Talking to some young friends recently, I mentioned someone who had done something that was not quite within the rules, saying that he had "stepped over the traces." Finally one of them admitted that they didn't have the slightest idea what I was talking about. So I explained the term.
It wasn't until then that I realized how many ancient expressions and figures of speech I use. How many phrases that date back to the farm and the days when the horse was "king of the road."
As youngsters, we were warned not to put "all of our eggs in one basket," and told that "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Now, if a job is going to take a long time I may still say, "We'll be here until the cows come home."
I often refer to accomplishing something as "making hay." If we do it at the opportune time, we are " making hay while the sun shines." When I go to bed, I am "hitting the hay." In the morning, if I rise early, I " get up with the chickens." When something is hard to find, it's "like looking for a needle in a haystack."When we were young, if a friend tried to catch our attention with the word "Hey," we would answer with "Straw's cheaper." Only a farm kid would be likely to know that. Talk that is not necessarily the truth is commonly referred to as " just so much B.S." Another bit of wisdom that hints at a rural background. And an untruthful person is often said to be able to "lie faster than a horse can trot."
Many of our old sayings involved horses. From the blacksmith who fitted and nailed the shoes to our horses came "strike while the iron's hot," which meant to do things at the proper time, and "too many irons in the fire" meant too many things to do and not focusing on the most important job at hand. If we wanted someone to wait, we said, "Hold your horses." People were advised to "never change horses in the middle of the stream," and " don't look a gift horse in the mouth."
Now and then we heard, "That's a horse of a different color." Some old timers said they would rather "die in the harness" than retire and do nothing. A married couple was often said to be "hitched in double-harness." In the early springtime, most farmers would add a little octane to their horses' hay diet by feeding a liberal ration of oats. This gave the animals the required pep and energy to do the heavy fieldwork. And any person acting rather frisky was said to be "feeling his or her oats." Whenever someone remarked "Two can live as cheaply as one," a farmer usually countered with, "Only if one is a horse and the other a sparrow."
A person who is not especially liked by another is occasionally referred to as a " horse's rear end." Perhaps there is some sort of an unhappy inherited memory that has built up through the many years during which so many of our ancestors spent much of their lives looking at horses from that perspective.
I can only guess that these old saying are being used much less frequently today than they were during my youth. With the farm population dwindling rapidly, such talk may eventually go the way of the horse and buggy.