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20 Horse Idioms and Sayings Explained

20 Horse Idioms and Sayings Explained

Horses have been part of our culture for thousands of years. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s not surprising therefore that our ancestors came up with several horse-related idioms to better express themselves.

You can probably recall a few of them right now, but have you ever wondered where they came from? While it’s hard to verify the sources, most of these sayings have links to a particular era or activity.

Join us on our journey through the ages as we explore the most common horse idioms in detail. You’ll be surprised that some of them have very elaborate backstories!

Here are the origins and meanings of twenty horse idioms.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

There’s little doubt that most people have heard of this phrase before. This horse idiom has made its way into many languages and has one simple meaning: don’t be ungrateful. Appreciate when someone hands you a gift or does you a favor instead of looking for imperfections.

According to some sources, this saying originated around 380 BC. It even appears in the introduction of the New Testament, translated by St. Jerome: “Equi donati dentes non inspicuintur.”

It is a well-known fact in the horse world that you can estimate a horse’s age by looking at its teeth. The younger the horse is, the more accurate the estimate can be. In many cases, a horse’s age determines its value, which is why it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Hold your horses!

Another common horse idiom is “Hold your horses”, also used as “Hold the horses”. It means wait, hang on, don’t go ahead just yet. It often refers to situations when someone is about to make a rash decision or do something irresponsible.

Hold your horses idiom
BlueRingMedia / Shutterstock.com

This horse idiom likely originates from 800 BC. It first appeared in Book 23 Homer’s “Iliad” in the sentence Antilochus—you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” However, in the original translation from 1598, the phrase sounds like “Contain thy horses!”

In truth, there are several theories about how the saying came to be. While we can’t be certain about who popularized the phrase, it’s most likely related to horse riding or driving.

A horse of a different color

People use this horse idiom when referring to a different outcome or circumstance than what they expected. An example would be “This chore really is a horse of a different color!”

The origins of this saying date back to the 1600s, when horses were an integral part of people’s lives. Many horses had pedigrees that listed their color at birth. However, as it’s common for horses to change color growing up, the final color of some horses was different to the one assigned at birth. This often complicated matters when the horse was put up for sale.

The saying also appears in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” In Act II, Scene 3 of the play, Maria says: “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that color.” It is not known whether Shakespeare actually came up with the phrase or it already existed beforehand.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

This witty proverb is also widely used in the English language. It implies that you can present someone with an opportunity, but can’t force them to live with it.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink idiom
Leremy / Shutterstock.com

This horse idiom is actually one of the oldest English proverbs in our language. It was first noted in the Old English Homilies from 1175: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken.”

The phrase also showed up in the play “Narcissus” (1602) as “They can but bringe horse to the water brinke / But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.” It’s interesting to compare the two versions of the same phrase hundreds of years apart. It really shows the evolution of the English language over the centuries!

Horseplay

“Horseplay” is rough or unruly play that lacks sophistication. It can also address a person’s lack of manners in a given situation.

The phrase likely originated in the 1580s, when people often used “horse” to describe anything coarse, big, or strong. “Horseplay” wasn’t the only word that resulted from this habit. Several plants like horseradish, horsenettle, horse parsley also got their names based on this logic.

Eat like a horse

Someone who eats like a horse can eat a lot of food. Horses normally consume the equivalent of 1.5-2% of their body weight per day. So for a 1,000-pound horse, that’s 15-20 pounds of food a day!

As to when this phrase was first coined is unclear. According to Mental Floss, “eat like a horse” originated sometime in the 18th century.

Trojan horse

A trojan horse is something that is disguised as another thing. It can refer to both objects and situations, with something often hidden beneath the surface.

This well-known horse idiom is based on the story of the siege of Troy in Greek mythology. In 1250 BC, the Greeks wanted to capture the city of Troy, but it had strong and high walls that were easy to defend. So the Greeks came up with a clever trick.

Wooden Trojan horse with a white background
George W. Bailey / Shutterstock.com

Instead of spilling their men’s blood over the walls, they built a giant wooden horse and filled it with soldiers. Thinking the horse was a gift, the Trojans took it inside the city walls. Under the veil of night, the soldiers climbed out of the horse and opened the city gates to the Greek army.

Flogging a dead horse

Flogging a dead horse means a person is wasting their time pursuing something that will bring no results. An example would be “John, stop gambling already! You’re flogging a dead horse.”

This horse idiom originated in the 1640s when it was common to pay sailors in advance. Having received their paycheck, most workers went into a spending spree and had little money left by the time the work commenced.

The following period was colloquially called “dead horse” time. Since the sailors didn’t have a paycheck to look forwards to, they were extremely unproductive in their jobs.

Get off your high horse

This popular horse idiom is often used to point out when someone is being stuck-up and arrogant. By telling a person to get off their high horse, you’re asking them to be more agreeable and humble.

In the Middle Ages, riding tall and strong war chargers was the privilege of royalty and warriors. Therefore, telling someone they were on a high horse used to be a compliment.

However, things took a turn during the revolutions of the late 18th century. The general public lost respect for the highborn and began to use the phrase for mockery.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

“Straight from the horse’s mouth” means a piece of information came directly from the original source. There are a few different theories explaining where the saying came from. Most agree that the idiom originated in the early 1900s.

