Horse Talk
by Dr. Sandra Olsen

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!
(Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 5, Sc. 4)

Many terms and phrases in the English language harken back to a time not so long ago when horses were of extreme importance. Phrases like stubborn as a mule, beating a dead horse, horseplay, horsing around and horse laugh are self- evident and require no explanation. Other phrases have origins obscured in the past. Some, like the humorous reference to an automobile as a horseless carriage, have survived longer than many would have anticipated. Although we rarely stop to look at their literal meanings, many of these linguistic phrases embody useful information about equine behavior or the care and treatment of horses. Everyone is acquainted with the sayings You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, which was cited as a proverb as early as 1546, and That’s a horse of a different color, which probably originated in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1601.

The familiar old phrase Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth refers to the practice of horse traders determining the age of a horse by its anterior teeth, or incisors. The incisors erupt and wear down according to a fairly consistent schedule through the life of the horse. As the incisors wear down, the chewing surface changes in appearance, exposing more and more of the infundibulum, a natural concavity in the anterior teeth. By looking at the lower incisors to see which permanent teeth have erupted and considering their stage of wear, knowledgeable horse traders can estimate the age of the horse. Since older horses are less useful for heavy work, determining the age helps to evaluate a horse’s worth. Hence, looking a gift horse in the mouth is the equivalent of asking someone how much they paid for a gift they have just given you and then complaining that it was not expensive enough. Getting information straight from the horse’s mouth is also probably derived from the fact that a smart horse trader would look into a horse’s mouth for himself to determine its age, rather than trusting the word of the seller.


Eating like a horse originates from the fact that horses spend much of their time consuming large quantities of food. The equine digestive system is unusual. Other grazers, like cattle, sheep and goats have four-chambered stomachs and rather slow digestive systems. The horse, on the other hand, has just one chamber in its stomach, and most of the fermentation occurs farther on in the cecum. In proportion to the total body weight, the horse’s digestive system is only about one third the size of that of a cow. This fact means that food passes through a horse much faster than it does through a cow or other ruminant, so the horse requires more food in order to obtain sufficient nutrients.

Good old horse sense most likely refers to the accumulation of knowledge about horses acquired by humans, not to the intelligence of horses. In order to buy, care for, train, handle, breed and work with horses, one must know a great deal about them. The appreciation of such knowledge about horses was evident even by the fourth century B.C., when the Greek writer Xenophon wrote his treatise The Art of Horsemanship, which covered such topics as how to avoid being cheated when buying a horse, and how to train, groom, mount, ride and stable a horse.


Horse sense probably does not refer to the intelligence of horses since they are, unfortunately, limited in this regard. Relative to their body size, horses have very small brains. Their behavior is linked primarily to instincts rather than to innate intelligence. Their strongest qualities relate to their instincts to flee from dangerous predators, to eat and drink regularly, to seek security in numbers, and to mate successfully. The training of horses relies, therefore, on repetition and the development of conditioned reflexes through reward or punishment. The most successful training takes into account the natural instincts of the horse and capitalizes on them. Thus, for example, young horses are enticed to jump over fences by having adult horses jumping ahead. The foal will concentrate on staying with the group and will leap over obstacles that it would otherwise avoid.

Horses are known for two things when it comes to locomotion: power and speed. Horsepower is a unit of power needed to lift 165 pounds 27 inches high in one second. The average horse is actually 10 to 13 times stronger than that, meaning that one horse normally is capable of producing 10 to 13 units of horsepower.


The phrase putting the cart before the horse is probably ancient, because it first appeared in print in 1520 in Robert Whitinton’s Vulgaria. Horses have been used to pull a number of vehicles, including carts, wagons, carriages, chariots and sleighs, hence the phrase to work like a horse. Before horses could be used to pull heavy loads, special yokes had to be designed, because the typical ox yoke would have applied too much pressure to the windpipe of a horse, cutting off its supply of oxygen.

Many phrases are linked to riding skills, dressage and racing. During the Age of Chivalry, a knight was considered chivalrous if he was adept at riding a horse in full armor, which is not easy when the armor and rider together weighed around 440 pounds. Telling someone to get off his high horse probably originated from the fact that knights had to ride specially bred large horses because of the enormous weight of their armor. Nobles would ride through town quite literally looking down on others from their tall horses. Later on, politicians paraded in ceremonial processions on unusually large horses. A Scottish proverb incorporating a reference to one’s “high horse” was cited by James Kelly in 1721. Come off it is also derived from this saying.


Chivalry is from the French word for horse, cheval. Because of the code of gallantry, which knights were required to know well, chivalry eventually came to be associated with the ideal behavior for noblemen. Cavalier, which now means to behave aristocratically or in a dismissive manner, is the term one assigned to gentlemen who rode for the military.

