These sayings are so common that you might never have thought about where they actually originated, but they all have their roots firmly in the horsey world, particularly hunting and racing.
1. Get off your high horse — we use this to mean that someone should stop being arrogant or overbearing. The roots of the expression could go back as far as the 16th Century, and probably refer to the fact that people who were mounted on big horses were probably in a position of power or authority.
2. Win hands down — like lots of other expressions, this one has its origins on the racecourse. Once they thought they were certain to win, jockeys would lower their hands and allow the horses to stretch as they crossed the line.
3. Front runner — another term from the racing world, it’s now understood to mean the leading candidate or competitor most likely to win. Originally, though, it just meant a horse who liked to run at the front and did best in that position.
4. If something ‘gets your goat’ — this is understood to mean that you’re annoyed by it. The origin of this rather bizarre expression may have been from racing, where nervous thoroughbreds sometimes had goats put in their stables as companions. A horse not running his best may have been because someone else had ‘got his goat’.
5. Riding roughshod — if you ‘ride roughshod’ over someone, then you’ve upset them and had no consideration for their feelings. The phrase dates back to at least the 17th century, when some horses were ‘roughshod’ with protruding nailheads underneath the shoe to give them extra grip on soft ground.
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6. Red herring — we understand this to mean a distraction or diversion from the topic under discussion, but it has its origins in fox hunting when a ‘red herring’ (herring smoked for a long time so that it turns dark red) was sometimes used to lay an alternative scent for hounds to distract them from their main quarry.
7. Hobson’s choice — nowadays we take this to mean that there’s only one option on offer, so it’s not a real choice at all. The origin of the phrase lies with 17th Century Cambridge livery yard owner Thomas Hobson, who when hiring horses to customers wouldn’t let them pick them own mount. Instead, they had to take the horse nearest the door, which was ‘Hobson’s choice’.
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