What Is... Floating A Horse's Teeth

Floating a horse's teeth means to file or rasp their teeth to make the chewing surfaces relatively flat or smooth. The type of file used for this is called a "float," which is where the procedure gets its name.

At right: A file, called a "float," for smoothing the teeth of a horse. This float is in a bucket of disinfectant.

A file for floating teeth in horses

Why Is Floating A Horse's Teeth Necessary?

Unlike some other species which can properly digest food even if it is swallowed with little or no chewing, horses must chew their food efficiently in order to effectively digest it. If a horse's chewing teeth do not have a flat surface they cannot properly chew food, and their process of digestion is greatly hindered. This can result in weight loss from the mild to the dramatic and poor absorption of nutrients.

Oddly enough in a species like the horse where a flat chewing surface is so important, horses are very prone to develop uneven chewing surfaces. This is due, in part, to a horse's upper jaw being wider than its lower jaw. This unequal width results in a natural wear pattern that causes the edges of the teeth on the upper jaw to be longer on the outside of the mouth where they overhang the lower jaw. The opposite is true on the lower jaw, where the edges of the teeth wear longer on the inside of the mouth where they extend inside the upper jaw.

Since a horse's teeth continually emerge from the gum line for most if its adult life, and because of the unequal widths of the upper and lower jaws, a horse's teeth rarely, if ever, grind off during normal chewing to create a flat surface. In addition to greatly hampering a horse's ability to digest food, a horse's teeth might become so uneven that sharp, razor-like edges will form. These sharp edges can cut the horse inside its mouth. Floating a horse's teeth, or at least examining the teeth to see if floating or some other care is needed, should be considered as basic a part of routine care for the horse as providing food and water.

Does Floating A Horse's Teeth Hurt?

No. There are not any nerves at the surface of the tooth where the floating is performed.

When Should A Horse Have Its Teeth Floated?

In years past it was common practice only for horses approximately age 10 or older to have their teeth floated. However, modern horse management has taught us that all horses, regardless of age, should have their teeth examined at least once a year. We now know it is not uncommon for younger horses as well as older horses to require floating or some other dental care. A routine examination of a horse's teeth by an equine veterinarian or other qualified person can be vital to a horse's health and well-being.

Photos Of A Horse Getting Her Teeth Floated

At right is a Quarter Horse mare named Foxy. A veterinarian is holding her tongue to the side so he can look inside her mouth to see her teeth, and also feel them with his fingers. A veterinarian or other qualified professional might examine a horse's teeth in this manner or by using a dental speculum or dental wedge to hold the horse's mouth open. (Please note that care must be taken when holding a horse's tongue as shown in the picture so as not to injure the horse.)

CAUTION! Examining a horse's teeth can be far more dangerous than it may seem, even when examining gentle horses. For example, if you reach inside a horse's mouth to feel the teeth with your fingers you can get your fingers severely bitten. In addition, if you aggravate a sore area inside the horse's mouth the horse could react violently to the pain. If you want to learn to examine a horse's teeth be sure to learn safe techniques from someone who is qualified and experienced.

Examining a horse's mouth to see if it needs its teeth floated

The Float And The Wedge

To float Foxy's teeth, the veterinarian used a float and a dental wedge. A "float" is a file or rasp used for filing down uneven edges on the teeth of a horse. A "dental wedge" is a device used to keep the mouth of the horse open during the floating procedure. There are different types of floats and wedges. The ones used when these photos were taken are two common types.

A float in a bucket of disinfectant. There are several different styles of floats, including manual and power models.

A horse dental float

A dental wedge for horses. This type of wedge is sometimes called a "spool." The yellow arrow is pointing to the part of the wedge that is placed inside the horse's mouth between the back teeth.

An equine dental wedge

Floating The Teeth

In the photo to the right you can see the wedge (on the right side of the photo) has been placed between the back teeth on one side of Foxy's mouth. The wedge will keep her mouth open and prevent her from biting down on the float as the veterinarian floats the teeth on the opposite side. Foxy's owner is holding the wedge in place with its large ring handle while the veterinarian works.

