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Equestrian terms and phrases found in everyday English

A false start. (An improper beginning).

Also ran. (Started but did not win).

Back-in-the-saddle. (To resume one’s duty).

Bobtail. (In the 19th century it was considered socially fashionable to cut a horse’s tail off close to his body. This abbreviated style left a short hairy stump which did not get entangled in the carriage driver’s reins. Because the horse uses his tail to drive away insects, early animal rights advocates had this custom outlawed. The term now refers to anything which has been shortened).

Bucking the saddle off. (Quitting out of disgust and the job isn’t done).

Cavalier. (A gallant mounted gentleman. To have a cavalier attitude means to maintain a haughty disregard for others).

Chomping at the bit. (A horse chomps at the bit when he is eager to run. Hence a person who is enthusiastic).

Circle the wagons. (Take defensive action against deadly opponents).

Circuit Court and Circuit Judge. (Circuit court judges spent days riding on horseback from one remote county court house to another. U.S. President John Adams always fondly recalled riding the circuit as one of the most enjoyable aspects of his early law practice).

Curb someone's enthusiasm. (Refers to the curb bit used to restrain a horse from running away).

Cut the traces, kicking over the traces, or slipping the traces. (Traces refers to the long reins used by ploughmen to control their work horses. When a horse managed to evade the traces, he had effectively gained his freedom).

Dark horse. (In older political texts a "dark horse cavalry” referred to a sinister group of political opponents).

Dismounted drill. (Army term of practicing on foot).

Don't beat a dead horse. (Over emphasizing a point).

Don't bridle when I say this. (Don’t take offense).

Don't change horses in the middle of a stream. (Don’t alter your opinion quickly).

Don't flog a dead horse. (Desist in your actions or opinion).

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. (If you looked in a horse’s mouth so as to ascertain the age of the animal, you were acting in a suspicious manner about the proffered gift of the animal).

Don't put the cart before the horse. (To do things in their proper order).

Dragooned. (When someone is drafted into a project against their will).

Esquire. (A reference to a knight’s squire, who served in an apprentice capacity. In later years the term was used to designate a gentleman. The British sometimes used the abbreviation Esq.).

Feeling his oats. (Joyous).

Frisky as a colt. (Overjoyed).

Fussin' like a mare in heat. (Sexually aroused).

Get checked. (To curtail someone’s enthusiasm).

Getting a leg up. (Originally meant to assist someone in mounting. Today it implies helping someone start a project).

Hack. (Originally a term designating a horse hired out for short day rides. It is now commonly used to designate a taxi, which is also hired for short rides).

Haven't seen him for donkeys years. (Because donkeys live up to 50 years, a reference to a long passage of time).

Hay burner. (A derogatory early 20th century term for horses. It came into use at the advent of the automobile age, as fans of the mechanical contrivance expressed their contempt for horses).

He's got a burr under his saddle. (When someone is angry about something).

Hit the trail. (Begin a lengthy project or journey).

Hobbled. (Hobbles are leather manacles used to restrain horses from running away while grazing. Thus to hobble someone meant to curtail their actions or options).

Hold your horses. (Restrain yourself).

Home Stretch. (A racing term designating the last portion of a difficult project).

Horse face. (Horses have a long head, hence this reference to their physical appearance).

Horse feathers. (While certain types of draft horses have long silky hair growing along their legs, this term is used to refer to something which is physically impossible. Another example would be “rare as chicken’s teeth,” as birds have no teeth inside their beaks).

Horse latitudes. (Subtropical latitudes between 30 and 35 degrees both north and south. Because sailing ships were often becalmed in these windless areas, horses being shipped to the New World aboard ship died in this area. Thus this watery graveyard was named by old time mariners to commemorate this area of equine tragedy).

Horse of a different colour. (Something unknown and thereby suspicious).

Horse power (A measure of working capability transferred from the equine age to the mechanical era).

Horse sense. (Common practical judgment, gained independently of a formal education).

Horsing around. (Young horses are playful and frisky).

Hung like a stallion. (A well endowed male).

In his stride. (A racing term meaning a person is doing well).

Jumpin' in the saddle. (Eager).

Jump on the band wagon. (To join a project after all hazards have been removed and it is deemed socially acceptable).

Just throw your heart over. (A term derived from fox hunting wherein a timid rider was urged to trust his more experienced mount, and when faced with an exceptionally tall hedge ‘to throw his heart over’ i.e. place his trust in his mount and take action).

Keeping a tight rein. (Maintaining tight control).

Lash out. (A term referring to how a horse kicks in anger or fear at a disagreeable object).

Lean into the collar. (A horse pulled the heavy wagon by leaning his shoulders against the opposing force of the heavy leather collar he wore around his neck. Thus, to lean into the collar means to give your enthusiastic support to a project).

