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Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Posted May 27, 2009 12:01 AM by SavvyExacta

Why are you told not to look a gift horse in the mouth? Because a horse's teeth are a good indication of how old it is! I'm often asked "how long do horses live?" The answer is, "it depends," but the average lifespan of a horse is 25-to-30 years; some horses live into their 40s and beyond.

Teeth Tell the Story

Determining age by examining a horse's teeth is an imperfect science; however, one can make a good guess by using the following method. An important point to remember is that tooth wear can be sped up or slowed down depending on whether the animal lives inside or outside, or has had proper dental care in the past. It's tough to be specific after about age 15 or so.

1. Permanent Teeth – These appear as the animal loses its baby (also known as milk or deciduous) teeth, starting at around age 3. The four center teeth appear first. By age 5, a horse has most of its permanent teeth – a "full mouth".

2. Cup Disappearance – Cups are the indents in the center surfaces of the teeth. They wear and become smooth as a horse ages, beginning with the lower teeth working backward, and then beginning with upper teeth and working backward. At age 11, they are all smooth – a "smooth mouth".

3. Angle of Incidence – The angle between the upper and lower teeth widens as a horse ages. The teeth are not neatly stacked like in a human mouth – they slant to meet one another. By age 7, the angle change can form hooks on the backs of some of the teeth where wear is uneven.

4. Surface Shape – Teeth are wide and flat in younger horses. Starting at around age 8, teeth become oval-shaped. By age 15 they are triangular-shaped.

5. Galvayne's Groove – There is a groove in the upper incisor starting at the gum, which appears at 10 years of age. It extends halfway down the tooth by 15 and reaches the bottom by 20 – after that, it recedes and actually disappears by 30.

Dental Aging Factors

Horses with poor dental conformation can acquire flaws that make them appear older. For example, a "parrot mouth" (overbite) can hinder a horse's ability to graze and lead to weight loss. "Cribbing" is a vice (bad habit) where they'll chew just about anything they can get their teeth on – typically wood, which can cause early wear to incisors, or even chip or break them. Most horses need annual dental attention to file hooks and sharp spots off of molars. "Floating" is the name of this procedure, but if done incorrectly, it can also cause excessive wear.

Other Age Concerns

As a horse ages, it faces problems just like elderly humans. Older horses are more susceptible to disease, heat, cold, and excessive weight loss. Horse owners must be proactive about caring for their elderly animals.

This past winter, we lost our 35 year old Quarter Horse, Joe. He was a great companion and taught many kids to ride. He taught me a lesson as well – to keep the horse straight between a line of jumps, or you'll wind up on the ground!

Joe is currently entered in a Pet of the Year contest sponsored by a local radio station. If you could take a minute to vote for him we would appreciate it! He is Contestant #9.

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse

http://horses-arizona.com/pages/articles/teeth.html

http://encarta.msn.com/media_461516414_761562654_-1_1/horse_teeth.html

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#1

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/27/2009 11:04 AM

SavvyExacta, sorry to hear about Joe - the pictures show that he was a very beautiful horse!

This article itself is interesting as I never would have thought that horses' teeth change that much through out their lives. Great blog, as always

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#2

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 1:21 AM

Why are you told not to look a gift horse in the mouth?

Has not to do with a horses teeth; its a proverb:

According to the proverb, if one is given a horse as a gift, then that person should accept the gift without seeking a closer look, at least in front of the giver. After all, a gift is free; if the recipient did not pay for the horse, then why should he nitpick about its age, health or other features?

The gift horse metaphor does break down, though, particularly in modern times. Certainly, horses may be had for free, often by adoption or from rescue organizations. Such equines generally are not free, in the long run. Keeping a horse can be quite costly, even if the initial cost of the animal was little or none.

Truly, there is no such thing as a free horse. And, unless you happen to own acres and acres of grassy wilderness, there is no such thing as a free lunch for that free horse.

WHAT DOES THE PROVERB MEAN?

Metaphorically, the expression means that one should accept a gift graciously and gratefully, without criticizing the gift or giver.

Remember the old Hallmark card commercials, where the recipients flipped greeting cards over to look for the price and brand name? Yep! Those folks were looking their gift horses in the mouths! People who peek at price tags on gifts fit the same bill.

