Posted by: Jack Henry | May 30, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Horses

Pony boy, pony boy,

Won’t you be my pony boy?

No? Okay fine. I still have a couple of horse-related sayings for you. The first one, from The Grammarist, is “straight from the horse’s mouth.”

Straight from the horse’s mouth describes information that has been received directly from a source of authority and has not been interpreted or diluted by a middleman. It is a source that may be trusted implicitly. The idiom straight from the horse’s mouth seems to have been coined around the turn of the twentieth century, used at first in horse racing circles. The idea is that a racing tip has been received from the race horse himself. Some believe that the phrase relates to checking the teeth of a horse to see what sort of physical shape the horse is in, and whether he is capable of winning a race. Today, the idiom is used in a wide variety of situations to mean learning information from an impeccable source. Note that the word horse’s is a possessive noun, and therefore requires an apostrophe before the s.

The second gift is a proverb from our equine friends is “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Honestly, after looking at this picture, I sure wouldn’t dare look a horse in the mouth whether he was a gift or not. According to The Phrase Finder, here is the background on this familiar phrase, which means “don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift.”

Proverbs are “short and expressive sayings, in common use, which are recognized as conveying some accepted truth or useful advice.” This example, also often expressed as “never look a gift horse in the mouth,” is as pertinent today as it ever was.

As horses develop they grow more teeth and their existing teeth begin to change shape and project further forward. Determining a horse’s age from its teeth is a specialist task, but it can be done. This incidentally is also the source of another teeth/age related phrase— long in the tooth.

The advice given in the “don’t look…” proverb is: when receiving a gift be grateful for what it is; don’t imply you wished for more by assessing its value.

As with most proverbs, the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues with this one however. The phrase appears in print in English in 1546, as "don’t look a given horse in the mouth", 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."

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


  1. […] few weeks ago, I sent out a post about ponies. Several of you sent me some additional idioms involving horses—in fact, you sent enough of them […]

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