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Origins of Horse-Related Idioms

beautiful horses image

There are so many phrases that we use, in everyday language that relate to horses, and I often wonder how and when did they originate?

Hold your horses!

When It Originated: 800 BCE

"Hold your horses", sometimes said as "Hold the horses", is a common idiom meaning "stay on" or wait. The phrase is historically related to horse riding or travelling by horse, or driving a horse-drawn vehicle.

A line in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus—you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” (Although the original 1598 translation has it as “Contain thy horses!”)

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth image

When It Originated: 380 BCE

This idiom is so old that when St. Jerome translated the New Testament, he included it in the introduction: “Equi donati dentes non inspicuintur.”

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

lead a horse to water image

When It Originated: 1175

'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink' is a proverb that means that you can give someone an opportunity but not force them to take it. An example of this would be , I gave him the email address of the person in charge of recruitment but he still didn't contact him about the job

It is one of the oldest aphorisms in English, this adage was first recorded in the Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken.” A modern version appeared in the 1602 play Narcissus: “They can but bringe horse to the water brinke / But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.”.


A horse of a different color

When It Originated: 1600s

In Act II, Scene 3 of Twelfth Night, Maria says, “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.” It’s believed the phrase evolved from there or that the idiom already existed and Shakespeare was twisting it.

Flogging a dead horse

When It Originated: 1640s

In the 17th century, sailors were paid in advance and promptly blew their checks on booze. The ensuing period of work was called “dead horse” time. Since they didn’t have the promise of a paycheck for motivation, most sea dogs were woefully unproductive.

Eat Like a Horse

eat like a horse image

When It Originated: 18th Century

We use this to refer to someone who eats alot of food.

A full-grown gelding can eat up to 2 percent of its body weight per day—that’s about 20 pounds of food!

Get off your high horse

When It Originated: 1780s

Being told you were on a high horse used to be a compliment.  Only soldiers and royalty rode tall war chargers. Then, as people lost respect for the high and mighty during the revolutions of the late 1700s, the high horse was seen as uppity.

Dark horse

dark horse image

When It Originated: 1830s

Not a reference to the Katy Perry song, the word dark was Victorian era lingo describing anything unknown. “Dark horse” was popular racing slang for an unfamiliar trotter that won a race.

We call a person a dark horse when they keep their interests and ideas secret, especially if someone has a surprising ability or skill.  For example Sarah is  such a dark horse - I had no idea she'd published a novel.

One Horse Town

When It Originated: 1850s

Settled in 1849, the village of One Horse Town in Shasta County, California, was a regular stop for gold miners. Legend has it that Jack Spencer’s ole gray mare was the only horse around.

Charley horse

When It Originated: 1850s

Back in the 19th century, lame race-horses were called “Charley.” Around the same time, old horses were used to drag the infield dirt at baseball stadiums. Whenever a ballplayer cramped up, they were compared to the grounds crew of limping equines—Charley horses.

Chomp/Champ at the bit

horse chomping at the bit image

When It Originated: 1920s

Part of the bridle, a bit rests inside the horse’s mouth and is controlled by the reins. Impatient horses tend to anxiously chew on their bits before races.

Champing at the bit refers to the tendency of some horses to chew on the bit when impatient or eager. In its figurative sense, it means to show impatience while delayed, or just to be eager to start.

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