A horse is a horse (of course, of course), so why in the world does the English language have so many idiomatic expressions about these animals? Well, our relationship with these gentle creatures goes back tens of thousands of years, and in that time, some of their personality traits have inspired many quirky and funny turns of phrase. In honor of the Kentucky Derby, we went right to the source and compiled a list of the silliest, wackiest horse-related idioms, and where in the world they came from.
That’s a horse of a different color.
Nowadays, this phrase denotes something as an entirely separate matter from the topic at hand. “I like traveling, but a safari? That’s a horse of a different color.” The expression has been part of the English language since at least before Shakespeare’s time; he used a variation of the phrase in his play Twelfth Night. It’s thought that the idiom springs from medieval times, when competing knights rode differently colored horses to distinguish themselves from each other, as well as from the general population.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
It’s always rude to be an ungracious gift recipient. This phrase, admonishing giftees to be grateful, has been in existence for centuries, even appearing in a 1546 compendium of English proverbs. Its origins lie in the fact that a horse’s teeth can be used to ascertain its age; older horses have more prominent teeth that extend outward from the gum line. To receive a gift of a horse and immediately inspect its teeth to determine its value was considered gauche. In modern times, you’d never receive a gift and then ask the giver how much she paid for it, right?
Don’t change horses midstream.
Any avid outdoorsman or explorer knows that when you’re crossing a stream on horseback, it’s more than a little wise to stay on the same horse until you’ve reached the opposite bank. Eventually, this bit of practical advice was expanded to mean that it’s unwise to switch leadership during times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln didn’t invent the idiom, but he made it popular in his 1864 presidential campaign, when he cautioned voters that electing a new president during a time of war was a recipe for disaster.
Get off your high horse.
In medieval times, people of noble birth rode the best horses, which were generally bigger, stronger, and taller. To ride a high horse was to be in a higher position, both physically and economically, and it afforded the rider the ability to talk down to less privileged people. We now use the phrase to refer to any instance in which someone affects an air of moral superiority.
Pee like a racehorse.
The fact is, horses urinate a lot. The average adult male horse can urinate up to two gallons per day, and the bigger the horse, the more they go (in terms of both frequency and volume of output). In the 1970s, horse trainers began using diuretic drugs on their horses before races, believing that an empty bladder would make the horse lighter on its feet and, in turn, faster. Our popular notion of “peeing like a racehorse” refers to these horses’ evacuating their bladders in massive quantities before they compete.
Straight from the horse’s mouth.
Race tracks and betting parlors are full of hot tips about which horse is most likely to win, and tips that come from trainers, owners, jockeys—those closest to the horse itself—are considered the most credible. Firsthand tips from this inner circle are the next-best thing to hearing them from the horse itself.
Hold your horses.
This expression probably originated in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century America, when westward expansion was conducted almost entirely on horseback, but it also has roots in racing parlance. Skilled horsemen and jockeys knew how to keep their animals from running amok when they were anxious to get moving. (You could say that the horses were “chomping at the bit.”) To “hold one’s horses” was to keep them steady and patient while they were waiting to go.
To celebrate Derby Day, pour another mint julep, tie on your most stylish hat, and get ready to watch this year’s group of enthusiastic equines make history. But to them, of course, it’s all just horseplay.