Left at the gate. (A racing term implying that the person was left in confusion or fear at the beginning of a project).

Locking the stable door after the horse is gone. (Attempting to take action after the deed is done).

Mossy headed. (Referring to the white hair of age on a dark coloured horse).

Motor stables. (Army term meaning a garage).

My kingdom for a horse. (Uttered by King Richard III in Shakespeare’s play. It denotes an act of desperation).

No sweat. (Referring to the ability of a horse to do a job without breaking into a sweat. Hence, a person can do a project easily).

Off to a good start. (A racing term meaning a project has begun well).

One hand on the plough. (A casual manner, denoting haphazard leadership).

One-horse town. (A small village of no consequence).

On his high horse. (To act in an arrogant manner).

Paddy Wagon. (Horse-drawn police wagon used to transport “Paddys, a derogatory 19th century term used to define Irishmen prisoners).

Ploughboy. (A poor fellow of rural extraction).

Pony tail. (A girl’s hair style).

Pull up. (To stop a buggy or automobile).

Put out to pasture. (Retired).

Putting someone through their paces. (When a horse dealer was offering a horse for sale, a rider would demonstrate how the horse could do the various paces, i.e. walk, trot, canter or pace. The term implies that a possible candidate is being tested for basic knowledge).

Putting the cart before the horse. (To begin a project in the wrong order).

Reining somebody in. (Dampening their enthusiasm).

Riding shotgun. (To accompany another on a journey, or job, of questionable safety).

Rode hard and put away wet. (Treating a horse/person in a haphazard manner).

Rode roughshod. (To take action irregardless of the damage it causes the horse, or others).

Saddled with (a duty or obligation).

Saddle Up. (Begin an action).

Saw horse. (A beam with four legs used to support a board or plank for sawing).

Sending in the cavalry.  (A last minute rescue).

Shave tail. (An inexperienced army officer who has not “won his spurs").

She is getting a bit long in the tooth. (Horses get long in the tooth as they age).

Shoo in. (A racing term designating a known favorite).

Sold his saddle. (Meaning the person has quit a project).

Spitting the bit out. (Quitting when tired and the job isn't done).

Spurred into action. (Forced to take action).

Spurring somebody or something on. (Enthusiastic support).

Standing hitched. (Refers to a steady person who is dependable in a tight spot).

Staying in the buggy. (Not quitting when the ride gets wild).

Stitching horse. (A wooden bench equipped with an adjustable wooden vise, which a saddle maker uses to hold leather in place while stitching and constructing).

Straight from the horse's mouth. (Direct from the source).

Stop to change horses. (Taking a pause).

Stubborn as a mule. (Mules, unlike horses, are known for their determined obstinacy).

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. (He who protests, is acknowledged).

To catch wind of. (To detect an alarming occurrence).

To "curry favour" with someone. (Favore was the name of one of the God's horses. In order to obtain  preferred status, one would groom Favore, the God’s horse).

Trojan horse. (A tale in told Virgil’s Latin epic poem The Aeneid, the Trojan Horse was a large wooden animal constructed by the invading Greek army. The Trojan Horse was left in front of the gates of Troy, after the Greeks had apparently sailed away in defeat. Upon being drawn the city, the Trojans joy soon turned into tragedy, when Greek warriors emerged from inside the hollow horse. Having opened the city gates, the returning Greek army poured into Troy and destroyed the city and its people. A Trojan Horse refers to any gift of a dubious or dangerous nature. The term is often used today to refer to vicious computer viruses disguised to appear friendly).

True. (A horse was considered true when he could be relied upon to give his all for the job).

Turned out to paw. (Unlike cattle, who will not dig away snow so as to get at the grass underneath, horses will “paw” to find winter forage. The term means to allow a person to fend for themselves).

Unbridled.  (Uncontrollable).

Well in hand. (An expert driver of a team of horses pulling a wagon or coach was required to hold various reins leading to all of the horses. As the number of horses could vary, from two to forty, according to the work being done, having a situation ‘well in hand’ meant the person was an expert at his job).

Wheel horse. (A draft horse hitched close to the wheel because of his trusted ability to influence the course of action. It is now used to describe a solid, experienced person who is a good example to others).

When a mule foals. (An impossibility, as mules are sterile hybrids incapable of begetting offspring).

Winning your spurs. (Acknowledgment of having achieved a certain basic level of achievement. A young cavalry officer won his spurs after having demonstrated his leadership abilities).

You and the horse you rode in on. (The entire ensemble).

You can see who holds the reins in that family. ( A bossy wife).

With thanks to our equestrian comrades at the Society of the Military Horse.

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