Horse Sayings

Following is a list of various horse sayings, with definitions. If you know of any others, please contact us. As we find new idioms or expressions related to horses, we will add them below, with explanations.

Back the Wrong Horse - When faced with a number of choices, to choose the wrong one. For example 'I joined John's election campaign but he lost, unfortunately I backed the wrong horse'. This idiom comes from the horse racing phrase 'To bet on the wrong horse'.

Beat a Dead Horse - Waste time or effort on something which cannot succeed. The background of this is that people would often beat horses to make them work harder or go faster, but if the horse is dead then beating it is just a waste of time and effort. Occurs in multiple forms 'beat a dead horse', 'no use beading a dead horse', 'flog a dead horse', 'no use flogging a dead horse'. For example 'John will never fly to Spain since he is terrified of airplanes, trying to convince him is just beating a dead horse'.

Cart Before the Horse - Things need to be done in the correct order. Often used in the longer form of 'put the cart before the horse' or 'putting the cart before the horse'. For example, 'You need to empty the garage before cleaning it, trying to clean it and then throwing out the rubbish is putting the cart before the horse'. The origin of the term refers to the fact that one attaches a cart behind the horse so that the horse can pull it; one could attach a cart in front of the horse but this arrangement would be much more difficult and inefficient.

Champing at the Bit - To be eager to do something, to be fustrated by delay or restraint. For example 'I told the children they could go later but they are champing at the bit to go now.'. The origin of the expression is the tendency of horses to champ at their restraining bit when nervous or being held back.

Change Horses in Midstream - To change one's mind about something when it is too late to change or to try a different approach when it is too late to change. For example 'He invited one girl to the prom dance and then tried to take a different one; you can't change horses midstream.'. Term refers to riding a horse through a river; when you are half way across (midstream) it is too late to change to a different horse.

Charley Horse - A cramp, stiffness or spasm in a muscle. Most often used for a muscle in the upper leg, particularly if caused by over-exertion.For example 'I sometimes get a charley horse if I run without warming up first.'.

Dark Horse - Someone who wins a competition (or does unexpectedly well), despite not being well known and not being expected to win. Originally a racing term to describe a horse which wins a race despite being less well known than the other horses in the race. Also used in the sense of someone who might win a competition even though they are not the favorite. For example 'He isn't well known but I think he has a good chance of winning; he is a bit of a dark horse.'.

Dog and Pony Show - Used to describe a presentation where the item or subject being presented is less interesting or less useful than indicated. For example, 'The meeting was supposed to describe a new sales strategy which will turn the company around, but it was really just the same old approach. It was really just a dog and pony show.' The term dates back to the 1800s, when touring circuses were common. Some of the smaller circuses could not afford exotic animals or performers, so offered only dog and pony tricks. Such circuses were often a disappointment to people who were expecting more when a circus came to town, especially since advance publicity often implied more interesting performances. Consequently, the term 'dog and pony show' came to be used for a presentation, speech or other exhibition which disappointed by offering less than what people expected based on advance publicity or based on the presenter's claims.

Eats Like a Horse - To eat a lot. For example 'I've never seen someone go through so much food, he eats like a horse.'. Sometimes used in conjunction with the expression 'eats like a bird', which has the opposite meaning.

Feeling His Oats - Used to describe someone who is acting more energetic than usual, or even exessively energetic. See Horse Grains and Food & Horse Behavior for explanation of how feeding oats (grain) changes horse behavior.

Flog a Dead Horse - See above definition of 'Beat a Dead Horse'.

From the Horse's Mouth - To hear something direct from the person concerned or responsible, rather than second-hand information. For example 'It isn't just a rumor that the factory will close, I was there when the boss said it, so I heard it direct from the horse's mouth'. The saying originally came from horse racing, where it was believed that the best tips came from the people working with the horses (trainers and handlers), so if one hears it from the horse itself then the information is even more direct and certain. For example 'I got a racing tip yesterday, and if it wasn't straight from the horse's mouth, it was the next closest thing'.

Healthy as a Horse - To be very healthy. For example 'He never gets sick, he is healthy as a horse'. A similar expression which is often used in the same sense is 'Healthy as an Ox'.

High Horse - An attitude of arrogant superiority. For example 'Get off your high horse, you are no better than us'. The expression comes from the time when mainly the upper class rode horses, so someone on a horse would act arrogant and superior when dealing with the average person and of course be higher than the average person both literally and socially.

