Horses have been the inspiration for many common metaphors but whilst you may use some of these regularly, do you know their origin?

 

Straight from the horse’s mouth

What’s the meaning?

The information learnt has come from the highest authority.

What’s the origin?

If you’re having a flutter at the races you may wish to get a tip or two to help increase your chances of winning. The tip is better the nearer your contact is to the horse for example, the trainer, jockey or groom is likely to know more about the horse’s current form than your mate down the pub. So when you got the tip straight from the horse’s mouth, you have it directly from the source which is the highest authority…although in horse racing, it still won’t guarantee you a winner!

 

 

Hold your horses

What’s the meaning?

Wait or be patient!

What’s the origin?

The saying originated in the USA during the 1800s. It was originally written as “hold your hosses” in keeping with the American slang term “hoss” for a horse. At this time, horses would have been used as the main form of transport, so you can imagine the saying regularly being used to ask a stage coach to wait for its passengers to embark.

 

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

What’s the meaning?

You can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do, even if it’s good for them.

 

 

What’s the origin?

We’ve all been there, whether it be at a show, competition or a long ride on a hot day, we get off our horses and we offer them a drink. Considering how dehydrated we feel, they must feel the same right?....wrong! They don’t even acknowledge the bucket even when you have lifted it up to their mouth. Although it would be good for them to have a drink, they don’t have the mind to do it and it’s impossible to make them take a gulp.

This situation has dumfounded horse owners for centuries, with the saying first recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies:

Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken

[who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?]

The proverb ‘lead a horse to water’ has been in continuous use since then.

 

Horsepower

Horsepower is used to measure the power of engines

What’s the origin?

Another saying referencing the historic role that horses played in transportation. The term was coined by James Watt, who invented a new type of steam engine in the 18th Century. Watt figured out how much work a horse could do per second and used this information as a comparison when he sold his steam engines. This measurement allowed him to estimate the value of an engine in terms of the number of horses it would replace. For example, a six horsepower engine was capable of replacing six horses – a very powerful marketing tool!

 

 

Get off your high horse

What’s the meaning?

A request to someone to stop behaving in a self-righteous manner.

What’s the origin?

This is another old saying originating around the year 1380 with one of the earliest sources being John Wyclif’s English Works:

Ye emperor… made hym & his cardenals ride in reed on hye ors.

Although this isn’t easy to interpret, the phrase refers to a large horse – potentially a warhorse as men with military power would often choose the biggest horse to ride as a display of power. Whilst in the past, it would have been a proud and commanding position to be on that high horse, nowadays, the reference had negative connotations, with the view that those in command (on their high horse) would have looked down at the common people implying a criticism of their haughtiness.

 

Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted

What’s the meaning?

Finding the solution after the damaging incident has occurred.

What’s the origin?

A well-known English proverb with one of its earliest references found in 1390 John Gower’s poem Confessio Amantis:

For whan the grete Stiede Is stole, thane he taketh hiede, And makth the stable dore fast.

 

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

What’s the meaning?

Don’t be ungrateful, refuse or complain about something you’ve been given as a gift, it’s still a gift and should be taken in good grace.

What’s the origin?

This saying is likely to confuse people who are not involved with horses, but for us horse obsessed, the origin is more obvious. A horse’s approximate age can be determined by inspecting their teeth with a general rule of thumb being the longer the teeth, the older the horse. Back in the day, if you were lucky enough to be given a horse as a gift, to check its teeth on receipt would likely have been seen as impolite behaviour by the giver!

 

 

With horses playing such a vital role in developing our economy and society, it’s not surprising that they have been the inspiration behind so many metaphors. We hope you’ve found the origins of these common sayings interesting and if there are any more you would like us to research please add them in the comments below :)