Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth -Popular horse sayings

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. We have all heard it said, and at it most basic it means “you should be grateful to recieve a gift”, but is there a deeper meaning? What is the origin of the phrase and – as a horse owner myself – does it actually make sense in the real world?

Let’s look at the dictionary definition from Merriam Webster:

Look a gift horse in the mouth means “To look in a critical way at something that has been given to one”

So where does the phrase come from? Interestingly, you can tell the approximate age of a horse by looking at it’s teeth. And it’s age will have an influence over the value of the horse. So a better defintion might be:

It’s rude to try and guess the value of a gift.

Origin of the phrase Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

It was first written down in the 4th century by St Jerome when he was translating the bible from hebrew and greek into latin. In his commentary on the 10th book of the new testament, Epistle to the Ephesians, he wrote “Noli equi dentes inspicere donati” which translates as “Don’t look at the teeth of a gifted horse”. It is believed the phrase was already in common use. and carried the same meaning as today.

A horse owners perspective – should you look a gift horse in the mouth?

Another phrase come to mind when assesing this – there is no such thing as a free lunch – and that could equally be applied in the equine world. There is no such thing as a free horse!

A horse is going to cost you money no matter what, and if someone is giving it away, it would be good to know the reason! Looking the gift horse in the mouth would be a good start, getting an idea of it’s age will give you an idea of how much it’s likely to cost you in vets bills. If it has no teeth, you’ll get an idea how much its going to cost you in mashed banana.

Below you can see our two year old colt Sunny and his little teeth, you can tell he is young because he has short inscisors and he has no canine teeth.

The first thing I’d do is look the gift horse in the mouth – then I’d trot it up on a firm surface, feel it for lumps and bumps, lunge it and then sit on it to see if it’s going to throw me off, be a happy plod or turn out to be a surprise schoolmaster.

We have had some great horses gifted to us at Strathorn, and they have had long and happy lives with us and we are very grateful to the owners – who are also very grateful that their four legged friend will be well looked after. However, we have turned down more than we have taken – sometimes you are just taking on a whole load of problems, and not just with their teeth!

Below you can see an older horse, he has his canine teeth and long inscisors, probably making him 12 to 15 years old.

Older horse teeth

Other popualr horse sayings

Hold your horses

-Be patient or wait a moment.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

 You can provide someone with an opportunity, but you can’t force them to take it.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Information coming directly from the source.

Put the cart before the horse

To do things in the wrong order.

Get off your high horse

Stop acting superior or arrogant.

Flogging a dead horse

Continuing to argue or pursue something that has already been resolved or is no longer relevant.

Dark horse

A person who surprises others by doing something unexpected.

Horse of a different colour

Something that is completely different from what has been discussed.

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Nothing could compel me to leave or change my mind.

Eat like a horse

To eat a lot.

A horse of course

An obvious or expected answer.

Horse sense

Common sense.

Trojan horse

Something that seems harmless but is intended to cause damage.

Get back on the horse

 Try again after a failure or setback.

One-horse town

A very small or insignificant town.


Rough, boisterous play.

Chomp at the bit

To be eager to start or impatient to begin something.

Hold the reins

To be in control of a situation.

On one’s high horse

Acting superior or self-righteous.

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