In the October issue my article was about our strong equine heritage, and how so many horse phrases have become a colorful part of our language. In the meantime, readers have supplied me with a few more that are explored below:
Long in the tooth: An old time phrase applied to someone getting on in years. A young adult horse has teeth that are about 4 inches long. Most of that length is below the gum line where you can’t see it. As horses age, more of the tooth emerges from the gums, in both the upper and lower jaws. The incisors in horses past 25 are noticeably long and give rise to the expression, long in the tooth.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth: This is sort of related to the long toothed horse. It means that if someone gives you a gift, don’t critically examine it because, after all, the price was right! The gift horse may be very old, and the way to check is by opening his mouth and checking the teeth to estimate age. (For more on the subject of aging by teeth, see the article “How Old” in the archived articles section on the web site below). Gift horses often have problems that in the end don’t make them the bargain they seemed to be.
Saddlebags: You need things on that long ride you are taking, and the saddle has always been a handy place to hang bags and pouches. When those containers are full, it makes the saddle bulge out to the sides. It became natural to apply the term to someone (usually women) whose thighs have a bit of extra off to the sides.
Founder: This is a word that goes back to the days of wooden sailing ships. Ships getting too close to shore were always in danger of a sudden wind driving them onto the rocks. The ships would break apart, and were said to have foundered. Founder in horses can also mean disaster. A horse with the inflammatory disease of the feet called laminitis may reach a point in which the coffin bone rotates within the hoof capsule. This is founder. It is very painful, and even with advanced treatments and surgery, some horses, like the old sailing ships, become irreparable. Founder was the end of two Kentucky Derby champions, Secretariat, some 20 years ago, and just a few years ago, the colt Barbaro, who foundered weeks after his fractured leg was repaired and healing.
Take the bit between your teeth: Most everyone with time in the saddle has at one time or another has had the scary surprise of having a horse take off and pay no attention to the bit. I’ve checked with three excellent professional riders from different disciplines, and they all agree that the horse doesn’t literally take the bit in his teeth. But they can set their jaws and pay no attention to you or the bit. The phrase used in every day talk means someone who has cut off all restraints and goes full speed straight ahead on a headlong course. An example would be, “She ignored everyone’s advice, took the bit in her teeth and ran with the project”. I found a song with the title “Take that Bit Between your Teeth” by the European rock group, Electrane. The lyrics have nothing to do with horses, bits, teeth, or taking charge. I guess the group just likes the phrase.
The old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be: We sometimes hear this phrase, taken from a very old song, and it is usually refers to a woman who might be getting “long in the tooth.” One interesting fact about gray horses, of either sex, is that as they get older they tend to get melanomas, tumors of the melanin cells that produce the pigment that makes gray horses that color. Melanomas are so common in grays that you can pretty much count on an older one getting them eventually. They are often round and tend to grow in bunches. Melanomas in horses usually benign. In people they are often malignant.
There are many more phrases taken from our horse world that are in common use. If more ideas are suggested, I will write a future article on this interesting subject.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM