We have the most amazing horse heritage in this country. Do you realize that back in the early 1900’s there was 1 horse for every 4 people! Every day saw gridlock on the streets of big cities like Boston and New York where thousands of carts and wagons were pulled by horses. In their amazing book, The Horse in the City, authors McShane and Tarr display photographs of the horse crowded streets. They describe horses at the time as “indispensible…providing the muscle for vehicles that moved freight, transported passengers, fought fires and were the power in breweries, mills, foundries, and machine shops.” Horses were called “living machines”, and sadly, were often treated as such.
Our equine heritage continues today, although we use them differently and abuse them less. With exceptions most people see horses as living beings and not machines. Also the ratio of horse to people has changed; there is 1 equine for every 34 of us, but there are actually more horses in the US today than in 1900. In fact, the United States in 2009 has more horses than any country on earth!
It’s no wonder that horse sayings are so much a part of our culture. Here are a few examples, with backgrounds on each.
Horse power: When steam engines were first invented, they were used as pumps to pull the water out of deep coal mines. In the 1800’s a Scottish inventor by the name of James Watt made that engine much more efficient. Then, to increase sales, he coined the term horsepower. He watched horses work and calculated that a fit horse was capable of pulling a load of 330 pounds of coal up from a mine through a pulley system at the rate of 100 feet a minute. He called that one horsepower. Imagine a machine that could replace 10, 100, or if large enough, even 1000 horses! Businesses of the day with stables of many working animals were quick to change to mechanical power. Today the capacity for work in everything from garden tractors to aircraft carriers and the planes they carry is still measured in terms of horsepower. Incidentally, a fit human can produce a steady 1/10 horse power.
Vetting: This term was originally used in horse racing. Every horse was checked or “vetted” by a veterinarian to see if it was healthy and sound before being allowed to race. The word is often used in politics. A political party will thoroughly “vet” or investigate candidates for office to make sure that they are competent and don’t have a history that might later prove embarrassing. Businesses should be thoroughly vetted before one buys their stock or relies on their guarantees. In today’s horse world the term is short hand for a pre-purchase exam before the sale. In the buying of horses as in politics and business, sometimes things don’t show up on the vetting, and that’s when things get interesting.
Hungry as a horse: Go by any horse pasture and you’ll see the heads down. It’s no surprise to horse owners that their animals spend a significant amount of time eating. The horse stomach is relatively small, and is usually trouble free if there is some roughage in there to work on 24/7. If you deprive a horse of fiber for even a couple of hours, the stomach acids start to irritate the stomach lining. This is one of the primary causes of ulcers and has become a big problem today when horses are left at home alone all day and run out of roughage.
“I have to pee like a race horse”: Right after a horse wins a race he is taken to the “urine stall”, where his or her urine is collected and analyzed for drugs. It’s midnight, long after the last race, and the horse and groom would like to go home, but are required to stay until the collection is done. That’s the reason that race horses are trained, from the time they are quite young, to urinate “on demand”. This is done by grooms whistling and shaking the bedding in their stalls whenever they see a youngster take position to urinate. The training takes, and after a while the race horse will urinate when prompted. So, the term comes from race horses that seem to be able to “pee” anytime they are asked. Today many horses legally race on the drug Lasix, which is a potent diuretic that has been shown to markedly decrease lung bleeders on the track. A side result of that is that after the race these horses may be more than ready to urinate.
There are many more horse terms that get used by us every day. If you have one you’d like explored, email me at Contact Us at the web site below, and we’ll try to include it in a future article.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM