horse sense

The ability to make good judgments or decisions, a robust form of common sense

Horse sense may refer to the accumulation of knowledge about horses acquired by humans, not to the intelligence of horses. In order to buy, care for, train, handle, breed and work with horses, one must know a great deal about them. We’ve been using horses for thousands of years and people have been writing about them for nearly as long.

On the other hand, as W.C. Fields apparently said, horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.

Relative to their body size, horses have very small brains. Their behavior, like all animals, including humans, is linked primarily to instincts rather than to innate intelligence. Their strongest qualities relate to their instincts to flee from dangerous predators, to eat and drink regularly, to seek security in numbers, and to mate successfully. The training of horses relies, therefore, on repetition and the development of conditioned reflexes through reward or punishment.

Sound familiar? I thought it might!

When coining a new phrase, horses wouldn’t seem to be the obvious choice of animal to act as a yardstick for mental ability. Owls, perhaps, because they have been a symbol for wisdom for a very long time, or foxes, because they have a reputation for being quick and clever. But not horses. In fact, whoever coined the term ‘horse feathers’ (meaning nonsense, stupidity) associated horses with a certain lack of refined intellect.

We have many expressions that refer to horses. These usually allude to the hefty, coarse or even vulgar nature of the working hacks of the Middle Ages. This perceived lack of sophistication is apparent in the way that language was formed. Any plant that resembled another but was larger and coarser would be known as a ‘horse-something-or-other.’ For example, ‘horseradish,’ which is a large root resembling a radish but with a fiery taste.

So it seems that the addition of ‘horse’ to ‘sense’ was meant to convey an unsophisticated, country type of sense. ‘Country-sense’ has value, being a common-sense alternative to the often twisted rationalizations of the more intellectual. 

As to where the phrase ‘horse sense’ originated, that may well be cowboys in the wild west. The expression is often attributed to the American writer James Kirke Paulding, who wrote the novel Westward Ho! in 1832.

In 1870 the New York magazine The Nation agreed: “The new phrase – born in the West, we believe – of ‘horse-sense,’ which is applied to the intellectual ability of men who exceed others in practical wisdom.”

On the other hand, it may have arisen in England, where horses have been loved forever. The English romantic novelist Evelyn Malcolm wrote a string of novels in the 19th century, set in the West Country. One of these was Forsaken; Love’s Battle for Heart, published in The London Story Paper, January 1805, which includes some dialogue about horse sense.

All I know for sure is that horse sense is something we’d all like to have.

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