Straight from the horses mouth idiom
brgfx / Shutterstock.com

One possibility is that horse buyers in the 20th century often looked at the horse’s teeth to estimate its age and therefore value. It was a more reliable way of determining whether a deal was good or not than speaking to the seller. (Source: Inc.)

Another theory believes the saying emerged from the horse racing industry. Since trainers and jockeys dealt with racehorses on a daily basis, members of the public turned to them for betting tips. According to Reader’s Digest, many believed they knew best which horses to bet on as they were closest to the animals.

Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away

This horse idiom has a fairly obvious meaning. People use it when nothing can deter them from the decision they have already made.

The origins of this saying are rather dark and date back to the Middle Ages. During medieval times, they often used horses to stretch prisoners and force them into confession. The idiom evolved gradually from this torture method.

One horse town

A one horse town is a dull, boring, and unimportant place where nothing ever happens. It’s a derogatory term for small towns that are woefully unremarkable.

The phrase was coined somewhere in the western United States in the 1850s. A possible source of origin is One Horse Town in Shasta County, California that used to be a stop for gold miners. Allegedly, the town was so small that Jack Spencer’s gray mare was its only resident horse. (Source: Mental Floss)

Another theory states that “one horse town” was small town in 1857 where a single horse could carry out all the transportation. (Source: Owlcation)

One horse in a town grazing on grass
David Buzzard / Shutterstock.com

Horse sense

Most of you are probably familiar with the term “horse sense.” If someone has horse sense, it basically means they have common sense or practical wisdom. This type of insight doesn’t usually come from education but rather practical experience.

W.C. Fields, an American comedian from the early 20th century, famously defined the term as “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.This horse idiom often appears in the context “He’s got good old-fashioned horse sense.”

The phrase originally came from the early 19th century near the town of Westward Ho! in Devon, England. It first appeared in the 1805 novel “Forsaken; Love’s Battle for Heart” by English romantic novelist Evelyn Malcolm. The sentence reads as follows: Lud, Bill Perkins has horse sense.

Author James Paulding also used the idiom in his 1832 novel “Westward Ho!”: “I’m for Dangerfield, though he hasn’t got a white pocket-handkerchief, and though he can’t play the piano. He’s a man of good strong horse sense.”

Put the cart before the horse

This horse idiom means something has been done in the wrong order or sequence. It likely dates back to the renaissance (14th to 17th century) and was first recorded in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”: “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?”

Horse pulling a cart in a street idiom
Joshua Sanderson Media / Shutterstock.com

Champ/Chomp at the bit

In its literal meaning, “champ at the bit” refers to horses anxiously mouthing the bit when they’re eager to go. Figuratively, it’s used to describe impatient people or someone who is eager to proceed.

According to Mulberry Tree, the idiom originates in the 1920s. Racehorses tend to chew the bit impatiently before a race, which is likely where the term came from.

Enough to choke a horse

This horse idiom means you’ve got a huge amount of something, usually a lot more than necessary. In context, it sounds like “Oh my, you’ve made enough fries to choke a horse!”

The original version of this phrase was “enough to choke Caligula’s horse”. Caligula was the third Roman emperor who ruled between 37 and 41 AD and was famous for going overboard with spending.

Dark horse

The idiom “dark horse” refers to people who have a surprising talent nobody knew about. It can also describe animals that unexpectedly win a competition or excel in something.

According to Mulberry Tree, “dark horse” emerged as a term in the Victorian era (1837-1901) to label anything unknown. In harness racing, they often called unknown trotters who ended up winning the race “dark horses.” The meaning was later extended to odd-defying political candidates who unexpectedly won elections.

Dark horses harness racing
GeptaYs / Shutterstock.com

On the other hand, Owlcation believes the phrase was originally gambling jargon. According to this theory, punters used the term to describe horses that were difficult to bet on due to their lack of racing history.

Stalking horse

The idiom “stalking horse” is somewhat similar to “trojan horse” in meaning. A “stalking horse” can be anything that’s used to hide the true purpose behind an act.

The phrase originated from the sport of fowl hunting, although the timeframe is not known. At some point, hunters realized that birds are not usually scared of horses but instantly flee from humans. They soon began training “stalking horses” to hide behind as they approached the game.

Charley horse

A charely horse is another name for muscle spasm or cramp. It can be caused by a variety of factors, such as overexertion, poor blood flow, electrolyte imbalance, or dehydration.

While the term might sound odd at first, there’s a good reason why it became an alternative name for muscle cramps. In the 1850s, lame racehorses were referred to as “Charley.” In the same time period, many baseball stadiums used old horses to drag infield dirt.

If a baseball player cramped up, his fellow players would often compare him to the old limping “Charley horses” working on the field. Hence the idiom evolved.

Don’t spare the horses

You can probably guess the meaning of this horse idiom. If someone shouts “Don’t spare the horses!” at you, they want you to hurry up and get to a place quickly.

Most sources agree that the phrase originated from Queen Victoria. When she needed to go home quickly, the Queen would tell her steward “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.” However, because “James” was a general name for coachmen during the 1600s, many believe the saying is even older.

“Don’t spare the horses” was also the title of a song released by Elsie Carlisle in the 1930s. Written by songwriter Fred Hillebrand, the song is about a quarrelsome date night in the 1890s.