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10 common expressions that have their origins in horses

Updated: Mar 14

Horses have played an important role in human history for thousands of years, from transportation and agriculture to sports and recreation. As a result, it's no surprise that the English language is filled with expressions and idioms related to horses. Here are some common expressions that you might not know are related to horses.

1. 'Level headed' - refers to a person being calm or making sensible decisions and comes from the fact that a calm horse will travel with their head level with their wither if you watch them from the side.

2. 'Won hands down' - means to win easily, and refers to a horse in a race that is so far ahead that the jockey loosens the reins before the finish.

3. 'Down to the wire', meaning a result that is not known until the very end, is another expression from horse racing. Long before we had photo finishes, a wire was strung across the track to help judges determine which horse finished first.

4. A 'shoe-in', originally spelled as 'shoo-in' - referring to a guaranteed winner, refers to rigged horse races where the predetermined winning horse is 'shooed' across the winning line by the other jockeys, who deliberately hold their horses back.

5. 'Off-side'. Being in the wrong area of the field of play in sports is often referred to as being 'off-side'. This is a reference to approaching a horse from the wrong side to mount. We mount our horses from the left side, because, originally, military officers wore their sword scabbards on their left hip so that they could draw it with their right hand, and it was easier to mount the horse throwing the right leg over, which is the side not inhibited by the sword.

6. 'Long in the tooth' refers to being older. Horses' teeth erupt throughout their lifetime, so a geriatric horse has longer teeth than a younger one.

7. 'Looking a gift horse in the mouth' is another age-related idiom. It refers to checking a horse's age, and indicates being suspicious or ungrateful for a donation or offering.

8. A 'sidekick', or close associate. While some sources suggest the expression is from pick-pocketing slang, other sources suggest it's a friend who rides so close to your horse that they kick it in the side as you move along.

9. 'Falling off the wagon'. This originally referred to horse-drawn water carts used to spray down dusty roads early in the morning. The idea was that if you were on the water wagon, it was a commitment to your sobriety, and falling off the wagon referred to a lapse.

10. 'Riding shotgun'. This refers to sitting next to the driver of a stage coach, armed, in order to protect the coach and its occupants from bandits or hostile inhabitants of the land you are passing through.

Many of our common idioms come from our long association with horses in our daily lives.

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