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A horse of a different color

Posted by Smokey Stover on July 31, 2007

In Reply to: A horse of a different color posted by Victoria S Dennis on July 31, 2007

: : : : I am seeing the answer to this in several places, and have an alternative possible explanation. I cannot verify, for sure, how far back the tradition dates of color coding riders and horses, but the tradition of men following hounds to hunt dates back to the Ancient Middle East. According to, the Romans followed the practice (presumably for entertainment, as they also imported a type of non-native hare and additional species of deer to use as quarry species to England) in England, though it seems to predate their presence. By 1340, the traditional hound-hunted animals include the hare, the hart, the wolf, the wild boar.

: : : : Since it is not really possible to keep up with dogs chasing deer on foot, ditto wolves and rabbits, it is presumable that one did it on horses. In fact, by 1650, according to American sources, people were importing special horses and hounds to America to hunt the (non-indigenous) red fox. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are said to have been involved in this type of hunting.: : : : Since Shakespeare was alive from 1564-1616, and this practice predates him, it may be possible that the quote, "A horse of a different color" comes from this activity.

: : : : It is traditional (and I cannot verify how far back the tradition goes) to color-code the hunters and their animals; the best riders wore a different color than the average rider; younger riders wore a different color, and horses were color-coded to denote traits of concern (green for a first-time rider, red for a difficult animal, prone to kick).

: : : : So, stating that "that is a horse of a different color," that is, distinguished by an alternative color (on the rider or horse). Since it can be presumed that a fractious animal would respond differently than a well-trained or less-capable mount, and the behavior and performance difference between a complete novice and an elite equestrian can be quite marked, the saying seems quite appropriate to this (possible) origin.

: : : : I haven't been able to verify if this is the origin, but it does seem a possibility, considering the dates of origin of this pastime. Can anyone verify how far this tradition goes back? I'd love to know.

: : : Horses are brown. And black. And gray. And many other colors. Presumably they've been identified by color for tens of thousands of years. That your speculation adds in fox hunting and riders and color-coding schemes may be fanciful and interesting, but you provide no evidence at all that connects the phrase, and what the phrase means, to any of it.

: : Mr. Kusz, you say you've been unable to verify the origin you propose. If you do find historical evidence for it, please submit your findings to this site. Determining origins of such old phrases requires research. Making mental connections and thinking about what may have happened don't suffice. ~rb

: Mr Kutz, please tell us where exactly it is "traditional to colour-code riders and horses", whether in the hunting field or otherwise? Certainly not in Britain. In Britain, for at least the last half-century it has been a known courtesy, when riding in company, to tie a red ribbon on the tail of one's horse to warn others that it is liable to kick; but the other distinctions that you suggest, between best/average/young riders, are simply unknown. Even in a community where such a thing was done, why would a coloured ribbon, or the rider wearing a particular colour, cause anyone to describe the horse as "a red/green/blue horse"? Horses, as other posters have pointed out, naturally come in different colours, and saying "no, not the grey horse, the chestnut one" is one of the simplest and most practical ways of distinguishing between two different animals. (VSD)

Well, I'm a guy who thought the first "horse of a different color" was the one in The Wizard of Oz. Okay, not true. Apparently th e phrase is very old, older than Shakespeare's plays. I think Mr. Kutz might have made a better case in talking about racing colors, nowadays called racing silks (although rarely silk these days), which are worn by jockeys, with a matching blinder for the horse. They evidently had some medieval precedent in tourneys, in which the chargers wore robes (and especially blinders) of different colors and patterns, possibly representing, sometimes, the family of which they were a champion. But since I know next to nothing of this subject, I'll retire from the field.