Continuing with the theme of where sayings originate it is hardly surprising that many are connected with horses. After all they were the sole means of transport on land for centuries.
Unbridled means uncontrollable but keeping a tight rein and holding the reins means being in control. Reining in means dampening enthusiasm and hold your horses means keeping calm. When the driver of a team of horses has them under control he has them in hand. The word curb may well have derived from a type of bit called a curb designed for greater control over the animal. A horse would be spurred into action with spurs attached to the rider’s boots. Excitable horses champ at the bit and one wishing to gain control will get the bit between its teeth.
Horses often had their front legs loosely tied together with rope to prevent them running away although they could still move in a restricted way. This was known as hobbling giving rise to the word describing someone who is unable to walk properly. A horse’s teeth continually grow and the age can be estimated by this. Being long in the tooth shows it is elderly. You shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth as it’s rude to appear to be checking its age and therefore its value. Straight from the horse’s mouth indicating inside knowledge arose from those who cared for horses daily and knew their charges well. A dark horse stems from the horse racing industry when very little is known about a certain animal.
When riders received assistance in mounting a horse they are given a leg up. Only soldiers and royalty would ride big horses from which they looked down on the peasants. They were on their high horse.
If you’re burdened by something you are saddled with it. Being on shank’s pony means being on foot- the shank being the part of the leg between the ankle and knee.
Horses are playful, big and rough – hence horseplay. But working horses are intelligent so if you are sensible then you are gifted with horse sense. A horse consumes a large quantity of food hence the term eats like a horse. Donkeys can live to a great age, maybe 50 years giving rise to donkey’s years.
Working and war horses had nails fixed into their shoes to give them a better grip on slippery surfaces from which the term riding rough shod over someone originates.
A few sayings are self explanatory. Shutting the door after the horse has bolted means it’s too late. Put the cart before the horse getting things the wrong way round. Flogging a dead horse will get you nowhere and horses don’t build nests so you’d never find a mare’s nest. And we all know about leading a horse to water but not being able to make him drink!
Two familiar words not connected with horses are ‘nightmare’ and ‘bridegroom’. Their origins trace back to 15th century Old English words