The gift horse proverb fits nicely with another popular quotation about gifts, "It's the thought that counts." In other words, the spirit of giving itself counts for much more than the actual features, or even pricing, of the item that is given.

WHERE DID THIS OLD SAW START?

According to several sources, this ancient proverb has been credited to St. Jerome (374 AC 419 AD), an early Christian church father. In his study on the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, written about 400 AD, St. Jerome actually said, "Never inspect the teeth of a gift

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 7:33 AM

Thanks for the elaboration on the proverb.

But with horses, teeth really do tell the story - at least parts of it.

An older horse with really worn-down teeth will have trouble chewing and eating - this can be a serious problem. It's often challenging to keep weight on older horses as it is; if they can't even get the food down, the remaining options are expensive and often not worth it.

A horse with poor dental conformation also faces problems. Such a horse can be difficult to train due to pain or can also face problems with chewing and eating. Sometimes these problems can be repaired at an expense.

Back in the days when horses were used for labor/income, an important factor when acquiring a horse was to get one that still had quite a few years left to go. Why put training time/feed into something that would only last a year? (Similar thinking to why put thousands of dollars into a car that only has 10,000 miles left?) If a horse's teeth had been altered to look younger, this could pose a problem - which is why careful examination was important.

Even today, as you suggest, a free horse is not really "free" at all. Horses require some form of shelter, regular veterinary and dental care, hoof care (a common proverb in the equine world is "no hoof no horse!"), deworming, and some supplementation to grass particularly in the winter or dry seasons. This, of course, is the bare minimum and does not even begin to cover riding equipment!

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 8:09 AM

Hello SavvyExacta,

The details you list on horses teeth etc is interesting, but, your question was: 'Why do they say not to look a gift horse in the mouth'.

Meaning, as 'wire' said in his post..................If you are given a horse, a car or anything, you should not be critical of it in front of the person who gave it to you! Nothing to do with shelter and all the other stuff you mention at all.

What ever was given was given as a gift, and, as at Xmas, you do not open a present and start saying critical stuff above what was a present!

I hope you do not take this as an insult, it is not supposed to be one! And, while the list of stuff a horse 'needs' to be kept healthy etc, is nice to read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with your question. OK? All I am doing is answering your original question, not being critical at all, other than in explanation.

bb

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#5
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 8:19 AM

Actually, the details I note do have something to do with my original question. If you reread the opening to my blog post, you'll see that I wrote: "Why are you told not to look a gift horse in the mouth? Because a horse's teeth are a good indication of how old it is!"

Older horses, like older people, often require more care - that often comes at an increased cost. Many truly senior horses cannot be used for riding or other recreational activities (or work in days past). They are just "pasture ornaments" as we like to call them.

So before taking on any horse, especially an older one which may have special needs, it's important to know what you're getting into. This is the same reason why they say not to give puppies as Christmas gifts or bunnies in Easter baskets. It would be unfair to the animal to accept it out of politeness but then neglect it later. It's much different from receiving a book you don't like that can just sit unread on a shelf.

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#9
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 3:11 PM

Hello SavvyExacta,

thank you for your reply post.

The last 2 lines of the post "So before taking on any horse, especially an older one which may have special needs, it's important to know what you're getting into" sort of let me understand where you are coming from.

It is not at all important to know what you are getting into! It is a gift, whether it is an animal, cake, car, house or a favour someone has done, you never make any kind of remark or critical opinion about ANY gift you get. Just receive it with grace.

However, it is only a saying, and I think you missed the total meaning as, not very many animals are given as presents, and this saying is often linked to something someone has done for you rather than an actual gift. In which case what the horse looks like has no import at all. But it is hardly worth getting lathered up over, so as to speak?

Take care.....bb

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#10
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 3:18 PM

Actually, it is important. Many animals are neglected, abandoned, or turned over to shelters or rescue organizations each year as a result of being "gifted" to unsuspecting owners. Animals can make terrible gifts unless you are 100% certain in advance that the recipient is prepared to take on that responsibility - for the life of the animal, not until he or she is tired of it.

In regards to looks not mattering, well, that's a whole other arguement that we could spend days on. However, suitability is better suited for a separate blog entry.