On the left side of the photo you can see the arms of the veterinarian as he is floating Foxy's teeth. He will file, or float, the teeth on the upper and lower jaws. When he's finished with one side he will do the other.

A horse getting her teeth floated


In Foxy's case, sedation was not necessary. While a little annoyed by having her teeth floated she generally took the procedure well, with only a little fussing. With a few pauses here and there to give her a break the procedure was over fairly quickly without serious risk of harm to Foxy, the veterinarian, or Foxy's owner who was assisting the vet. However, some horses do not accept having their teeth floated as well as Foxy. In those cases light sedation may be necessary to minimize the anxiety of the horse and/or risk of injury to the horse or humans.


Feeling a horse's teeth

When the veterinarian had floated Foxy's teeth on both her upper and lower jaws on both sides of her mouth, he inspected her teeth to make sure he had done a thorough job. This can be done by looking at the teeth, feeling them with fingers, or both.

CAUTION!  Do not attempt to reach into a horse's mouth and feel their teeth unless you have been taught safe methods for doing so by an experienced veterinarian or other qualified person. Without knowing safe techniques you could be injured if you should touch a sore spot inside the mouth, or you could get your fingers severely bitten.

How often do you have your horse's teeth checked? Tell us in the comments below!

Equine Dental Wedges and Speculums

Two common pieces of equipment often used in floating a horse's teeth include the equine dental wedge and the equine dental speculum.

• An equine dental wedge (one type, the "spool" type, is seen in the photos above) is placed between the back teeth of the upper and lower jaw. It is primarily used to keep the horse's mouth open during the floating process.

• An equine dental speculum (not pictured) has metal plates that fit over the upper and lower incisor teeth, and a ratchet mechanism that spreads the plates apart. A speculum is used to provide a more unobstructed view of a horse's mouth (when compared to a wedge), and also to keep the horse's mouth open during floating.

In the world of equine dentistry, each piece of equipment has its fans and its detractors. Dental wedges have been blamed for damaging the molars, while some say they have used a wedge for years with no mishaps, and merely say it must be used properly, and/or be the right type of wedge. Speculums seem to be the preferred piece of equipment when compared to wedges, but we did find one online veterinarian / equine dental professional who blamed an improperly used speculum for damaging a horse's jaw.

When having your horse's teeth floated it's important to ask questions of the veterinarian or equine dental professional that's doing the floating. Don't be afraid to ask them about any of the equipment they're using, the procedure itself, possible negative results, and what can be done to avoid them. While floating a horse's teeth, in general, is a safe and often necessary procedure, an informed owner is always a horse's best advocate.

Tooth Terms

Bit Seat - See "performance float," below.

Hypsodont - Hypsodont teeth are teeth with high crowns that slowly continue to emerge from the gum for most of the animal's life. As the top of the tooth is worn down, more tooth slowly erupts from the gum line to replace what has been worn away. Horses and other grazing animals like cattle and deer have hypsodont teeth.

Malocclusion - Abnormal or incorrect contact between the teeth of the upper and lower jaws.

Mastication - The process of mashing or grinding food between the teeth. For horses, mastication is the first step of the digestion process. Unlike some other species which can properly digest food even if it is swallowed with little or no chewing, a horse must efficiently chew, or masticate, its food (grasses, hay, grain, etc.) before swallowing in order to effectively digest it.

Occlusion - The manner of contact between the teeth of the upper and lower jaws.

Float - To file or rasp the teeth of a horse to make the chewing surfaces relatively flat or smooth.

Performance Float - A "performance float" is different than a "regular" float. A performance float is when the front sides of the first cheek teeth, which are the teeth right behind where a bit sets in a horse's mouth, are floated to round them off. In many horse people's opinions this creates a more comfortable area for the horse when bitted. This is also sometimes called a "bit seat."

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