The Joy of Horses
July 2004
Horse Talk
by Cheryl R Lutring

‘He’s rather long in the tooth, isn’t he?’ – how many times is that gentle criticism applied to people who are considered too old for certain activities? How often is it realised that it comes directly from the world of horses?

Conversation is littered with words and phrases from the days when the horse underpinned daily function, however far removed the current speakers are from equestrianism.

‘Long in the tooth’, relates to the fact that horses’ gums recede as their years advance, making the teeth look increasingly longer. As we all know, the age of a horse is determined by his teeth, but how many folk who warn ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ realise that their warning comes from the basic technique of checking a horse’s teeth to establish his age and hence value before purchasing. Therefore to check is to imply doubt, suspicion or lack of gratitude. Another well known adage ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, is a modern take on a horse’s age being deduced from his teeth, and applied to directly acquired indisputable facts – as the teeth cannot lie.

The power of the machines we invented to replace the horse, is still measured in terms of ‘horse power’. A steam locomotive is affectionately called an ‘iron horse’. Continuing to attempt something futile is regarded as ‘flogging a dead horse’. When an outsider unexpectedly wins a contest, he is often called ‘a dark horse’. This phrase came from the racetrack, where it is still in use, and soon transferred to the world of politics. In 1831 Benjamin Disraeli wrote in The Young Duke of a ‘dark horse, which had never been thought of, past [the winning post]… in sweeping triumph’.

When discussing the talents of candidates for a position or task it could often be remarked with a shrug ‘ah well, horses for courses’. This is a proverb from the late 1800s which possible arose from the innate differences in the talents of horses, e.g. some like to jump, some prefer to gallop on the flat, some like deep heavy going, others demand perfect footing.

In this time of stressful careers, heart problems often result in sudden death, and it is remarked that ‘so-and-so died in harness’. The expression is based on the fact that horses would literally collapse and die in their harness when toiling at farm work or on the battle field.

A healthy appetite can lead to being told that you ‘eat like a horse’; a muscular man is ‘as strong as horse’; how often have we proverbially ‘locked the stable door after the horse has bolted’ or ‘put the cart before the horse’? ‘Go tell it to the Horse Marines’, in other words stop telling tall stories.

The legend recounts how a man bet his companion he could not recite the Lord’s Prayer without a wandering thought. Unable to resist the wager of the man’s horse, the challenge was taken up. But the man had barely reached ‘forgive us our trespasses’ when a thought occurred to him: “Does that include the saddle too?” he stopped to ask - and lost the bet. As a consequence we are left with the saying “I will win the horse or lose the saddle”, meaning double or quits.

The potentially dangerous embarrassment of being thrown from horses, is often reported as so-and-so ‘came a cropper!’ A curious expression deriving from an early 19th century phrase for falling completely ‘neck and crop’. In modern times it is also applied to being caught out in an untruth or making an error of judgement.

How many people wish for ‘free rein’ to express themselves, just as riders give a horse free rein to gallop? How many more, when networking or politicking, hope someone will give them ‘a leg up’ the social or business ladder, just as in the days before stirrups it was easier to mount if someone grasped your lower leg and knee and hoisted you up. Still useful today in both contexts.

“Ah, my boy, there’s no flies on 'im”, is a remark often applied to a shrewd opportunist who energetically seeks his chances, and stems from the fact that fewer flies pitch on a moving horse than on a standing one.

Tobias Hobson, a livery stable owner in Cambridge in the 17th century, developed a foolproof technique for ensuring that every horse in his barn was rented in turn, rather than simply the best being over-used and the poorest under-used. He would rotate the stalling arrangement for the horses so that the next horse he wished to be hired was always by the entrance. His customers were given no option but to rent the horse next to the barn door. Hence ‘Hobson’s Choice’ means no choice at all.

To ‘amble’ now indicates slow lazy movement but comes directly from the ‘ambling’ horses of yore. These horses, referred to as palfreys by the 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, and many other historical records, were prized for their superb ‘saddle gait’ which made them a supremely smooth, comfortable, rapid ride – this is now a forgotten gait in Britain but preserved globally in breeds such as the Iceland Horse, American Saddlebred and Paso Fino.

‘Hot to trot’ is likely to have originated in the transition period when amblers were cross-bred with non-ambling types, and the trainers would delight in a horse that inherited the ability to both amble and trot well. Dissolving into giggles on air, recently a television presenter made the erroneous assumption that the phrase meant a rampant bowel complaint!

The out-of-luck or less well off, are often whisperingly referred to as being “down at heel”. This is an echo from a time when good heel growth was desired because it indicated a sound useful horse, and a horse with non-existent or weak heels was a poor sort that could be expected to become unsound and useless. Equally, prosperous people are often reported as being ‘well heeled’.

A shrewd person exhibits ‘Horse Sense’. An American term from the 19th century, it probably arose from the ability to watch and learn from one’s horse in order to secure personal safety and avoid dangerous situations. A major US magazine in 1870 wrote of the expression as a one to be ‘applied to the intellectual ability of men who exceed others in practical wisdom’.

President John Adams in a 1798 Philadelphia newspaper was referred to sarcastically as King John I and it was written that whether someone was persuaded or not to enter into ‘the pay of King John I is a horse of another colour’. Shakespeare himself, in Twelfth Night, has the heroine say “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour” to indicate that she agreed with the summation. These colour references have come into the current vernacular in the phrase ‘a horse of a different colour’.


© Sue Wingate - The Joy of Horses 2004