Horses have been an integral part of human progress from the beginning of civilization. Horses have been involved with transportation, farm work, different sports, leisure activity and subjects of literature and song (Dan Fogelberg’s “Run For the Roses,” anyone?) for eons.
Many idioms and expressions found in the English language have evolved from our interaction with horses. The origins of those phrases have become obsolete in some cases, but the sayings are still used. In case you had nothing better to do than wonder what a gift horse is and why no one should look in its mouth, I’ll try to explain the root of some of those popular phrases.
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth” refers to determining a horse’s age, revealed by the length and shape of its teeth. The saying means, basically, no whining if you get a gift. Yeah, it is probably an old horse, but it’s free, so no complaining. All the horse people reading this are saying in unison right now, “There’s no such thing as a free horse,” because they all know about paying for farriers, vets, feed, bedding, tack, blankets, fly spray and more, but the sentiment remains: you got a gift so be grateful. The expression can also be used to subtly tell someone it’s better if they don’t know all the details about a gift, a tactic used frequently in gangster movies.
Giving someone a “free rein” or “reining someone in” also come from horse lingo. Giving a horse loose (free) reins allows it to wander at will and choose its own pace. Tightening the reins stops a horse’s forward movement and restricts it, or can merely redirect a horse. The analogies work in the following example: “Given a free rein on an art project, third-graders glued erasers to all the chairs and painted eyeballs on the windows, so the teacher reined them in and got them working on some pencil sketches.”
Horsing around refers to rough, noisy play. I can easily see how this became a familiar expression watching my three geldings “play” together in their paddock. Play includes, chasing, biting, kicking, striking, squealing and full body contact. Sometimes I have to go out and rein them in. Or at least holler from the barn, “Stop fighting!” Sometimes I feel the way my mother must have felt while driving, with me and my two younger brothers in the back seat of the car.
Being in the homestretch of a task comes from the last quarter of a horse race. It’s the last bit, you’re almost done.
“Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” means don’t change plans in the middle of a project. Changing horses while trying to ford a stream is difficult and absurd — I don’t even know why the thought would cross anyone’s mind in the first place. Just stay on your horse until you get to the other side.
If you have “shut the barn door after the horse has left,” you have done something after a problem has occurred that should have been done to prevent the problem in the first place.
More gruesomely, if you are “beating a dead horse,” you are doing something that is not going to produce a result. As in, a horse that has gone to meet its maker is not going to run faster no matter how much you flog it.
Being on a “high horse” means being haughty and literally talking down to someone. It originates from days when wealthy people could afford to have horses to ride while others had to walk. Sitting atop a horse and talking to someone who stands on the ground was a sign of power and self-importance.
I’ve now reached the homestretch of this article. The origins of phrases like these attest to the infusion of horses into the lives of people. Horses have shaped our landscape, our society and our language.
In closing, stay off a high horse unless you’re in the middle of a stream, in which case, stay on the horse but don’t look in its mouth.