From the horse’s mouth

One of man’s best animal friends has inspired many English idioms, including a few relating to our bodies.

WHEN people think of horses, words like majestic, independent, spirited, powerful and fast, would probably spring to mind.

The horse has a long association with humankind, dating back thousands of years.

It was one of the few animals successfully domesticated by our ancestors, who first used them for their meat and milk.

But their usage soon expanded to farming and transportation, as humans progressed from bring nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.

It may be hard to remember now, considering how ubiquitous vehicles have become around the world, but before the early 20th century when mass production of the automobile was established, the main mode of transport for mankind was the horse.

Of course, other animals like donkeys and camels also played their part in moving humans around, but it was the horse that mankind favoured the most.

In fact, it is probably fair to say that the horse is man’s second best friend, after the dog.

Evidence of this close relationship can be found in the many horse-related idioms that sprinkle the English language up to today.

Here, we take a look at some of those idioms that have a link to our bodies.

A charley horse

Have you ever experienced sudden painful muscle spasms or cramps?

Although often associated with athletic activities, most people would have also experienced a night-time charley horse in bed while lying down.

It frequently strikes out of the blue, and can be extremely painful. Usually affecting the legs, the group of muscles involved often feel rock-hard to the touch.

According to the United States National Institutes of Health’s website MedlinePlus, muscle spasms often occur when the muscle is overused or injured, and can be caused by exercising with not enough fluids, low levels of minerals like potassium and calcium, and irritated nerves.

One of the reasons people are encouraged to do warm-up and cool-down exercises before and after their actual exercise routine or sports game is to prevent such spasms or cramps.

There is no specific treatment for a charley horse, although they usually resolve on their own within seconds to minutes.

The best thing to do during this time is to try to relax and stretch the affected muscles, and massage them. The application of heat through a wet warm cloth is also often used to help ease the pain.

The term “charley horse” comes from North America and can be traced back to 1886.

While the general consensus is that it comes from baseball slang, no one knows its exact origin or even whether an actual horse is involved or not.

I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse

This phrase is obviously a metaphor for extreme hunger.

Its origins are also unclear, although there are many theories as to how it first came to be.

One popular theory suggests that the huge amount of meat on a horse is the source of this saying. (The average weight of a horse ranges from 200 to 800kg, depending on its breed.)

Another theory refers to the crucial role horses played in transportation before automobiles became easily available.

Because horses were the main mode of human transportation before the early 20th century, eating a horse would have been considered as a last-resort measure, only to be considered when a person has run out of food and is so hungry that they would be willing to kill their means of transportation.

He eats like a horse

Horses eat a lot – up to 3.5% of their body weight, depending on their daily activities and diet. This translates to about 7-28kg of food a day, depending on the breed of the horse.

Unlike other domesticated herbivores like cattle, which have a four-compartment stomach and regurgitate their food to facilitate further digestion, the horse’s digestive system only consists of one stomach, with no allowance for regurgitation – more closely resembling us omnivorous humans.

Due to this comparatively less efficient digestive setup, horses are naturally inclined to eat more, leading to the saying. “He eats like a horse” to indicate someone who eats a lot.

Work like a horse

Aside from carrying humans around, horses have also been used to pull all sorts of vehicles and farming equipment for centuries.

Without horses pulling the ploughs, cultivators, harrows, mowers and other farming equipment, our ancestors would have had a much tougher time growing their crops.

Horses were also invaluable in transporting goods, either as pack animals or by pulling carts and wagons, as well as moving carriages and chariots around.

These equines are without doubt, the hardest working animals mankind has domesticated, and this is reflected in the saying, “work like a horse”, which means to work very hard.

Also related is the phrase “strong as a horse”, while the term “no sweat”, which means being able to do something easily, refers to a horse’s ability to do hard work without breaking into a sweat.

Horse sense

This term does not refer to the intelligence of horses, but rather the humans who deal with them.

A person with a good horse sense, in the literal meaning of the term, is someone who has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about horses through a long association with these animals.

Therefore, when used metaphorically, someone described as having “horse sense” is seen to have good practical judgement, which has developed through life experience, rather than a formal education.

Strangely, the term “cow sense”, which many of us use to mean common sense, actually does refer to horses.

Stock horses ridden by cowboys (and also cowgirls) to herd cattle need to be able to instinctively anticipate and react to the movement of cattle – an ability referred to as cow sense.

Hung like a stallion

Penis size is often a matter of some concern to men, tied up as it is with their self-image and sexual confidence.

So, most men would probably be thrilled to be described as being “hung like a stallion”, which indicates that they are well-endowed in that area.

This metaphor comes from the large penis of the stallion, which measures an average of about 50cm (20 inches) in length and 2.5-6cm in diameter.

During erection, the stallion’s penis roughly doubles in length, while the glans or head of the penis enlarges by about three to four times.

A related, but far less used phrase, “fussing like a mare in heat”, describes being sexually aroused.

Getting a bit long in the tooth

As horses age, their teeth turn to grow, then wear down in specific patterns, allowing those experienced with horses to guess their age with some accuracy up to a certain point.

One of these dental patterns include the increasing length of a horse’s teeth as it gets older, caused by the initial rate of tooth growth outpacing that of it being worn down through usage, as well as the eventual receding of the gums. Hence, the usage of the above phrase to describe something that is aging or getting old.

The practice of judging a horse’s age through checking its teeth is also the origin of the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which exhorts the listener to avoid being an ungrateful gift recipient.

This is because it would be rude to receive a horse as a gift and then, promptly check its mouth to determine how old it is.

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From the horse’s mouth


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