Hold Your Horses - A request to wait. For example 'I know that you want to leave immediately, but please hold  your horses.'. It is often used when someone is rushing into something, without sufficient thought or preparation, in which case it is not only requesting that someone wait but also that they are more careful with a decision or action.

Hoof It - Slang expression, usually means 'to walk' or 'to walk quickly'. See Hoof It for details.

Horse Around - To engage in childish play or frivolous activity. For example 'Stop horsing around and get back to work' or 'The children didn't mean to break anything, they were just horsing around and had an accident'.

Horse of a Different Color - An unrelated or irrelevant matter. Can also mean something which has a different significance or answer. For example, 'I can work all day, but working at night is a horse of a different color'. Another form of the expression is 'horse of another color'.

Horse Sense - Used to mean common sense. For example 'He may not be that smart but he has loads of horse sense.'.

Horses for Courses - One needs to use the correct tool, person or approach for the situation. For example 'If you need it done quick then Joe is your man and if you need it done perfectly then Steve is the guy; horses for courses'. The expression originates in horse racing, where there are different types of courses (e.g. short versus long, flat versus jumping) and each type of course requires a different type of horse, so a horse which does well in one type of course would not be suitable for another. This expression is frequently used in the UK but is relatively unknown in the USA. The reverse expression 'courses for horses' is sometimes used.

If Wishes Were Horses - The full expression is 'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.'. Used to advise people (especially adults advising children) to stop wishing for what they don't have and be content with what they do have. Can also be used in the sense of advising someone to stop wishing but instead to work and earn what they want.

Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth - Normally part of the longer expression 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.', which means that one should accept a gift gratefully rather than criticizing it for being imperfect. The expression comes from the fact that one used to examine a horse's teeth to evaluate its age and health (in other words, its value). So, to look a gift horse in the mouth would be to question the value of a gift. For example 'His father gave him a car for his birthday but he complained that the tires were worn; he shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.'.

Pony Up - Slang for 'to pay'. Expression is mainly confined to USA. 

Ride Roughshod Over - To treat someone harshly and without concern for their welfare. For example 'They repossessed his house and threw him out while he was still packing; they certainly rode roughshod over him.'. A roughshod horse was one that still had nails sticking out of its shoes (perhaps to improve traction on soft ground) so being rode over by a roughshod horse would be a particularly painful and damaging experience.

Straw Horse - Can be used in various senses, such as 'a tentative or unsure proposal'. See Straw Horse for detailed explanation.

Trojan Horse - Something dangerous which is hidden inside something which appears safe or beneficial. The origin of the expression dates back to war between Greece and Troy in the mid-13th century BC, when the Greeks built a large wooden horse and left it outside the gates of Troy as an offering. However, the Greeks had hidden soldiers within the wooden horse, so when the Trojans (inhabitants of Troy) pulled the gift horse into their city, the soldiers came out at nightfall and opened the gates for the Greek army, allowing them to capture the city of Troy. A more modern use of the expression is 'trojan horse virus', which is a computer software virus which is hidden inside of useful software packages, so when people download the useful software to their computers, the virus is able to enter and access the computer.

You can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink - You can give someone good advice but you can't make them take it. The expression comes from the fact that horses will often not drink unfamiliar water (e.g. if they are away from home), even if they are thirsty and need to drink. As a sample of the expression 'I told him how to save a lot of money but he wasn't interested. Well, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.'.

War Horse - Used to describe a person who has done something many times and can be depended on. The full term is 'old war horse'. The term reputedly dates to the mid-1600s, to describe a horse which has been in many battles and proved himself dependable (e.g. by not spooking or running away from battle noise). For example, 'My mechanic is an old war horse, he always finds and fixes the problem.'. 

Work Like a Horse - To work very hard, or long hours, or both. For example 'I have been working like a horse to finish everything before the deadline.'.

Work Horse - Used to describe a hard working individual, especially in comparison to others (e.g. 'John is the work horse of the department, he does twice as much as any other two people.'). Sometimes used to describe an individual who is hard working but not gifted in terms of ability or intellect (e.g. 'Jamie is not our most imaginative employee, but he is a real work horse.'). Previously used to describe a horse which is used primarily for labour (such as a plough horse) rather than more skilled but less taxing activities (e.g. riding or racing), which provides the background for this expression when applied to people. The term 'work horse' is sometimes incorrectly used in place of 'sawhorse'.