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All the Pretty Horses

The title above is from a novel by one of the great American writers, Cormac McCarthy, and its German title is translated precisely as All die schönen Pferde. This isn't always the case with book and film titles in German. For instance, the Spaghetti Western classic Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone is titled Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod  in German—"Play Me the Song of Death"—not a bad alternate title. But this lesson is about horses, not noir Westerns, so let's hop back in the saddle!


A number of German idioms use horses as their subjects:


Wohl aufs falsche Pferd gesetzt, hm?

Probably bet on the wrong horse, hm?

Caption 19, Marga Engel schlägt zurück: Der Engel von Leipzig

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The idiom above happens to have the same meaning as its English translation, which is not always the case.


Die Griechen hatten ein riesiges hölzernes Pferd auf Rädern gebaut, zwanzigmal größer als ein richtiges Pferd.

The Greeks had built a giant wooden horse on wheels, twenty times larger than a real horse.

Captions 42-43, Märchen - Sagenhaft: Das Trojanische Pferd

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The idiomatic usage of "Trojan horse," which means to accept a gift (or story, etc.) that turns out to have negative effects, is used in both English and German. This is the opposite of the English idiom "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," which means you shouldn't be unappreciative or critical of a gift. If the Trojans had only looked that gift horse in the mouth, they might have won the war.


Solange wir keine Gewissheit haben, sollten wir die Pferde nicht scheu machen.

As long as we aren't certain, we shouldn't make the horses shy.

Caption 11, Großstadtrevier: Schatten der Vergangenheit

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This idiom sounds a bit odd in English, but die Pferde scheu machen means to cause unnecessary alarm. In this case, the police didn't want to tip off the suspects that they were on to their game.


Hans Schmidt ist das beste Pferd im Stall.
Hans Schmidt is the best horse in the stable.


There may be a horse somewhere named Hans Schmidt, but in the context of a person, the phrase das beste Pferd im Stall sein means that somebody is the best coworker or the best person in a group of people.


Wir kommen vom Pferd auf den Esel.
We’re coming from the horse onto the donkey.


The literal English translation of the German idiom above makes little sense, whereas a literary translation would be "We're falling on hard times" or "Things are going badly." But to conclude:


Ein Pferd bleibt immer Pferd.

A horse always remains a horse.

Caption 37, Monsters of Liedermaching: Ein Pferd

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As we have seen in the idioms above, when using the word "horse" metaphorically, it can mean everything but a horse!


Further Learning
Go to Yabla German and search for "horse" or Pferd to see the different usages of the noun in context. You can also read about other idioms relating to das Pferd on the German language website Redensarten-Index. Meanwhile, we at Yabla wish you all a happy ride into the sunset...

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