Digestion starts in the mouth…..for humans and for horses! But our human “design” is a little different and our dinners are too! Horses teeth, bone structure, musculature, and salivary glands all function at their best when the food they are eating is on the ground.
The first step is getting their food into their mouth. When a horse’s head is down, their mandible and maxilla slide to bring their incisors and molars into optimal alignment; the perfect arrangement for both “cutting” the forage they have selected and for chewing it into the tiny particles necessary for great digestion. If you have had a dental by AED, you know that after the procedure, Richard always drops your horse’s head down and checks their incisor alignment….perfectly aligned front teeth is what he’s looking for! Those incisors are a sign that your horse’s bone structure and tooth structures are lining up in the best possible way for them to eat!
Once in their mouth, that food is rapidly mixed with the more than 3 gallons of saliva the average horse produces in a day. Horses are a bit different here; they only produce saliva while they are actually chewing so having their head down is a huge benefit as it moves that saliva forward into the food bolus with each “chomp” rather than simply down their throat. And because great chewing for horses is all about repeated grinding, eating with their head down is a benefit as sets them up to move that food bolus more slowly toward their esophagus. They have to rely on their tongue, mastication muscles, and hard palate to push that food uphill (anatomically correct chewing!) ….if their head is upright while chewing, the process of getting food from the front to the back of the mouth is faster and their food is ground less thoroughly!
So…head down eating improves a horse’s ability to get their food in their mouth, increases the amount of saliva mixed into the food bolus, keeps the food in their mouth longer for better grinding AND can help your horse have fewer disruptions of their chewing surfaces….Or as you know them, “Hooks and Ramps”!!! Remember how I told you that your horse’s mandible and maxilla align when their head is down….well so do their teeth! Equine “hooks and ramps” occur most often when the alignment of of the occlusal surfaces is altered….simply put, when their teeth don’t line up as designed, they don’t wear evenly! And, once those uneven tooth surfaces develop, they alter the horse’s natural chewing pattern until they are removed….they keep getting bigger because they are no longer lined up with another tooth (or portion of a tooth) to wear the surface. While there are some other possible physical causes (structural abnormalities, broken teeth, etc) this is one place where you as an owner can have an impact on maintaining not only great teeth but improving the start of digestion for your horse with one simple step…….feed from the ground all the time and every time!
References: AAEP.org. Equine Mastication. 2022, Extension PSU, Feeding horses, 2015.