally got the horse I paid for because it was her tooth the whole time. And again, everyone’s trying their best.

Dr. Renee (22:10)
Everyone’s trying to do what we were told. Sometimes you got to set that aside and say, okay, I was told this, but now I’ve learned something new and I’m going to go with that. All right? So you do not want power floating. You would like the horse to be floated with the head low in a neutral position.

Dr. Renee (22:32)
And you want them to be sure to, with their hand, feel each tooth. That does mean sticking their arm all the way in the horse’s mouth. I wouldn’t want to do that, but some people do. All right. Okay.

Dr. Renee (22:46)
Two more oddball things that I thought I’d mention, if you don’t mind. One is, if the molars of the horse’s mouth, don’t touch on the top and the bottom. That’s a problem. So the incisors are the teeth in the front, right where the lips are. Those are the incisors.

Dr. Renee (23:07)
And all the rest of the teeth are basically molars. The top and the bottom of those should touch each other because they have to grind the food. They got to be able to pretty much touch. If you can imagine grinders, like if you’re holding the cheese a half a centimeter above the cheese grater and moving your cheese back and forth, but not touching the cheese grater, it’s not going to grate. Right?

Dr. Renee (23:33)
So this is what happens. And this is the problem with grinding off too much teeth with the power tools. Even if it’s a millimeter too much, guys, it matters. It really matters. So they can’t grind properly.

Dr. Renee (23:48)
And then this is the mysterious part. If those teeth are not touching, this is called molar occlusion. Occlusion means they’re touching. That’s it. If there’s no occlusion, the horse loses proprioception in its whole body.

Dr. Renee (24:07)
You might say, what the heck? Because that’s what I said when I heard this, but it turns out there are so many proprioceptive nerves in the tooth roots. I think this is bizarre, but it is a fact.

Dr. Renee (24:24)
So proprioception is knowing where your body is in space. They’ve even tracked down they’re still mapping this out and figuring this out over there at Spencer on the floor. And there are people where you could have a little tiny sharp point on a certain premolar or molar, whichever, of specific tooth, and it will directly connect to having a fetlock misalignment. I’m like what? Yeah.

Dr. Renee (24:54)
So then you’re at this point, okay, every time I see this sharp point on this specific tooth, the horse has a corresponding fetlock problem. Well, now that you’re at kind of a chicken or the egg point, which one came first? Right? And no one really quite knows, but what they have had happen is, for example, the dentist sees the horse regularly. It’s got a fetlock problem.

Dr. Renee (25:20)
But whatever the vet does, the client does. Doesn’t matter regarding the fetlock until the dentist fixes the corresponding tooth problem and then the fetlock problem completely disappears. It’s all crazy, but it’s all connected. This is one of the most bizarre connections I know of. Okay?

Dr. Renee (25:43)
But the proprioception is in the teeth along with this thought. When the horse doesn’t quite know very well where it is in space, guess what it does to compensate. If it can if it doesn’t have shoes on, it will flatten the feet. It will literally make the feet wider. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes.

Dr. Renee (26:13)
I’ve seen clients where they said, one of my clients, she does barefoot, and she checks her horse’s feet every day and she does all the trimming. She knows those feet. She said, I had your guy out, right? One of the Spencer LaFleur. People.

Dr. Renee (26:28)
She knows the feet she’s been having a little bit of a struggle with the flat feet. She had wished her horse had better concavity on the soles, but thought, well, that’s just my horse, okay? I’ll deal with know, I got my boots. She had the dentist do the teeth, the Spencer LaFleur natural dentistry guy, and she said he got done. And I don’t know why, but she checked the feet and they were more concave.

Dr. Renee (26:56)
I’m like, what are you talking about? Don’t you mean like several weeks later, the horse just wore itself into more concavity? She’s like, no, it was instantaneous and my top line was better. Like, what the heck, guys? It’s all about proprioception.

Dr. Renee (27:13)
If the horse doesn’t know where its body is because the teeth are not occluded, it will do stuff. It will flatten the feet so it can get more information from the ground. And in doing so and making the feet a little bit more flat, it will decrease your top line. Musculature. Freaking weird, right?

Dr. Renee (27:36)
That’s what I always say. All right. And that’s one oddball thing. And my second oddball thing, well, I don’t know if it’s really that odd, but if your head is misaligned, that’s the head, including your atlas, your oxyput and your TMJs, you can get sharp points and hock only on one side. I hope that makes sense.

Dr. Renee (27:57)
Like, if you’re listening, if you can just tip your head to one side. So one ear down towards your shoulder and again relax your jaw, your jaw will start moving to that side. Well, now imagine you’re a horse and you’re grinding your teeth like that, right? So one side gets ground properly and the other side does not. I think it makes sense, but maybe it’s a new thing and it sounds kind of weird.

Dr. Renee (28:25)
The point to that one is if you have your dentist out and they’re like, wow, this one side is just horrible, but the other side is pretty good, you’d be like, oh, wait, I know Renee said something about this. Yes. That means somewhere in your head, somewhere in your horse’s head, you have a misalignment. So the teeth are grinding down irregularly in misaligned fashion. So that’s pretty easy to fix with the body worker.

Dr. Renee (28:52)
But you want to keep in mind that if you have a severe misalignment of the teeth, right, and so they’ve chewed for a couple of years now, one side is really bad and the dentist fixes it. You got to get the head fixed right or it’s just going to come back again. And then if you keep doing that now, you have way too much tooth floated or ground off one side of the mouth and the other, and long term, then you’d start losing teeth on that one side. That’s no good. They need all their teeth, if possible.

Dr. Renee (29:29)
Okay, you guys, that is my strange secrets of teeth floating. You definitely want to have hand floating with the head down low and make sure they feel the teeth with their hand. That’s kind of the summary. Not too bad. However, you might have to call around to find someone to do that, and you can certainly ask your regular guy and see if they’ll do that for you.

Dr. Renee (29:52)
All right. As always, let me know if you have any questions, and I will talk to you guys later. Thank you for listening. Bye.

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3 Comments on “Podcast Episode 33: Horse Health Happiness #4: Secrets of teeth floating”

  1. Dear Dr Tucker, I was so happily surprised when you said that tooth problems have an impact on topline and feet. My friesian had a huge infection in his head and as a result lost 3 molers. Finally the dentist found the infection and now all is well, the horse has much better feet and his topline is much straighter. His hooves were a huge problem and he had boots on 24/7, his topline has always been very weak. I am a horse bodyworker for. y own horses, at least I am studying hard for it and love the podcasts. I ask my horses for answers through swaying and am super happy that I can. Living far away from good veterinary clinics is hard plus the tropical climate of Costa Rica is hard on the horses.
    Anyway, love your insights!!!!!!!!

    1. Hi Githa,

      I’m glad you enjoy the podcasts. And wow your poor horse to have an infection and lost teeth. :(
      But thanks for sharing your experience with the hooves and topline being affected by teeth issues. Not many people connect them.

      Good job asking energetic questions. :)

      Best regards,

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