When searching for answers as to why an equine athlete’s performance has suddenly declined, many owners and trainers will look for problems from head to toe. But one place they sometimes neglect to check is the horse’s mouth, where many dental issues can cause a performance horse to work at a less than optimum level.

During a presentation at the 2011 Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital Sport Horse Health Symposium, held Nov. 2 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, R. Brad Tanner, DVM, an equine practitioner and associate at Rood & Riddle, discussed the impact of dental health on the equine athlete.

Tanner began by discussing a few different indicators of equine mouth pain while a horse is working, such as:

  • Opening the mouth;
  • "Lugging out";
  • Pinning the ears;
  • Head tossing;
  • Coming ahead or behind the bit; and
  • Leaning on the bit.

Tanner explained that these signs can have a variety of causes from natural processes that just need some attention to problems brought on by ill-used or ill-fitting bits.

Bit Pain–With more than 1,200 different types of bit to choose from, Tanner noted, finding one that works perfectly in a horse’s mouth is a challenge. When examining a performance horse, Tanner often evaluates how the bit the animal wears is impacting his mouth.

He explained that from a veterinarian’s perspective, there are several considerations to make when evaluating how a bit functions in a horse’s mouth including:

  • Materials used in the mouth piece (such as steel, rubber,