Tuesday, February 16, 2010

All For the Want Of A Horseshoe Nail

Trivia and Other Cliches

I realized yesterday that my post title, "The grass is always greener," should have finished with "on the other side of the fence," to be clear. The quote is one of those old cliche' expressions that somehow suits hay carousel perfectly. Like so many of us, the horse always thinks that what the other guy has, or what he can't quite reach is better than what he has.

So that led me to look up the expression to find it seems to be a mostly American idiom, although it does appear in a similar form in Latin somewhere. Then I began thinking of all the ways horses have influenced our lives an language. Even after horses became obsolete as the main mode of transportation, it's the poor car lover who doesn't talk about his vehicle's horsepower. And how many TV commercials do I see with fair maidens or handsome men riding along on white horses. Back to the cars you have the Colt, the Mustang and the Pinto, at the very least. They may not all be on the market anymore, but their mere existence tells the world how much the image of the horse is revered.

The Budwiser commercials say it all. If you've never seen one with the majestic Clydesdale eight horse hitch commercials, do yourself a favor and visit Youtube to watch a few. My favorite is the snowball fight, but as I was browsing through, I found a few others I love too. There is, of course, the great 9-11 tribute and one with a zebra referee. I like the Rocky one too and there's one where the Clyde falls in love with a circus horse I've never seen before. The funny thing is that the horses themselves and the advertising method have nothing at all to do with drinking beer, or how good Budwiser tastes, but the ads make the label so well known the message is loud and clear.

That's all a part of branding, and advertising technique where the primary goal is to get the product name fixed in the consumer's mind by some kind of easy to remember symbol or concept. The Clydesdale hitch is a good example. My nephew who worked in advertising for a while told me the Nike swoosh is considered by many to be the most significantly successful branding symbol out there. I'd have to say the Clydes are pretty high up too.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," always used to puzzle the students in my English class, especially when I taught them the story of the Trojan horse and added, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, " to the mix. It was one of those class lessons where I tried to combine thinking skills, figurative language and classical literature all together. The "gift horse" phrase, of course, as all horsemen know, refers to the fact that a horse's true age can be determined by looking at its teeth. So, if someone gives you something for free, then don't spoil it by really trying to assess its value so that you ruin the giver's good intentions. (Well, that's kind of a loose explanation, but you get the idea.) So, I related that expression to the Trojan horse which was, in the myth a gift offering to the gods left by the Greeks. If you know the story, the big wooden horse was filled with hiding Greek warriors and once the gullible Trojans pulled the horse into their walled city--tricked into thinking taking the horse was kind of a slap in the face to the enemy--the warriors inside waited until dark, then sneaked out, attacked, opened the city gates from inside, and let their own invading army in.

Despite warnings from one of their prophets, the Trojans didn't look that particular "gift horse" in the mouth and it cost them their city.

Every time I think of "a horse of another color," I, of course, see the scene in the Wizard of Oz film where Dorothy and her companions enter the Emerald City and see the pony drawing a carriage. The pony keeps changing colors as it goes along, (Wizard of Oz horse) changing from green to blue to orange to red to yellow to violet. (Found out now that they colored the horse with jello and it kept trying to lick itself the whole time they were shooting! *G*) The phrase was taken literally there, but in figurative terms it means that something is just not like everything else in a group.

My title today refers to an old nursery rhyme:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Every time Tucker loses a shoe I think of this one for my own reasons, but once again horsekeeping teaches the world a lesson that it's best to take care of the small things before they escalate into something too big to fix.

Speaking of horseshoes, I'll close with a little trivia as I sit here watching it snow--again--outside. My farrier once told me this one. Let's say the shoer charges by the nail rather than by the shoeing job. Here's the deal. He'll charge 1 penny for the first nail and then two pennies for the second nail and then continue, each time doubling the amount he charges each nail thereafter. (I know there is a mathematical formula for this kind of geometric progression, but I never was very good at that kind of stuff.) Suffice it to say that if the customer agreed to the deal and the farrier put on four new shoes with eight nails in each one, he could retire a wealthy man and never have to shoe again.

Apparently the weather is putting my brain into some kind of logical overdrive here. But what else can I do with over a foot of snow on the ground and more falling? (Won't be much, but anymore white out there is just downright depressing.)

I'm longing for the green grass on the other side of the fence.


  1. Great post Jean, very interesting thoughts. I love all the old sayings and I especially love all the Clydesdale commercials. I was actually thinking of getting a Mustang(the car) because I liked the name and I had one when I was much younger, but decided to go with something else. Any way you're right about horse advertising and using the symbol of the horse.

    We're having a pretty good blast of snow right now, and the truth is I'm sick of it too. Very frustrating.

  2. That sounds like something a farrier would say. They're generally bright people and they spend so much time bent over that the blood rushes to their head and they think a lot.

    At least, that's my theory.

  3. the rhyme is about Richard III of England, i believe ... supposedley he lost his last battle and his life in consequence.

    you're getting very philosophical over there in the snow!

  4. Quite an interesting thesis. I'm probably going to go look at some Clydesdale ads you referenced that I've not seen. I will remain an "Anything but Bud" beer drinker though. Horrible stuff!
    Somewhat related: If you use a slightly rusty nail to attach a shoe it is less likely to be pulled off in the mud.

  5. I love how much horses and riding have shaped modern language. The Ultimate Horse site has a great article about it. I think you kind find it here: http://www.ultimatehorsesite.com/articles/olsen_horsesense.html

    "Get off your high horse" is a phrase my mother love to use, as well as "chomping at the bit." My favorite phrase of equine-origin is "putting on airs" (meaning to show off), which comes from the dressage airs above the ground.

  6. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I always loved the old westerns - both TV and movies - and the beautiful horses in them. The Clint Eastwood movies (I believe shot in Spain) always had the most amazing horses, and the John Wayne movies as well - the horses were the most important to me, not the rest of the plots!

    We're sort of in the dumps - too much doom and glom - over on my blog - are you still interested in the guest post idea for "dealing with the spooking horse"?

  7. Yes, Kate, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet. It's hard not to be "doomy and gloomy" this time of year.