Horses have been an important part of human culture for about 10,000 years, so it's not surprising that we have a lot of English idioms that refer to horses.
This Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, which is considered the biggest horse racing event of the year in the United States. Twenty three-year-old thoroughbreds will race around a dirt track that’s one-and-a-quarter miles long. The race lasts only two minutes, but the winner will take home a cool $2 million.
Winners of the Kentucky Derby include legends like Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and War Admiral. And of course, the 2015 winner was the unfortunately named “American Pharoah” — misspelled as P-H-A-R-O-A-H, instead of properly with an -A-O-H.
Oh well. Even if Pharoah’s owner wasn’t a great speller, he had the sense to hire an amazing trainer. So kudos to him.
In any case, this week, we’re going to talk about idioms that come from horse racing—or at least horse riding.
Idioms Related to Making a Horse Speed Up: “to Spur,” “to Goad,” and “to Give Free Rein”
1. To Spur
First, there’s the expression to “spur someone on.” This means to encourage them or urge them ahead. This expression alludes to the practice of outfitting a rider’s heel with spurs—spikes or spiked wheels they can dig into a horse’s side, signaling it to start moving or go faster.
A related term is to do something “on the spur of the moment,” meaning to do it impulsively, without any prior planning. Imagine yourself as an innocent horse, leisurely carrying your rider, and then being jabbed in the side and lunging forward in response. That gives you a pretty good idea of where this idiom came from.
“Spur,” by the way, is a very old word, found recorded in some of the very oldest English texts we have. No surprise, since humans are believed to have started riding horses as far back as 10,000 years ago.*
2. To Goad
Another expression that means to urge someone on is to “goad” them. This expression, however, has a more sinister overtone. You could “spur someone” to start exercising, for example, by encouraging them and complimenting their progress.
But if you “goad them” to exercise more, you’d be tormenting them into doing it. You might make fun of them for being in bad shape or find ways to constantly remind them how weak they are.
That’s because the verb “to goad” is derived from the noun “goad,” which means a stick or rod with a sharp, pointy end. These were used to drive livestock along, often with the accompaniment of a whip. The first reference to “goad” being used in this way can be found in a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 10th century.† In contrast, the first reference to “goad” being used as a verb—either literally or figuratively—doesn’t show up until the 1500s.
3. To Give Free Rein
Finally, we have the concept of giving someone “free rein”; that is, giving them the freedom to do as they see fit. This idiom refers to riders loosening their horses’ reins and allowing them to walk at their own pace.
Idioms Related to Slowing a Horse Down: “to Rein In,” “to Hold Your Horses,” and “to Bridle”
Just as we have these idioms related to speeding up, we also have some related to slowing down.
Several of these allude to a rider pulling on a horse’s reins, signaling the horse to stop or slow down.
4. To Rein In
For example, we can “rein in” someone’s bad behavior. We can “put the reins” on an activity that’s moving too fast or is headed in the wrong direction. We can “keep a tight rein on” an unruly teenager. And we can “draw the reins in” on a venture that’s not going well.
All these expressions make even more sense when you know that the word “rein” came into English from the Latin word “retinēre,” meaning to hold back. When you’re reining someone in, you’re restraining them.
By the way, this type of rein is spelled R-E-I-N. That’s in contrast to R-E-I-G-N, a word that refers to the rule of a monarch. That word comes from the Latin “regnum,” meaning a kingship or the power of a king.
5. To Hold Your Horses
Another way we ask people to slow down or be patient is to tell them to “hold their horses.” This expression alludes to carriage drivers making their horses wait by holding tightly to the reins.
6. To Bridle
We can also “bridle” someone, meaning to curb, check, or restrain them. This, of course, refers to the placing of a bridle on a horse’s head. A bridle is usually fit with a metal bit that sits in the horse’s mouth; the riders pulls on the reins, which are attached to the bit, to guide or control the horse.
“To bridle” can also have an opposite meaning. When a horse is reined in, it will sometimes throw up its head and draw in its chin, so as to lessen the pull on its mouth. In the same way, a person can bridle when they feel offended. The expression suggests the way people might toss their head or raise their chin in an expression of pride, vanity, or resentment. In this sense, “bridling” alludes to resisting a bridle, rather than being controlled by it.
Other Idioms: Dark Horse, Champing at the Bit, and More
There are many other idioms related to horses, horse racing, and horse riding. We’ve talked about several of them before on the podcast, and you can find them all on quickanddirtytips.com. Just search for the word “horse” and you’ll find information on dark horses, champing at the bit, and lots of other information that comes straight from the horse’s mouth.
And if you watch the Kentucky Derby this weekend, enjoy your two minutes. I know I will!
† Bedingfield, M. Bradford. The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, page 13. The Boydell Press, 2002. Accessed April 25, 2019.
* Cohen, Jennie. Horse Domestication Happened Across Eurasia, Study Shows. History, August 22, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2019.
Ammer, Christine. Hold your horses, on the spur of the moment, spur on. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Horses (subscription required, accessed April 25, 2019).
Kentucky Derby website. Accessed April 25, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Bridle, goad, spur (subscription required, accessed April 25, 2019).
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