Have you been out shopping for a horse lately?
The last time I seriously looked for a horse, every one advertised was 15 hands, 2 inches tall and 7 years old.
Times have changed.
A friend of mine looking for a horse says it seems that every horse for sale is at least 16 hands, and no more than 5 years old. At least that is how they are advertised. The reality may be somewhat different from the ads.
If size is really a crucial criterion for you, take along a measuring stick when you look ata horse. The final proof for size, however, is how the horse fits you when you ride him.
The age question is usually solved by lookingat a horse's registration papers.
If, that is, the animal is a purebred, if he comes with papers and if you check the papers carefullyto make sure they belong to that specific horse.
Or, you can do what horse people have been doing for centuries: Look the horse in themouth.
"Learning to judge a horse's age yourself is a very usefulskill," says veterinarian Dr. Lee Miller. "Horse dealers are famous for telling you whatever you want to hear. And the average person can't tell a horse's age.
"I have found that this is the most common point of misinformation about horses for sale; there are lots of discrepancies.
"Even horses who supposedly come with papers should be checked very thoroughly," Miller says. "I have seen lots of cases where the papers did not belong to the horse.
"In one case, the papers even said that the horse was a buckskin, but the horse was definitely a bay. The woman said she had always wondered about that. The horse was supposed to be 10 years old, but was actually 20."
Miller says determining a horse's true age is the first thing he does during apre-purchase exam. He did not learn the skill at vet school, however.
"It isn't high-tech enough for them to teach at vet school," says the 30-year veteran of equine medicine. "You have to learn these practical things on your own, and any vet who works with horses soon learns."
The ability to determine a horse's age by looking in his mouth is a skill that can benefit all horsemen, even if you just learn the rudiments.
To examine a horse's teeth, you should hold his lipout of the way so that you can see the outside surface of his teeth.
"You don't ever want to buy a horse that you can't pull his lip down, anyhow," says Miller.
Open the horse's mouth so you can examine the chewing surfaces of his teeth. You don't have to look very farback into the horse's mouth. All the information you need is right there on the front teeth.
The incisors are the six top and six bottom teeth that you see right in the front of the horse's mouth. These are the ones on which you will focus in determining a horse's age.
Like people, horses grow two sets of teeth during their lifetime -- baby teeth (deciduous teeth, ones that shed) and permanent teeth. Oneinteresting thing about these teeth is that they make their appearance in an exact order.
The central teeth appear first, the lateralsnext, then, finally, the corner teeth. Any structural changes thereafter also occur from the inside out.
There are six major milestones that occur in a horse's mouth from the time he is born until he is about 30 years old.
First, comes the appearance of baby teeth. A baby horse either is born with his four central incisors or they appear in the first week of life.
The laterals arrive by the time the foal is 4- to 6 weeks of age, and the corner teeth appear by age 4- to6 months.
A yearling shows little wear on the outside teeth. But by the time a horse is 2 years old, the corner incisors will have a straight, flat chewing surface.
The next milestone is the appearance of the permanent teeth. By age 2 1/2, a horse has four permanent central teeth. By 3 1/2, he will have added four more permanent teeth. And, at 4 1/2, he will have all his permanent incisors.
At this age, these permanent teeth have pronounced cups, or indentations, on their chewing surfaces. Next, the cups disappear, between the ages of 6and 11, in the same order in which the teeth appeared.
The cups disappear from the bottom central teeth when the horse is about 6. At 7, the lower laterals smooth out. By age 8, the lower corners are smooth.
The top teeth start to smooth out when a horse is 9. By the time he is 10, the two upper corner teeth are the only ones which showany cups. By age 11, all the cups have disappeared.
The fourth milestone is marked by the appearance of the bridle teeth at age 5. These teeth usually only appear in stallions and geldings, rarely in mares.
Next comes a change in the shape of the chewing surface of thelower incisors. The two central teeth become triangular when the horse is about 16. At 17, the lateral incisors take on a triangular appearance, and by 18, all the lower incisors have triangular shapes.
The final milestone comes with the appearance and disappearance of Galvayne's Groove. When a horse is about 10 years old, a groove develops on the outside of the upper corner of the incisors.
This groove gradually moves down the tooth. When it is halfway down the tooth, the horse is approximately 15 years old. When the groove reaches all the way down the tooth, the horse is about 20.
Then the groove reverses direction. When it again reaches the halfway point, the horse is about 25. The horse will be about 30 when the groove totally disappears.
So, the next time someone wants to sell you the world's most perfect 7-year-old horse, get the horse to say "aah."
If you want to know a horse's true age -- even a gift horse -- you have to look him in the mouth.