Hey Future Equine Experts!

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” Ever wonder what it means? Today, it means to be thankful for a gift (even if you secretly want something better) and don’t take something given to you for free for granted; but the roots of the phrase go back to when horses were used for everyday work, and when people depended on them for survival.

Did you know you can tell a horse’s age by examining its teeth? I ask because to understand the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” you should know how to estimate a horse’s age.

Horses have two sets of teeth, baby teeth and adult teeth – just like people. When all of a horse’s adult teeth have come in, it is said that the horse has a full mouth. When a horse is between 2 and 3 years old, the first of its permanent teeth (the incisors) come in. By the time a horse is 5, all of the permanent teeth have come in. After that, you have to look at the wear and angle of the teeth to estimate a horse’s age. Here is a little poem that helps some people remember the rules for estimating a horse’s age:


“To tell the age of any horse
Inspect the lower jaw of course;
The six front teeth the tale will tell
And every doubt and fear dispel.

Two middle nipper you behold
Before the colt is two weeks old;
Before eight weeks two more will come
Eight months: the corners cut the gum.

At two the middle “Nippers” drop:
At three the second pair can’t stop;
When four years old the third pair goes,
At five a full new set he shows.

The deep black spots will pass from view
At six years from the middle two;
The second pair at seven years;
At eight the spot each corner clears.

From the middle “Nippers” upper jaw
At nine the black spots will withdraw.
The second pair at ten are bright;
Eleven finds the corners light.

As time goes on the horsemen know
The oval teeth three-sided grow;
Then longer get – project before –
Till twenty, when they know no more.”

According to that little ditty, I’m off the charts! And since my smile has a few gaps, you can’t even say that I have a full mouth anymore!

Anyhow, way back in the old days, when people needed horses every day, a horse’s value was based on his age. So if you were going to buy a horse, you would want to know its age before offering a price. But if someone wanted to give you a horse for free, it would be just plain rude to go peering into its mouth. That little piece of etiquette goes all the way back to at least the 5th century when a guy named St. Jerome wrote about it.

My friends at the Equine Science Center like to research old horses so I figured I would do a little independent research on old horses also! I hope you enjoyed the trivia!

Youthfully yours,
Lord Nelson

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