The mouth is the beginning of the digestive system. It consists of a number of parts that help to process the food that the horse eats. It is therefore important that the mouth is healthy, otherwise the horse will not receive the nutrients they need.
A horse uses their lips to grasp and browse for food. Especially the upper lip is very strong and mobile. Just pay attention when your horse is grazing or eating hay, you see the upper lip ‘searching’ for the best bits. Then the incisors ensure that the food is cut off. In total, the horse has 12 incisors, 6 in the lower jaw and 6 in the upper jaw. With the help of the tongue, the food is pushed back. There, the 24 molars ensure that the food is ground into smaller pieces. The molars gradually wear down due to this grinding. In us humans this would be extremely impractical, as we would very quickly have no molars left. In horses, however, this works differently. They have high-crowned molars, which means that the crown on their molars is very tall (high) and is pushed up from the lower jaw or down from the upper jaw. It never stops growing, as it were.
In the oral cavity we also find three salivary glands. Depending or the sort of food, these glands can produce between 5 and 100 litres of saliva per day! As soon as the food has been sufficiently ground down and moistened, it is transferred to the throat. The throat is the cavity behind the mouth, and the food passes through the throat on its way to the oesophagus. The opening to the oesophagus is protected by the epiglottis. This is a small valve at the base of the tongue that protects the trachea during swallowing, so that no food or water can enter the lungs. After swallowing, the epiglottis returns to its original position, freeing the trachea so the horse can breathe normally again.
The importance of chewing
You might not realise it right away, but chewing has a big influence on your horse’s health. Firstly, it is very important for the proper wear on the molars. In nature, a horse will make about 40,000 to 60,000 chewing motions a day. Horses that are stabled often only make half of this amount of chewing motions in a day. When horses chew less, the molars can begin to wear unevenly, leading to the well-known hooks on the molars. These can be very painful for your horse.
Secondly, chewing is very important for saliva production. A big difference between us humans and horses is that a horse will only make saliva when chewing their food. Unlike us humans; we produce saliva continuously all day. Saliva allows the food ball to pass more easily through the digestive tract, and it also neutralises the acids of the stomach and caecum. Too much gastric acid increases the risk of ulcers.
Offering your horse plenty of coarse, structure-rich roughage will ensure that your horse has to chew more and produce more saliva. For each kilogram of hay, a horse will chew approximately 40 minutes and make 2,200-2,500 chewing motions. One kilogram of concentrates, on the other hand, will only take a horse 10 minutes and 600 chewing motions. That is quite a big difference. In addition, a horse will produce about 3,5 litres of saliva for each kilogram of hay, while this is only 1 litre for each kilogram of concentrates.
To keep your horse’s mouth and teeth in top shape, it is therefore important to give your horse plenty of high-quality roughage. Take the horse’s natural eating posture into account as well, which is with their head low to the ground. The horses bottom jaw has to be able to slide forward slightly along the upper jaw, so the molars will mesh together well. If your horse constantly has to keep their head raised to be able to eat, they will chew their food less properly and the molars will wear unevenly.