Horses, back in the days of yore, were humanity's primary mode of transportation. As a result, they've trotted and galloped all over the English language.
Despite the nobility of these beautiful beasts, not all the uses are flattering. Horses have helped name a boatload of nonsense. In addition to a popular word that is not family-friendly, there are terms such as horsefeathers, horse apples, and horse cookies. If you've ever seen a pile of literal horse cookies, you won't have to ask why these terms represent massive loads of drivel and rubbish.
In honor of National I Love Horses Day on July 15th, here's a look at some vocabulary words from the lexicon of horse-ology.
For even more equine lingo, check out this list: Horsin' Around
Jockey was originally a nickname for someone named Jock or John who was small, and it became a bit of an insult, kind of like pipsqueak. The word also took a professional turn, as a word for a person who rides a racehorse. To be a winning jockey, you kind of need to be a pipsqueak. A sumo wrestler might have a wonderful rapport with his horse, but his size would make winning impossible (or miraculous).
This is an ultra-specific word for a semi-specific horse speed: between a trot and a gallop. A trot is the equivalent of stroll: not fast at all. A gallop is full steam ahead. If you take a horse for a canter, you're moving between the casual speed of a trot and a full-bore gallop. Sometimes a canter is called an easy gallop, though I suppose you could also call it a hard trot. You'll have to make those decisions for yourself.
A running horse is a sight to behold: you seldom see a critter so big move so dang fast. The distinctive running style of horses — with the legs fully extended in each stride — is referred to as galloping. The word gallop has been around since the 1500s, and it can be a noun or verb. People can gallop too, but they aren't likely to match the grace of a horse unless they're in the Olympics or a cartoon.
Just as canine refers to dogs, and ursine to bears, equine refers to horses. If you're an equine enthusiast, you like horses a lot. This word comes up in specific cases such as equine medicine, equine sports, and equine behavior. You can also call an individual horse an equine, as in "My Uncle Ted has three magnificent equines in his barn. Unfortunately, he's a horse thief."
A hoof is a distinctive — and very hard — type of foot that some animals, including horses, have. The hardness of hooves is what makes the clomping sound when horses are on the go. Other animals with hooves include giraffes and goats. Many portrayals of the devil or Satan mention his hooved feet, but I feel that is offensive to the equine species. Surely people are more demonic than innocent horsies.
The word saddle has been around since the days of Old English, and it was one of the most common and useful objects in the days when horses roamed, well, everywhere. A saddle is the leather seat you throw on a horse's back so you can ride it. Saddles are mainly associated with horses, but we do use 'em for other riding animals such as camels and ponies. Saddling has a broader place in our vocabulary too. If someone says "Saddle up," there probably isn't a saddle or horse within a country mile. This is just a folksy expression meaning, "Let's go." If you ride a horse with both legs on one side of the horse, you're riding sidesaddle.
The stable is the horse house: the building where horses are kept, each in their stall. This term, like so many parts of the horse lexicon, became a metaphor. Lots of non-equine groups can be referred to as stables. For example, an agent for a bunch of athletes, musicians, actors, or other talents could refer them as a stable. An old rare, expression is "to talk stable," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines, no kidding, as "to talk of 'horsy' matters."
An equestrian is someone for whom, as the saying goes, this isn't their first rodeo. Equestrians are expert horse riders. This can also be an adjective referring to horse-riding: an equestrian class would teach you how to saddle up.
A farrier is sort of the equine equivalent of a podiatrist: farriers look after the hooves of horses, keeping them in good shape. A farrier shoes horses if their feet need the extra support. This job takes a lot of skill, since there's more to shoeing a horse than just slapping a horseshoe on their hooves: the metal has to be bent precisely to fit each hoof. Since horses are heavy—and they also have to carry people sometimes — they darn well need shoes that fit. You don’t hear much about farriers these days, since not many horses work for Uber or Lyft.
If you’ve ever heard a horse, you aren’t likely to forget it: a horse’s vocalization is as distinctive as a cow’s moo, a cat’s meow, or a person’s malarkey. The sound made by a horse is usually called a neigh or whinny. The whinny is a bit lower than the neigh, but if you use these words interchangeably, only the most nitpicky equestrians will complain.
Use these words often and with respect. Horses never asked to haul us around. The least we can do is get their words right.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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