Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth.

What is a gift-horse? Why shouldn't you look in its mouth?
What does this idiom actually mean and how is it used?

7 Answers 7


A gift horse is a horse that was a gift, quite simply. When given a horse, it would be bad manners to inspect the horse's mouth to see if it has bad teeth. This can be applied as an analogy to any gift: Don't inspect it to make sure it matches some standard you have, just be grateful!

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    In Greece when we give a gift and he's looking at it here and there we have the phrase: "Someone’s give him a donkey and he look at in the mouth." It is exactly the same thing and have the same meaning Commented May 10, 2011 at 10:07
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    It's not to see if the horse has_bad_ teeth, it's about estimating the age of the horse, by examining the number of teeth and the wear, as well as the level of gum recession (where the expression "Long in the tooth" comes from).
    – Sam
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 12:34
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    I should have said previously -- thanks for clarifying, Sam. I've left the post as-is because old teeth = bad teeth, otherwise it wouldn't be a useful metric. The exact details are available in other answers :) Commented May 8, 2012 at 17:37
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    In Spain we have almost exactly the same expression (a caballo regalado no le mires el diente), and the explanation for it is the same that has been given above.
    – user60323
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 15:02
  • @MatthewRead - No it doesn't mean bad teeth - bad teeth would mean decayed teeth. It doesn't mean 'old' teeth either. Here is an explanation of how you tell a horse's age by its teeth. extension.missouri.edu/p/G2842 Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 16:40

A horses teeth are regarded as a good guide to its age. When you buy a horse you check its teeth to see if they match the age of the horse according to the seller.

If someone gives you a horse as a gift, it is considered ungrateful to check its teeth. You are pointedly drawing attention to your doubts about the quality of the gift.


it means:

Don't be ungrateful when you receive a gift.

here's the origin:

As with most proverbs the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues with this one however. The phrase was originally "don't look a given horse in the mouth" and first appears in print in 1546 in John Heywood's A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, where he gives it as:

"No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth."

Heywood is an interesting character in the development of English. He was employed at the courts of Henry VIII and Mary I as a singer, musician, and playwright. His Proverbs is a comprehensive collection of those known at the time and includes many that are still with us:

- Many hands make light work.
- Rome wasn't built in a day.
- A good beginning makes a good ending.

and so on. These were expressed in the literary language of the day, as in "would yee both eat your cake, and have your cake?", but the modern versions are their obvious descendents [sic].

here's an alternative explanation, from the question Does the phrase looking a gift horse in the mouth originate from the legend of the Trojan Horse?

No - you can estimate a horse's age by looking at its teeth. Looking a "gift horse in the mouth" would be like judging the gift's value or appearing ungrateful. The general idea is: it may not be ideal (like an old horse) but it was free & you can still make good use of it & be grateful for having one at all.

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    Commentary to Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians by Saint Jerome (347- 420): "...aut si tantum Latinus es, noli de gratuito munere judicare, et, ut vulgare proverbium est, noli equi dentes inspicere donati".
    – Albertus
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 20:19

I'm 82 years old,and the phrase is much older than I am .It is generally a procedure to determine a horse's age .Be grateful you were given the horse "or any materialistic item)and show appreciation ,regardless of it's condition ,or value .

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    Don. I’m pleased to find the answer to this question from a “Senpai (respected senior in Japanese).” I’m 81 year-old. I’ve been thinking I’m the eldest user of EL&U site, though I don’t want to be checked on my teeth. I like your answer. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 1:32

It is rude to be critical of a gift. Traditionally, one checks the health of a horse by examining its mouth. (Serial numbers are often tattooed on the inner lip of a horse, for tracking reasons, too.) Therefore, looking a gift horse in the mouth means you are critiquing the quality of the horse given to you.

A modern example: receiving an iPod as a gift, and then complaining that it doesn't have the memory capacity you wanted, or that you wanted a Zune, instead.

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    This saying pre-dates tattooed serial numbers by a large margin. Checking for tattooed serial numbers these days might be wise if you are not sure of receiving a stolen horse but do this later after thanking your donor.
    – KalleMP
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 21:39

It's not about bad teeth, looking a horse in the mouth is a way (that experienced equestrians) use to determine the age... not the dental health, of the horse.


Bottom line is to be grateful for the gift without judging or devaluing the gift with ones own opinion.... same goes for the horse, you didn't have a horse to begin with so giving one unto you appreciate it and nevermind the flaw of age

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