Horses are wonderful creatures that have been domesticated and helped humans for thousands of years. Here is a list of interesting horse idioms that you might find entertaining and can share with your students.
Note that here on ESL Vault there are also some great horse conversation questions that you can use with this resource. While or after you have finished reading see if you can guess which horse idioms the pictures represent. Without further delay, saddle up and have a look at these fascinating expressions.
The idioms about horses are –
- A Horse of a different color
- Back the wrong horse
- Beat a dead horse
- Beaten at the post
- A Charley horse
- Chomp at the bit
- A dark horse
- Don’t change horses midstream
- Eat like a horse
- Enough to choke a horse
- Free rein
- Get back in the saddle
- Get off your high horse
- Hang up your spurs
- A hobby horse
- Hold the reins
- Hold your horses
- Horse and buggy days
- Horse around
- A horse doctor
- Horse sense
- Horse trading
- Horses for courses
- I could eat a horse
- Look a gift horse in the mouth
- A one-horse race
- A one-horse town
- Play the ponies
- Put through the paces
- Put the cart before the horse
- Put out to pasture
- Rein in
- Riding for a fall
- Ride roughshod
- Saddle someone with something
- A salt horse
- Going to see a man about a horse
- Spur of the moment
- Spur someone on
- Straight from the horse’s mouth
- As strong as a horse
- A warhorse
- A wheel horse
- Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
- Win by a nose
- Winning your spurs
- Work like a horse
- You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink
Now, let’s look at the meanings of these horse expressions and some example sentences.
1 – A horse of a different color is something that is completely different from another thing.
Example – It’s okay to think about buying a new car but thinking about buying a new house as well is a horse of a different color.
2 – If you back the wrong horse, you make the wrong choice. This comes from gambling and betting on a horse that doesn’t win a race.
Example – The company backed the wrong horse when they chose their new manager, he failed badly at his job.
3 – A person who tries to beat a dead horse tries to bring back a hopeless matter, continue an argument that has already been settled, or keep fighting for something that has already been won or lost.
Example – Yes, John. You have made your point and we all agree. Stop beating a dead horse.
4 – If someone is beaten or pipped at the post they are defeated or lose at the last moment. This comes from horse racing where at the final part of a race a horse comes from behind to narrowly win.
Example – The race car driver was winning all of the race but in the last 100m he was pipped at the post by another driver and came second.
5 – A Charley horse or Charlie horse is a muscle cramp. It is often used to describe a cramp or muscle spasm in the thigh or arm. This idiom originates from baseball it came from slang describing the players as the elderly horses that dragged the fields. The baseball players looked like retired horses when they limped with cramps.
Example – After 90 minutes of football, a lot of the players stopped and fell down with Charley horses.
Horse idioms part 2
6- To chomp or champ at the bit is to be anxious or impatient to do something. It can also simply mean that you are ready and eager. This is like a racehorse biting the bit in its mouth just before the race starts and the gates open.
Example – The children were champing at the bit to go home because the summer holidays started the next day.
7 – A dark horse is used to describe a person or team in a competition that not a lot of information is known about. They may not be talked about much and nobody really thinks they will win.
Example – The Italian swimmer is a dark horse to win the race, nobody has heard of her before.
8 – The expression don’t swap or don’t change horses in midstream means you should not make large changes once you have begun something. You should also choose a logical time to make changes and not to make changes or change your mind when it is too late.
Example – When they were on the plane to New York she said she wanted to go to Texas but they couldn’t change horses midstream.
9 – To eat like a horse means to eat a lot it can also mean to eat in a greedy way.
Example – Her teenage son eats like a horse, and she has to go shopping to buy more food twice a week.
10 – If you have enough to choke a horse of something you have a lot of it, usually too much of it.
Example – Did you see how much cheese he has in his refrigerator? It’s enough to choke a horse!
11 – A person who has free rein has absolute freedom to do or say what they want. This relates to a horse without reigns roaming free.
Example – Once everybody else had left the office she had free reign to do whatever she liked.
12 – To get back in the saddle or get back in the harness is to resume doing something after having a break from it.
Example – We have had a lovely vacation in Europe but now it is time to go home, get back in the saddle, and start working again.
13 – If a person tells you to come down off or get off your high horse, they are telling you to stop acting as if you are superior, better, or more intelligent than other people.
Example – The new staff member should get down off his high horse otherwise nobody in the office is going to like him.
Horse idioms part 3
14 – To hang up your spurs is to stop doing something completely or retire from a job.
Example – After 40 years of building houses he decided to hang up his spurs and stop working.
15 – A hobby horse is a topic that a person always wants to talk about. They try to bring other conversations around to this subject and are somewhat obsessed with it.
Example – Don’t start talking about sport around John, he’ll never stop talking about his hobby horse, football.
16 – To hold the reins is to be in control of something.
Example – It is easy to see who holds the reins in that family, his wife won’t even let him come to play cards tonight.
17 – We use the expression “hold your horses” to tell somebody to wait or slow down.
Example – I am not ready to go to the park yet, just hold your horses for 5 minutes while I get ready.
18 – The horse and buggy days refer to a time long ago in the past. This idiom is often used to say something is outdated.
Example – She still wears those kinds of dresses, I thought they went out with the horse and buggy.
19 – To horse around is to play in a silly or possibly rough way. It can also mean to joke.
Example – Quit horsing around John! We have a lot of work to do today.
20 – A horse doctor is rude slang for an ordinary doctor who is considered not to be very good at their job. It is like calling the doctor a veterinarian.
