How can I tell my horse’s age?

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How Can I tell my horse’s age?

As an equine Veterinarian, I often get asked how old are my horses? Knowing a horse’s age is not only important for record-keeping purposes, but it can also help determine their nutritional and healthcare needs. But how can you tell a horse’s age?

One of the easiest ways to estimate a horse’s age is by looking at their teeth. Just like humans, horses’ teeth change as they age. By examining the teeth, you can determine the approximate age of the horse.

However, it’s important to note that estimating a horse’s age based on their teeth is not an exact science. Other factors, such as genetics and diet, can affect the appearance of a horse’s teeth. That being said, examining a horse’s teeth is still a useful tool for estimating their age.

Teeth as an Indicator of Age

The Basic Teeth Structure of Horses

The teeth of horses are an important indicator of their age. Horses have two sets of teeth in their lifetime, deciduous teeth, also known as milk teeth, and permanent teeth. Horses have a total of 36 to 44 teeth, depending on their breed and sex. The teeth of horses are divided into three categories; incisors, canines, and premolars/molars. Incisors are located in the front of the mouth and are used for biting and cutting grass. Canines are located between the incisors and molars and are used for fighting. Premolars and Molars are located at the back of the mouth and are used for grinding food.

The Eruption Pattern of MILK Teeth (deciduous incisors) in Horses

The eruption pattern of teeth in horses is a reliable indicator of age. Horses are born without teeth, and their deciduous teeth begin to erupt within a week of birth. The second set of incisors erupts at around six weeks of age, and the third set of incisors erupts at around six months of age. The permanent teeth begin to erupt at around one and a half years of age. The eruption pattern of incisor teeth in horses is predictable, and it can be used to determine the age of a horse accurately. The saying is six days, six weeks and six months for the milk teeth and that is from the centre out. Meaning the first two teeth to appear are at the front in the middle and then they erupt either side of these at six weeks and then another set erupt to the outside of them at six months.

How to Determine Age Based on Teeth

Determining the age of a horse based on its teeth requires knowledge of the eruption pattern and the wear of the teeth. The age of a horse can be estimated by examining the incisors, which are the most visible teeth. The size, shape, and wear of the incisors can be used to determine the age of the horse. For example, a two-year-old horse will have four permanent incisors, and they will be slightly larger than the deciduous incisors. A four-year-old horse will have a full set of permanent incisors, and the cups on the upper incisors will be worn down, but not completely in wear (this means they don’t quite touch the lower tooth when chewing). By the age of five, the cups on the upper incisors will have disappeared, and the teeth will begin to show signs of wear. In conclusion, the teeth of horses are an essential indicator of their age. The eruption pattern and wear of the teeth can be used to estimate the age of a horse accurately. By examining the incisors, it is possible to determine the age of a horse up to the age of ten years. Beyond the age of ten, it becomes more challenging to determine the age of a horse accurately based on its teeth alone.

Over years of grazing, the concave surface of each tooth is worn flat. Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll find inside your horse’s mouth throughout its lifetime:

  • One year old – your horse has six milk teeth incisors in each jaw
  • Two year old – your horse has a complete set of milk teeth incisors, which are wearing
  • Three year old – the two centre milk teeth incisors are replaced by adult teeth
  • Four year old – the next two milk teeth incisors are replaced by adult teeth
  • Five year old – the two corner milk teeth incisors are replaced by adult teeth
  • Six year old – the corner incisors are wearing; there is a dental star present on the centre incisors
  • Seven year old – a small hook appears on the top corner incisors
  • Eight year old – the hook and black hollow centres on the teeth have disappeared

Ageing a horse by their teeth then starts to become more difficult.

  • 12 year old – the Galvayne’s groove appears on the top corner incisors and grows downwards
  • 13 year old – another hook appears, which is similar to when your horse was seven years old
  • 15 year old – the Galvayne’s groove has reached half way down the teeth
  • 20 year old – the Galvayne’s groove has reached the bottom of the teeth
  • 25 year old – the Galvayne’s groove has disappeared from the top half of the teeth

Physical Characteristics as an Indicator of Age

Body Shape and Size

As a horse ages, its body shape and size change. Young horses tend to have a more angular and slender appearance, while older horses tend to have a more rounded and thicker appearance. As horses age, they also tend to lose muscle tone and develop a more sagging appearance.

