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Hobson’s Choice For Horses
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Hobson’s Choice For Horses

I am sure everyone knows this idiomatic expression, Hobson's Choice, but how many of you know that it relates to horses? Or that it originally related to horses, at any rate! (There is also a 1954 British film of this name, but it is not connected to this phrase, in its original derivation). This expression is defined as: a choice in which only one option is offered, it is basically “Take it or leave it.” (So is it much of a choice? Better than none at all, maybe.)

The origins of this phrase comes from a certain Thomas Hobson, who lived from 1544 to 1631, ( in Shakespearean times) in Cambridge, England. He owned a livery stable of horses, which he hired out to customers, mainly Cambridge University students, for a day's ride, etc. He offered his customers the choice of the horse in the stall nearest the door, or none at all. This was in order to rotate the use of the horses, so that they didn't get overused and tired out. Otherwise what would have happened, as he could see, was that the best horses would always have been chosen, and ended up being over-ridden. He owned about 40 horses in his stables, apparently, which gave customers the impression of having a lot to choose from, but in reality, there was only one, the one he gave them. This biographical information is given on a plaque beneath a painting of Hobson, (see the accompanying picture) which was donated to Cambridge's Guildhall.

At the time Hobson lived and ran his stables, horses were the main form of transport, so were consequently much in demand and expensive and desirable, just as cars are to people today. Therefore an owner of stables was in quite an enviable and powerful position. Horses were commodities at the time, and their welfare was generally not important to most people, especially if they could make money out of them (unfortunately that attitude still persists today, but luckily not with everyone.) So this Thomas Hobson seems to have been a compassionate and progressive sort of man, ahead of his time, inasmuch as he was concerned about the welfare of his horses. Maybe there was also an element of good business sense in his decision too though, to only offer customers one horse: he realised he would also get more out of his horses, and they would last longer and make him more money, if he didn't let them get worn out and over-ridden!

I always think intelligence, good financial acumen and compassion go together in the best of people, and it sounds as if Thomas Hobson was one of those. He certainly made a success of his business anyway and gave a phrase to the English language which has lasted to the present day.

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Picture courtesy of www.wikipedia.org

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  1. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. I so enjoyed this article! I had never heard of Hobson's Choice, and as you said he was really quite smart in his endeavors of only one choice. Allowing only the one horse to be used at a time allowed for all the horses to be used, but not over used. Brilliant!
  2. autumnap
    Voted! So that's where the phrase comes from. I never knew that! x
  3. jst4horses
    Thank you for the good story and information. This website is so amazing. I hope one day the web site owners will figure out a book and a way to put together the information that is fun and good, with pictures of the people who blog here. Maybe they would sell it worldwide and use part of the money for horse rescue and research. I would surely buy it and put it on our websites.

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