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#7
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 10:55 AM

I don't believe that SavvyExacta was implying that the old proverb was said because you can tell the age of the horse with its' teeth. I think she knew the moral connotations of the proverb that you shouldn't be critical of gifts from people. She seems to just be playing with words. She took a clever proverb and turned it into a clever title for her blog that applied to the information she was presenting.

It was a very interesting article. I appreciated the ingenious title. Now I have another good reason not to look at horses in the mouth besides the odd odors. My hopes in a successful pet of the year, he was definitely the cutest amonst the bunch!

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#8
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 11:08 AM

Thanks for clarifying what I was trying to explain, Jaxy! You said it more clearly and in fewer words. Yes, horses do have many teeth, and they are large! Thanks also for the comment on the horse - he had a lot of personality.

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#11
In reply to #7

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 3:20 PM

Hello Jaxy,

Yes, I think you are right when you say the OP was "playing with words"! And what was written was and is interesting. And I am sure there will be other animal lovers who will add more info as the thread goes on.

As I pointed out in both my posts, I was not being nasty in any way, just adding my remarks and opinions, nothing more nothing less.

And yes I do think it was a clever title, but I assumed the title would be followed by remarks referring to the saying, rather than to the anatomy of a horse and whether one could afford to keep it etc.

Take care...........bb

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#13
In reply to #11

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 4:10 PM

I think this is perhaps why the title was clever... the title attracted people that may have otherwise disregarded it. I must say "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth" sounds more interesting than "Looking at a Horse in the Mouth". Plus, this may be a reason why you don't look into their mouth. I would never had known that age could be determined by teeth alone. I had always heard the saying, but never knew why looking in their mouth would be bad, except for unpleasant odors.

I understand your opinion and respect them. I also think that SavvyExacta didn't mean any negative intentions and is in no way advocating turning down a free horse because of its age. She never mentioned in her blog that gift horses were expensive. In the comments, she was merely explaining that horses are a lot of responsibility that plenty of people cannot handle. It is the comments that lead the conversation astray, I fear.

Hopefully while the title may have mislead you personally, you did come out of the blog saying "I learned something". I definitely did that, even if it wasn't what I expected.

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#15
In reply to #13

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 4:20 PM

the title attracted people that may have otherwise disregarded it. I must say "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth" sounds more interesting than "Looking at a Horse in the Mouth".

Amen, Jaxy.

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#12
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 3:34 PM

Really, applauding the inaccurate use of language

I too know what the OP is implying but the choice of title is inappropriate at best; neither unique or clever apply.

This old saying is meant to impart a moral or social responsibility upon the listener or reader.

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#14
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Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 4:16 PM

Inappropriate? I think that is going a bit too far.

Is it part of an old saying? yes

Does it apply to the blog she wrote about? yes

This title was pertaining to looking at a horse in the mouth, whether it was a gift or otherwise. I would definitely not call it an inappropriate title. She talked about exactly what the title implies, just because you are upset about the paraphrasing of an old saying does not make the title an inappropriate or an inaccurate use of the english language.

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#16
In reply to #14

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 4:31 PM

Thank you for reply,

Okay then, I am glad to have had the opportunity to present to others the proper meaning of a saying that has confused them for so long

The OPs subject is indeed interesting and informative and I applaud the them for considering the subject meaningful and presenting it.

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#17
In reply to #12

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/29/2009 6:47 AM

At this point I suppose we should agree to disagree. But if you reread the first two sentences of my original blog post you can see what I was getting at. Besides, the title of this blog is Animal Science, not moral dissection. I simply tried to explain why people don't want you to look your horse/gift horse in the mouth - you would find out that in most cases, nothing is truly free.

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#18
In reply to #17

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/29/2009 1:23 PM

I am not unfamiliar with horse and or horse mouth examination and the critical points there of. Regardless the title of the blog, the title of your article does not be fit the mean body of it's import.

Yes the title may attract more attention as does crying wolf the first time.

Think of this conversation the next time you're criticizing a student about correct terminology.

Good informative article though title not withstanding.

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#6
In reply to #2

Re: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

05/28/2009 9:02 AM

WHERE DID THIS OLD SAW START?

Go back to the Trojan War for the significance of the "gift horse" given by the Acheans to gain access to the city of Troy. Their army, concealed in the horse, took the city and burned it. Had they examined the horse, the army would have been discovered. Thus, it is wise to examine a gift from an enemy, but an insult to examine one from a friend.

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