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From the horse's mouth


C. D. VERMA

Over the centuries many maxims, myths and stories, have cropped up in relation to the horse. This is a clear manifestation of the fact that since pre-historic times, the horse, more than any other domesticated animal, has been an integral part of history. In course of time, therefore, sprang up sayings and phrases - such as horse sense, from the horse's mouth, dark horse, dead horse, gift horse, high horse, horse laugh, horse play, Trojan horse and so on. And of late horse trading.

Since the dawn of civilisation, horses, swift of foot, have been employed as a rapid mode of transportation, expanding the horizons of travel, opening and widening the trade frontiers, increasing communication between nations, and passing on technological innovations from country to country.

The horse has been extensively used in warfare, where the cavalry enjoyed advantage over the foot-soldiers. And some horses like Alexander's Eubeucephalus, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Laili, Napoleon's White Charger, and Maharana Pratap's Chetak have become legendary.

King Philip, Alexander's father, had an intractable horse, which no one could ride. One day young Alexander, disciple of Aristotle, mounted the steed and rode it with ease. King Philip asked his son as to how he could manage the unmanageable horse. Alexander replied that he realised that the horse was afraid of its shadow. So he rode it towards the sun to keep it away from its shadow, and thus mastered it.

When Bucephalus, Alexander's horse died in the battle at Jhelum with King Porus, Alexander named a town Alexander Bucephalia, in memory of his horse.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh won Laili in the Afghan War. He loved his horse so much that no one was allowed to ride it. One day his son rode away on Laili without his father's permission. The king was so angry that he ordered the arrest of his son. When his son appeared before the Maharaja, he asked his Minister Azizuddin to suggest the punishment. Azizuddin replied that the offence of the young man was grave, and that he should be awarded the harshest punishment for taking away the king's horse as if it belonged to his father. The court laughed. His son was let off.

The age of a horse is determined by its incisors (lower teeth). It is, therefore, from the horse's mouth that a horse trader ascertains the breed and age of the horse, rather than accepting the version of the seller. Hence the connotation of the phrase "from the horse's mouth" expanded to mean to get information from the original source, rather than trusting the word of others. Accordingly, looking the "gift horse in the mouth" means to question the quality of the gift one has received and his disappointment with it.

The epithet "horse sense" obviously refers to an intelligent person who has the knowledge about horses, and not to the intelligence of the horse, as the horses act according to their instincts. So, "horse sense" means a person with a lot of common sense, common knowledge and wisdom.

"Horsing around" is the display of brute force. Horses do not laugh; they only neigh. Hence the "horse laugh" is a loud, boisterous guffaw. "Horse play" as is implied in the phrase, is a theatrical representation, rough and coarse, given to too much raillery. "Dead horse" is taken as typical of that which has ceased to be of any use, and which it is vain to flog to revive. Horses do not have feathers. Therefore, "horse feathers" means nonsense, balderdash. "Horse power" refers to the power a horse exerts in pulling. Thus, the horse has given to the scientific world a parameter to measure a unit of power. "Horse tongue" means double-speak. To back the "wrong horse" is to favour the wrong side. To "eat like a horse" means to eat like a glutton, because a horse spends much of its time consuming large quantity of food due to its fast digestive system and biological make up. A "dark horse" (a racing slang) is the one about whose form little is known. Therefore, a dark horse is a candidate, or a competitor, whose skills, activities and abilities, are not known, and yet he wins unexpectedly. "Trojan horse" derived from the war of Troy, refers to someone, or something, intended to defeat, or subvert from within.

The phrase "horse trading" primarily refers to negotiations accompanied by shrewd bargaining and reciprocal concessions. Horse trading of yore was a noble avocation of regal and honourable people who were upright and fair in their dealings.

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