Putting on airs may come from a term used in dressage to indicate a movement in which the horse’s legs are off the ground. The various “airs” above ground are performed chiefly by horses trained in the hautes écoles (high schools), like the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. To put on airs, then, would be to show off a talent that is shared only with the most elite.

Tilting at windmills, which refers to attempting the ludicrous or impossible, is based on an episode in Cervantes’ 17th- century classic Don Quixote, in which the hero believes the windmills are monsters that he intends to take on in mortal combat. Tilting is the competition in medieval jousting tournaments in which one contestant tries to knock the other off his horse. Shakespeare was one of the first to write about charging ahead at full tilt, a phrase that came to refer to proceeding with determination as quickly as possible in a particular endeavor.

Horse racing is a fruitful source of clichés. Starting from scratch first implied that someone was being honest in a horse race by making sure that his horse’s front feet were just behind a line drawn in the dirt road that marked where the race was to commence. Although the phrase up to scratch was first published in reference to boxing 160 years ago, it may have been used earlier in horse races. A dark horse candidate is one about whom little is known. The term comes from cases in which the public is either intentionally or accidentally kept in the dark regarding certain facts about a horse that may possess the necessary qualities to win the race. A horse’s lack of a reputation puts those betting on it at an advantage. In 1831 Benjamin Disraeli wrote in The Young Duke, “A dark horse, which had never been thought of . . . rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.” Disraeli himself was quite a dark horse in British politics.

They’re off and running, uttered by many racetrack announcers, has come to refer to any situation in which the participants have made a strong beginning, especially in politics. Beating a dead horse was first applied to politics when Richard Cobden, a member of Parliament, was accused of this deed in 1887 when he kept pressing to reduce the budget. Giving someone a leg up literally refers to helping him or her onto a horse or a wall, whereas going on a wild goose chase refers to an equestrian sport started in Ireland.

Some equine words and phrases are taken from horse tackle rather than from the horse itself. The origin of the phrase bits and pieces may have come from parts of a bridle. The bit fits into the mouth of the horse and rests on the gum between the incisors and the cheek teeth. It assists in controlling the pace and direction of the horse, as well as the position in which the animal holds its head. The cheekpieces are the parts of the bridle that connect the bit and the headstall. Bits and pieces were collected and piled together in a barn or stable, hence the use of bits and pieces as a collective term for many small and varied objects.

Someone who is frustrated by restraint or delay is said to be champing at the bit. This phrase comes from the nervous behavior of a horse in response to the restraint of wearing a metal bit in its mouth, which the horse chews or gnashes on, particularly if it is uncomfortable. Champing also refers to a behavior seen in wild horses in which the animal opens and closes its mouth rapidly, with lips drawn back at the corners and held away from the teeth. This behavior conveys submission to another horse in recognition of the second horse’s superior social ranking.

Going ahead hell for leather originally meant that a person who was riding as fast and hard as possible would put a lot of wear and tear on his leather saddle, bridle and stirrups. Rudyard Kipling may have been the first to coin the phrase in 1899 when he wrote “The Story of Gadsbys.” Riding roughshod over someone is to disregard the person’s physical and mental welfare. A horse is roughshod when the nails are left protruding out of its shoes so that the animal does not slip and fall. Being ridden over by a roughshod horse would be agonizing. In 1790 Robert Burns wrote about “a rough-shod troop o’Hell,” and Thomas Moore used the term in its modern metaphorical sense in his 1813 Intercepted Letters when he wrote, “‘Tis a scheme of the Romanists, so help me God! To ride over Your Most Royal Highness roughshod.”

One surprising word with equine origins is crinoline, which commonly refers to a full petticoat or a stiff type of cotton cloth used for interlinings. Crinoline originally referred to a loose-weave horsehair cloth used as a stiff lining for hats and lapels and as fabric for petticoats that helped skirts to stand out and look full. The word is derived from the Latin words crinis, meaning “hair,” and linum, meaning “thread.”

Our daily use of horse terms and phrases does not stop there. Little girls wear ponytails, and you must pony up when it is time to settle your account. While the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be and nightmares may not conjure up positive connotations for female horses, a man who is referred to as a stallion certainly has a reputation to live up to. Backing the wrong horse, either literally or figuratively, is as disadvantageous as is changing horses in midstream.

The persistence of these familiar words and phrases reveals how thoroughly horses have influenced the way we think.

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Sandra L. Olsen is associate curator in the Section of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She is currently conducting research on Kazak horse pastoralism in China and Kazakstan.

 

 

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