Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a particular interest in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.
Humans have been living alongside horses for thousands of years. We domesticate them, ride them, use them for transportation, and cherish them as companions, so it's no wonder they've found their way into our idioms, colloquialisms, and euphemisms.
In this article, we'll take a look at 25 common and not-so-common sayings involving horses and discuss what each one means.
1. Horse of a Different Colour
Meaning: A completely different issue or circumstance; something unexpected
Example sentence: "I didn't expect to be making cold calls on my first day! This job is a horse of a different colour."
Possible Origin: Horses often change colour from youth to maturity, so in the horse trade of old, a horse's registration may have listed a colour that didn't match its appearance.
2. Wild Horses Wouldn't Drag Me Away
Meaning: Nothing could persuade me to take a different course or do something else.
Example sentence: "I was determined to finish the race; wild horses couldn't have dragged me away."
Possible Origin: This saying is thought to have originated from the medieval torture method of using horses to stretch prisoners in an attempt to force confessions.
3. Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
Meaning: Don't be ungrateful. For instance, don't receive a gift, not be thankful, and treat the person who gave you the gift badly.
Example sentence: "I advocated for you to be offered this position, so your poor performance reflects badly on my judgment. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth; turn things around before it's too late."
Possible Origin: A horse's age can sometimes be estimated by examining its teeth, so looking it in the mouth can be a way to assess its value. If a horse was given as a gift, attempting to assess its value by examining its dentition would be perceived as rude.
4. A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse
Meaning: You cannot get some people to take a hint if they are determined not to do so. Alternatively, if someone is ready to understand something, they will understand it regardless of how it is signaled.
Example sentence: "How should I signal Terry to let him know we're leaving the bank with the money?" "Wave at him; give him the finger; I don't care. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse."
5. Trojan Horse
Meaning: Something that appears to be one thing but is actually something else (or has something else hidden inside it); often a gift
Example sentence: "I think that sweepstakes email was actually a Trojan horse—when I opened it, a virus downloaded onto my computer."
Possible origin: This idiom originates with the story of the ancient Greek army besieging the city of Troy. The Greeks built a giant hollow wooden horse and left it for the Trojans, who took it as a gift inside their city walls. However, Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and once inside the walls, they were able to destroy the city.
6. Get Off Your High Horse
Meaning: Be more humble or agreeable.
Example sentence: "Stop being so stubborn! You need to get off your high horse and join in with the rest of us."
7. Every Horse Thinks Its Own Pack the Heaviest
Meaning: Everyone in a group or on a team believes that they work the hardest.
Example sentence: "How come I have to prepare the presentation? I'm already the one collating all of our primary source information!" "Well I wrote all of the text, and I still have to create our bibliography. Every horse thinks its own pack the heaviest."
8. Eat Like a Horse
Meaning: Have a ravenous appetite; eat a surprising amount
Example sentence: "Every time Teressa gets home from swim practice, she eats like a horse! My cooking can't keep up."
9. Horse Sense
Meaning: The type of common sense one might have from rugged practical experience rather than education; practical wisdom
Example sentence: "Tory can't use google maps to save his life, but once he's been somewhere once, he never forgets the way. He's got good old-fashioned horse sense."
Possible origin: In the 1832 novel Westward Ho!, Author James Paulding writes, "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."
10. Hold Your Horses
Meaning: Wait; slow down; hold on
Example sentence: "Just take it steady. Hold your horses now, son. If you accelerate too fast, you'll stall."
Possible origin: In Homer's The Illiad, Antilochus is told to "hold his horses" when driving too fast in a chariot race.
Meaning: Rough or rowdy play; tussling
Example sentence: "No horseplay!" shouted the lifeguard. Emily's cheeks grew red, and she stopped whipping her younger brother with her pool noodle.
Possible origin: In the 16th century, the preface "horse" was used to describe larger or more boisterous versions of things (e.g., "horseradish"), so "horseplay" was used to describe rough play.
12. Put the Cart Before the Horse
Meaning: Do things in the wrong order or sequence
Example sentence: "Its all well and good plastering that inside wall, but you need to sort out that leak from the roof first. You shouldn't put the cart before the horse."
Possible origin: This figure of speech has been traced back to the renaissance and also appear's in Shakespeare's King Lear: "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?"
13. Stalking Horse
Meaning: Something or someone used to mask or hide the actual purpose behind an act
Example sentence: "I don't think he was recruited to make up the numbers. If you ask me, I think he's here to change things—he's something of a stalking horse."
Possible origin: In fowl hunting, birds are easily scared away by humans, but many don't seem to mind the presence of a horse or another animal. Hunters used to hide behind trained "stalking horses" as they approached game.
