Dear Word Detective: Where does the political term “stalking horse” come from? What does it mean? I have heard of a person stalking someone, but a horse? — Joy.
I guess you haven’t met many horses, have you? They say that an elephant never forgets, but horses give them a run for the money in the seething resentment sweepstakes. Probably the best example of the ability of a horse to hold a grudge was TV’s Mister Ed, who, after his show was canceled in 1966, was repeatedly arrested for vandalizing CBS executives’ cars in the studio parking lot. Ironically, Ed later went on to a very successful second career in securities trading, and today, having changed his name to Sumner Redstone, he actually owns CBS.
None of that is true, by the way, which I wouldn’t take the trouble to explain had I not recently encountered high-school graduates who believe we fought against Great Britain in World War II.
Given how important horses have been to the advancement of human civilization, it’s not surprising that English has a wide range of equine idioms. We speak of a relatively unknown participant in an election contest being the “dark horse” candidate because in racing parlance a horse is “dark” if nothing is known about its racing history. A pompous, self-righteous person is said to be on a “high horse,” a reference to the days when nobility would usually only encounter the common folk from atop their riding horses. To “put the cart before the horse” means to do things in the reverse of their logical order, and “to look a gift horse in the mouth” refers to the old practice of judging a horse’s age by inspecting its teeth.
A “stalking horse” in current usage is a decoy or pretext, something put forward to disguise the true intent or purpose of an action. In an election, a “stalking horse” is a candidate who enters the race in order to distract or divide the opposition and ease the way for the “real” candidate (“In fact, some suspect that the former governor is kind of a stalking horse for Bernhard,” WWLTV, 01/13/09). In corporate takeovers, firms sometimes use “stalking horses,” dummy corporations, to buy up stock in their target without tipping off the company’s management to the threat.
Since horses have been notably absent from public office since the days of Caligula (and rarely, Mister Ed notwithstanding, take over companies), these are figurative uses of the term “stalking horse.” But the original literal sense, in the early 16th century, did involve real horses. “Stalking horses” were trained to allow a hunter to dismount and then use the horse as a blind to conceal his presence as he “stalked” the game (which apparently did not notice that it was being approached by a six-legged horse). The term was expanded fairly quickly to cover any sort of portable blind (often with horses or other animals painted on it), and by the end of the 16th century had acquired its modern figurative meaning of “underhanded pretext.”