Muscle Tone and Development

The muscle tone and development of a horse can also be a good indicator of its age. Young horses tend to have more defined and developed muscles, while older horses tend to lose muscle mass and have a more flabby appearance. Additionally, older horses may have more prominent bones due to the loss of muscle mass.

Coat Condition and Color

The condition and color of a horse’s coat can also provide clues about its age. Young horses tend to have a shiny and smooth coat, while older horses may have a dull and rough coat. Gray hairs may also start to appear on older horses, particularly around the eyes and muzzle.

It is important to note, however, that coat color and condition can be influenced by factors such as nutrition and grooming, so it should not be the sole indicator of a horse’s age.

Other Methods of Age Determination

Lip Tattooing

Another method of age determination for horses is lip tattooing. This involves tattooing a horse’s lip with a code that indicates its birth year. The tattoo is typically done when the horse is a foal, and the code is registered with a breed registry. However, not all horses are tattooed, and some tattoos can be difficult to read or may fade over time. Additionally, some horses may have injuries or scars that make it difficult to tattoo their lips. This is mostly done in the US and other countries other than Australia

Microchipping

Microchipping is another method of age determination that is becoming increasingly popular for horses. A microchip is a small, electronic device that is implanted deep in the horse’s skin, within the nuchal ligament in the neck. The microchip contains a unique code that can be read with a scanner, and this code can be used to determine the horse’s age. Microchipping is a permanent and non-invasive method of identification, and it can also be used to identify lost or stolen horses.

Branding

Branding is a method of age determination that involves burning a mark onto a horse’s skin using a hot or freezing iron. The mark typically indicates the horse’s birth year or the ranch or breeder that the horse came from. However, branding can be painful for the horse, and it can also be difficult to read the brand if the hair grows back over the mark. Additionally, not all horses are branded, and some breeds or registries do not allow branding. The usual way to brand is to have the “foal number” or drop number at the top and the year below the drop number. The drop number just means the order in which foals were born in that year on that property. If your horse has a 1 it means it was the first foal born to that brand/stud or property that year- if it has a 234 it means it was the 234th foal registered to that brand/stud property that year. To know what stud/property etc there will be a symbol brand either above the numbers or on the other shoulder that will be registered to a certain stud or person. The symbol brand is a bit like a signature so you can often recognise who bred the horse. Bear in mind though, if your horse has a 1 over 1 it could mean it was the first foal born in 2001, 2011 or 2021……so always check their teeth to know if they are 20, 10 or 1 etc. The amount of times I go to perform a dental on a new horse and I tell the owners the horses age and they nearly pass out as the horse ages 10 years!!!! when they bought the horse the seller told them the wrong age and they didn’t check the teeth or didn’t know how to age the horse by their teeth.

While these methods of age determination can be useful, they each have their drawbacks and limitations. It is important to consult with a veterinarian or other equine professional to determine the best method of age determination for your horse.

Conclusion

As a horse owner, being able to tell your horse’s age is an important aspect of their care. While it may seem like a daunting task, there are several ways to estimate a horse’s age based on their physical appearance and teeth.

By examining the shape and appearance of their teeth, you can estimate their age within a few years. Additionally, looking at their overall physical appearance, such as the presence of gray hairs or a loss of muscle tone, can also give you clues about their age.

It’s important to note that these methods are not foolproof and can only provide an estimate of a horse’s age. Consulting with a veterinarian or equine dentist can give you a more accurate assessment of your horse’s age and dental health.

Overall, being able to tell your horse’s age is an important aspect of their care and can help you provide them with the appropriate nutrition and medical attention they need as they age.

Author

  • Dr Louise Cosgrove

    The founder of Exclusively Equine Veterinary Services, Louise is driven to support horses in their recovery from injury or illness. A graduate of the University of Queensland, with international equin...

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