The Origins of 12 Horse-Related Idioms

Horse idioms are fun!
Horse idioms are fun! / Peter Meade/Moment/Getty Images (horse); Justin Dodd (speech bubble)

Horses own the winner’s circle in English idioms. But where did these popular phrases originate?

1. “Hold your horses!“

When it originated: 800 BCE

A line in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus—you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” (Although the original 1598 translation has it as “Contain thy horses!”)

2. “Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.“

When it originated: 380 BCE

This idiom is so old that when St. Jerome translated the New Testament, he included it in the introduction: “Equi donati dentes non inspiciuntur.”

3. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.“

When it originated:  1175

One of the oldest aphorisms in English, this adage was first recorded in the Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken.” A modern version appeared in the 1602 play Narcissus: “They can but bringe horse to the water brinke / But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.”

4. “Horseplay“

When it originated:  1580s

In the 16th century, horse was a common adjective describing anything strong, big, or coarse. Along with horseplay, that’s how horseradish got its name.

5. “A horse of a different color.“

When it originated:  1600s

In Act II, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Maria says, “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.” It’s believed the phrase evolved from there or that the idiom already existed and the Bard was twisting it.

6. “Beat a dead horse.“

When it originated:  1640s

In the 17th century, sailors were paid in advance and promptly blew their checks on booze. The ensuing period of work was called dead horse time. Since they didn’t have the promise of a paycheck for motivation, most sea dogs were woefully unproductive.

7. “Eat like a horse.“

When it originated:  18th century

Horses eat a lot. They're meant to graze continually, and on average, a 1000-pound horse should eat about 20 pounds of hay each day.

8. “Get off your high horse.“

When it originated: 1780s

Being told you were on a high horse used to be a compliment: Only soldiers and royalty rode tall war chargers. Then, as people lost respect for the high and mighty during the revolutions of the late 1700s, the high horse was seen as uppity.

9. “Dark horse“

When it originated: 1830s

Not a reference to the Katy Perry song, the word dark was Victorian era lingo describing anything unknown. Dark horse was popular racing slang for an unfamiliar trotter that won a race.

10. “One horse town“

When it originated:  1850s

Settled in the 1840s, the village of One Horse Town in Shasta County, California, was a regular stop for gold miners [PDF]. Legend has it that Jack Spencer’s ole gray mare was the only horse around.

11. “Charley horse“

When it originated: 1850s

This one's origin is a bit unclear. But according to one theory, in the 19th century, old horses were used to drag the infield dirt at baseball stadiums. Whenever a ballplayer cramped up, they were compared to the grounds crew of limping equines.

12. “Chomp/champ at the bit.“

When it originated:  1920s

A bit rests inside the horse’s mouth and is controlled by the reins. Impatient or anxious horses tend to anxiously chew on their bits.

This story originally ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2022.