The word ‘Occlusion’ means contact. Occlusion of the teeth means the application of contact within the mouth, i.e. how our horses chew. The way our horses chew is a fundamental piece when it comes to gaining a clearer understanding of how they move and their overall muscular skeletal health. The Mandible (lower jaw) is one of the primary pattern setters of a Horse’s body, which means that Mandible mobility and alignment is a direct indicator of optimal biomechanics (movement). The jaw, alongside other Cranial (head) bones is also closely linked to the pelvis via the TMJ (Temperomandibular Joints); the TMJ articulate directly with the Temporal (ear) bones which mirror the Ilium (hip bone), thus manifesting as one of the many links between head and pelvis. How a horse chews, which is essentially the mandible, TMJ, and surrounding soft tissue in motion, is an indicator of how the Horse moves and is also a reflection of overall physical / biomechanical health. If the jaw is tight, the hips are tight, which stimulates compensation through the hind legs which will result in tightness through the lower back, glutes, SI joints, and potentially into the ribs and lumbar muscles. The opposite of course applies; if there is ease of motion through the jaw (and all cranial bones) this will in turn be mirrored in the pelvis and surrounding areas.
Your Horse’s body is always talking to you, make the time to listen to it through observation. One common misconception when it comes to biomechanics and structure is that when the body is out of alignment it means that something is ‘wrong’, which of course from one perspective it is, however when we shift this perspective to the realisation that the body is an expert compensator and when one part is out what we are really seeing, in a lot of asymmetrical movement, is how the body is providing support in whichever way it can through other areas. Compensatory patterns are a good example of this; muscles will work over time to provide support for an injury to ensure movement can still happen, this means that if a horse is injured, the fact that he / she is still ‘functioning’ does not necessarily mean that the body is in optimal health / balance. Which is why it is important to notice the parts of the body giving you the clues you need in order to understand what your horse is saying. Our commitment to observation is another form of deep listening.
So what is healthy occlusion of the teeth? I believe we are still in the process of concreting an ideal model for this, the reason being that the majority (not all) of dental studies are based off domesticated horses who are already exhibiting compensatory patterns through the mandible due to ridden factors such as bits and pressure through the back and cranium from tack, plus the weight of a ride. However there are some key factors which you can observe on a day to day basis to gain a clearly understanding.
1)Watch your Horse eat. Is the mandible moving more in one direction (i.e. anti-clockwise or clockwise rotation) than the other? Ideally there should be a balance of both sides but this does vary day to day so keeping an eye out on a regular basis is essential. When eating grass are they ‘ripping and tearing’ i.e. engaging their pole in the process which is the healthiest and most natural way to gather grass, or are they primarily eating from the ‘lips down’ so to speak. The easiest way to check these patterns is by watching them eat long grass or hay, as the pole is able to engage due to the fact that the stem is longer which encourages more effort from the mastication muscles and bones. How much movement can you see whilst chewing? The TMJ itself provides a lot of mobility in a healthy condition and the opposite if it is tight / compressed by other surrounding bones.
2) Listen to your horse eat. Is there a steady crunching, balanced, smooth sound? Or can you hear clicks, can you hear your horse chewing at all? This is an important question as it is a good indicator of whether the horse has had too much tooth taken off OR if tightness through the ‘mastication structures’, i.e. jaws (upper and lower) is inhibiting movement. I have seen many Horses in this condition, where their primary chewing muscles are so tight and their teeth have been rasped down too much for the state of the cranium itself that you can hardly hear the horse chew and a lot of grass / hay will fall out of the mouth, this inability to break down forage is also of course a cause of colic.
So, as we have briefly covered here; the way our horses chew can tell us far more than we may have imagined, there are many intricacies within the body which act as helpful sign posts to what is going on at a deeper, physical, and often emotional level.
Note. If you do sense / hear / see any abnormalities with your horse’s dental occlusion please bear in mind that Equine Craniosacral Therapy is a healing modality and approach specifically designed for optimum Cranial healthy / balance.