14. Don't Spare the Horses
Meaning: Hurry; make haste
Example sentence: "My flight starts boarding in 25 mins and we're still 10 away from the airport; don't spare the horses!"
15. One-Horse Town
Meaning: A town that is small and unremarkable, dull, or boring.
Example sentence: "Nothing ever happens here; it's just a one-horse town."
Possible origin: This phrase was first recorded in 1857 and was thought to refer to a town so small that a single horse could handle all of its transportation.
16. Dark Horse
Meaning: Someone who unexpectedly comes to prominence or wins a race or competition; someone with an incredible but previously unknown talent for something
Example sentence: "She never ran that fast before! What a totally unexpected result! She was something of a dark horse in this event."
Possible origin: The phrase originated as a piece of gambling jargon used to refer to an unknown horse that was difficult to bet on due to its lack of history.
17. Hobby Horse
Meaning: A subject, issue, or topic about which someone frequently talks or complains.
Example sentence: "Don't get him started on his latest attempt to have that fence lowered by his neighbour. He will climb aboard his hobby horse again, and you will never get him off it."
18. Enough to Choke a Horse
Meaning: A huge or excessive amount
Example sentence: "I knew he could eat! But the way he piled up that plate—it was enough to choke a horse."
19. Horse Doctor
Meaning: A poorly-equipped or inadequate physician (derogatory)
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Example sentence: "That horse doctor says that there is nothing wrong with me. What does he know?"
20. Gone the Way of the Horse and Buggy
Meaning: Become old fashioned or out of date
Example sentence: "That way of working went out with the horse and buggy."
21. Horse Opera
Meaning: A clichéd or formulaic performance (film or stage show)
Example sentence: "Avatar was groundbreaking in terms of special effects, sure, but in terms of plot and script, I'd say it was nothing more than a horse opera."
Possible origin: The term was coined by William Hart, a silent film star, to describe formulaic western films or plays.
22. If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride
Meaning: If wishing worked, everyone would have what they wanted.
Example sentence: "I wish I had a quarter for every time Jerry fell asleep after eating his lunch." "Yeah, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."
23. Horse Hockey
Meaning: Nonsense; malarkey
Example sentence: "I have heard enough of your horse hockey; it's time to get real."
24. You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can't Make It Drink
Meaning: No matter how much you try to persuade or help someone, it won't work unless they also put in the effort.
Example sentence: "I sent her to lacrosse summer camp and got her a new lacrosse stick but she still complains about going to practice!" "Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."
25. Beat a Dead Horse
Meaning: Do something that's already been done; do something that's a waste of time or serves no purpose
Example sentence: "You've already reworked the proposal five or six times; it's as good as it's gonna get! Stop beating a dead horse."
More Horse Colloquialisms From the BBC
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on January 04, 2014:
@lesliesinclair: I wouldn't be at all surprised.
lesliesinclair on January 04, 2014:
The stalking horse must have just bucked off Don Quixote, don't you think.
changrcoacher on October 10, 2013:
Dear fellow traveler. Loved this lens. "I am by nature a dealer in words and words are the most powerful drug known to humanity." Rudyard Kipling
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on April 06, 2013:
@lollyj lm: Thank you.
Laurel Johnson from Washington KS on April 06, 2013:
I love idioms and you presented these with color and humor.
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on March 14, 2013:
@Camden1: I think we often forget that we are using them everyday.
Camden1 on March 13, 2013:
These idioms are used so commonly that I never really think about how unusual they actually are. Thanks for sharing!
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on March 13, 2013:
@Elaine Chen: Thank you.
Elaine Chen on March 13, 2013:
I like those horse pictures you presented here
Noelle and Dan on September 23, 2012:
Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on May 26, 2012:
Seeing them all in one place made me realize that there are quite a few horse idioms.
Steve Dizmon from Nashville, TN on April 22, 2012:
Pigs and Cats and Horses, Oh My. A trifecta of Idiomatic Lenses. Enjoyed them.
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on February 26, 2012:
@anonymous: Hi Tipi. Thank you for your visit and Blessing of this lense. I always look forward to hearing from you.
anonymous on February 26, 2012:
This is like visiting an online horse gallery of pictures.
I love everything about horses, so really did enjoy this.
flicker lm on February 10, 2012:
Good job! Enjoyed your lens.
CCGAL on September 09, 2011:
How about "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" - that's one I've heard a lot.
Nice job - once again you found delightful images. Nice work!
judit on February 21, 2011:
lovely lense, i do enjoy it so much.
Carolan Ross from St. Louis, MO on February 18, 2011:
YES! Well DONE! Great tribute to horses and idioms.
Delia on February 05, 2011:
yes I did enjoy these horse itioms...nice lens