Example – I went to the horse doctor today and after 10 minutes she just gave me some pills to take.
21 – Horse sense is common sense, thinking and doing things in a practical manner.
Example – Use your horse sense when you are at the meeting and be careful of what you say.
22 – Horse trading is hard bargaining for a better price or financial outcome. This comes from horse traders who were known to be very shrewd dealers.
Example – They just did a good bit of horse trading, they sold their house for much more than it was worth and bought another one for a very cheap price.
Horse expressions part 4
23 – Horses for courses is used to say that different people are suited better to different places, situations, or things.
Example – On the weekends she likes to go shopping but her husband prefers to play golf, it is horses for courses I guess.
24 – The idiom I could eat a horse is used to express that you are very hungry and could eat a lot.
Example – It is 2 p.m., and I haven’t had breakfast or lunch. I am so hungry that I could eat a horse.
25 – A person who looks a gift horse in the mouth is ungrateful for something that they have been given.
Example – You should be nice to her after she helped you, never look a gift horse in the mouth.
26 – A one-horse race is used to describe a situation or competition where one person is almost certain to win.
Example – The football league is a one-horse race this year, and that team will win easily. No other team is even half as good as they are.
27 – A one-horse town is a very small town that doesn’t have a lot in it. There may be no activities to do, not many shops, and very few facilities in general. It is also a way of saying a town is boring.
Example – They went out west and lived in a one-horse town for a year. There were only 100 people in town and there was nothing to do besides work.
28 – To play the ponies or the horses is to gamble on horse racing.
Example – He has gone down the road to play the ponies today, I hope he doesn’t lose all his money again!
Horse idioms part 5
29 – If you demonstrate or test the ability of something you put it through its paces. This idiom can also be used with people.
Example – I am going down to the track tomorrow to watch Richard put his new motorbike through the paces.
30 – To put the cart before the horse means to do things in the wrong order or sequence, usually in a backward fashion.
Example – If you want to make that recipe you need to put the fish in last, not first. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
31 – To put a horse out to pasture is to force a person to retire from their position or job. This comes from working farm animals that were set free in fields when they were too old to work effectively.
Example – When john turned 63 the train company put him out to pasture and he became unemployed.
32 – If you rein in something you bring it under control or reduce it.
Example – You’d better rein in your spending if you want to save enough to go on holiday this summer.
33 – Someone who is riding for a fall is at risk of failing. Having an accident or getting hurt. This is often associated with a person being too confident in themselves and not seeing the risks.
Example – She needs to look after herself better, she is riding for a fall leading such an unhealthy lifestyle.
Horse idioms part 6
34 – To ride roughshod over something or someone is to treat it or them badly and with no respect.
Example – Tom is a terrible person the way he rides roughshod over his wife and treats her so badly.
35 – If you saddle someone with something you give them a burden to bear.
Example – She’s been saddled with work all week and just wants to stay home and sleep all day.
36 – A salt horse is an old expression rather dated expression that simply means beef that has been cured or preserved in salt. This is said to have originated from US sailors who ate beef that was so heavily salted that they couldn’t tell if it was beef or horse meat.
Example – The ship’s crew were miserable as they had eaten nothing but salt horse for the last week.
37 – If a person says that they are going to see a man about a horse, they are saying that they are leaving but don’t want to where they are going. This idiom can also be phrased as going to see a man about a dog.
Example – Where did Tim go? I am not sure, he said he was going to see a man about a horse.
Horse idioms part 7
38 – To do something at the spur of the moment is to do it suddenly without any planning or preparation.
Example – At the spur of the moment she decided to get in her car and drive to the lake.
39 – To spur someone on is to encourage them to continue moving forward or in a positive direction.
Example – The crowd spurred the team along to help them win the match.
40 – If information comes straight from the horse’s mouth it comes from someone directly involved in a situation or from a person of authority and is trusted and believed.
Example – Jim knows what will happen at work tomorrow. He got the information straight from the horse’s mouth.
41 – The animal simile as strong as a horse means to be very strong physically.
Example – The new worker at the factory is as strong as a horse, he can carry an engine all by himself.
42 – The idiom war horse or old war horse is used to describe a well-known performance that is always popular or successful.
Example – The band has been continuing to play that old war horse of a song at every concert for 10 years now.
Horse expressions part 8
43 – A wheel horse is a strong, reliable, and steady worker. This idiom is often used to describe people in politics.
Example – During the election campaign Jim was the wheel horse of the political party, he worked nonstop every day.
44 – The idiom wild horses couldn’t drag me away means that nothing could stop you from leaving. It is similarly used as wild horses couldn’t drag somebody to something. In this case, it means nothing will make somebody go somewhere or do something.
Example – He wanted his son to go to the beach with him but wild horses couldn’t drag him away from his computer games.
45 – To win by a nose is to just barely win or succeed at something, This originates from horse racing where a horse finishes first with only its nose in front of the second-placed horse at the finish post.
Example – She won the diving contest by a nose with the judges giving her only 1 more point than the second place diver.
46 – Winning your spurs is proving that you have certain skills and gaining recognition or some kind of reward for it. This can also be said as to earn your spurs.
Example – She earned her spurs by working as a kitchen hand for years before she became a chef.
47 – A person who works like a horse works very hard.
Example – She works like horse. She has 2 jobs and works 7 days a week.
48 – The expression you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink means that you can show somebody how to do something or give them an opportunity but you cannot force them to do it or take it.
Example – I offered to give him free lessons but it seems he doesn’t want to learn. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.