RESPECT – Teaching your horse to have his mouth inspected

by Anne Wilson

As discussed in the first article of this series (March 2013) respect should be very much a two-way street. When you have shown the horse that he has reason to respect you, and you don’t abuse his respect, he will come to trust you as a reliable leader, capable of protecting him. If you have followed the advice given in my last two articles, you should now be at this stage.

By not abusing his respect, I mean that you show him due respect by never scolding him unnecessarily; never shouting nor being impatient when he doesn’t respond instantly to your requests (it may take him several seconds sometimes to understand just what you are asking), and never, ever, losing your temper. This does not mean allowing him to necessarily have his own way; you should adopt an attitude of quiet, calm confidence, with kindness and determination. In this way you show him that what you require him to do is best for him as well as you. This is extremely important when it comes to veterinary procedures, farriery, dentistry, etc.

Horses pick up on our moods and attitudes very quickly, so if you are tense and nervous when the equine dentist comes to visit, then your horse is likely to be frightened – you are his leader and if you are frightened, something dreadful must be about to happen! Teeth rasping may be slightly uncomfortable at times, but should not be painful nor frightening. If you really cannot control your nerves, maybe you could ask someone more confident to hold him during the process. Sometimes the dentist would actually prefer that no-one restrains him, as too much constraint can in itself be frightening.

It will be of huge benefit if you can make mouth inspections part of your normal routine.
The first step in making mouth inspections a relaxed and ‘no big deal’ occurrence is to do it every day yourself. You don’t need to have in-depth dentistry knowledge just to open his mouth and have a look inside; that is all you need to do the first time.
It should be a matter of course that every owner inspects the fit of the horse’s bit on a regular basis; checking for any pinching at the corners of the mouth and for soreness on the bars of the mouth (the gum on either side, where there is a gap in the teeth and the bit rests). Whilst wearing the bridle you can make sure that the bit fits correctly; not too high and pinching the corners of his mouth, nor too low and likely to bang on his lower teeth. Unfortunately, this is something which is all too often neglected these days, but is an extremely important part of horsemanship.

If you have a young horse, he may never have worn a bit, so you need to reassure him that having his mouth opened is not a scary thing. Start by standing directly in front of him, rubbing the front of his face, using both hands caress him around the eyes and ears – most horses adore this – do it for as long as you like; I’m sure he won’t protest. Then come to the side of his head and gently but firmly lift his lip; first his upper lip, then his lower lip. Then lift his upper lip at the front of his head to inspect his front teeth, then his lower front lip. This is probably enough for the first time, so go back to rubbing his face and caressing his ears; all the time telling him how good he is.

If you experience any resistance, don’t get anxious or upset, but don’t give up. Go back to the beginning by rubbing his face again and speak to him reassuringly as you lift his lips. If he steps backwards, then go with him. I’m sure that eventually he will stand still and welcome your advances.

Follow the above procedure every day for as long as it takes for him to be completely relaxed about it. When he is almost bored with this mouth inspection, insert your finger or thumb carefully into the side of his mouth at the bar (where there are no teeth) and gently take hold of his tongue, turn the tip of the tongue very slightly towards you. This will have the effect of opening his mouth to enable you to see further back into his jaw. This is only as a preparation for the dentist. You really only need to look at the incisors (front biting teeth) and run a finger or thumb along the bars of the mouth as far as the first molar (first back grinding tooth), especially in the upper jaw to check for any soreness associated with the eruption of wolf teeth (not all horses develop wolf teeth but sometimes they need to be taken out).
IMPORTANT – Be very gentle with his tongue. Make sure you don’t pull it as this could cause a rupture at the base of the tongue and would obviously be extremely painful. DON’T MOVE THE TONGUE OUT TOO FAR.

Don’t hold onto the tongue for more than a second or two to begin with. In fact never hold onto it for very long at all because this would be extremely uncomfortable.
Always give your horse plenty of praise and a tit-bit reward is always a good thing after a mouth inspection.

When you can follow this procedure in a relaxed manner on both sides of the mouth, your horse will be well on the way to being comfortable with his dentistry treatment. A great advantage of carrying out regular mouth inspections is that you will become au-fait with what his teeth and gums normally look like; thus you will be alerted if there is any change which may be causing a problem.
Obviously you won’t need to inspect his mouth every day forever more; just about once a week will be fine, unless you suspect a problem.

It is amazing how much trust and respect can be built up between horse and human during this type of close interaction. He will come to learn, not only to respect you for his own safety, but that you have his best interests at heart and everything you do is for the best, even though it may be a little uncomfortable at times. This kind of trust should transfer to other veterinary procedures such as injections, blood samples and so on.

Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:-

Author: The Editor

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