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Brought to You by the Letter S

Sometimes in our riding career, we elevate to the point where we’re required to wear a tailcoat.

It’s a rarely worn riding jacket but when we get the chance to parade ourselves around in one, well, it makes for a good day. The delight of feeling the tails bounce off the back of your boots when you’re walking toward your horse. The absolute pleasure, once in the saddle, of flipping the tails out from behind you like a concert pianist. It’s a special feeling.

Calling it a tailcoat makes all the sense in the world due to the obvious tails. There is, however, one disappointing feature of this jacket and that is the uber-high cut in the front. This high-waisted coat, unfortunately, frames your (or at least my) protruding belly. An effect enhanced because you are sitting down but also because your (my) breeches may be a tad too tight. I wonder if this is why they’re often referred to as a shadbelly?

Why Shadbelly?

I googled the word shadbelly and nothing other than online tack stores came up. Since I’m now well-versed in the world of words, I decided to split the word into two recognizable parts. We will tackle the belly portion of the word first as I feel it’s relatively self-explanatory.

But just to clarify, my Penguin Dictionary describes a belly as, amongst other things, “an object curved or rounded like a human belly.” I also learned that belly is a verb, and it means to swell or fill, much like I do to my pants, I guess. I’ve bellied up to a bar a few times and I’ve known people to go belly up, so I suppose I’ve used it as a verb I just didn’t know it.

Moving on.

Now let’s tackle the word “shad.” According to my dictionary, a shad is “a fish of the herring family that swims up rivers from the sea to breed.” This is not what I expected to find. I’m not sure what I expected but I know it wasn’t a fish.

The American Shad. Note the belly. To be fair, it just looks like a fish to me. Not sure how it differs, belly wise, from another fish type.

I turned next to my friend and what do you know, the answer was right there waiting for me.

It’s from the silhouette of said fish that we have the term “shad-bellied.” This term sprang into our language in precisely 1832. A shad-bellied person is one with little abdominal protuberance, which is to say a flat stomach. This means that anytime I wore my tailcoat I was being ironic given my “abdominal protuberance.”

As far as the shadbelly coat goes, that reference came about exactly 10 years later meaning, “sloping apart in front, cut away,” which makes perfect sense.

So, when we get to strut around in our shadbelly, we now know that we resemble the general outline of a herring, the type that swims upstream to breed. Excellent.

Why Scrim Sheet?

While we are walking around in our finery, our horse is all tacked up and ready to wait. Since it’s a warm, dusty day we toss a scrim sheet over them to… I don’t really know why. To keep the dust off? There are a lot of holes in a scrim sheet so maybe we do it to keep the flies off or to look cool. A scrim sheet is neither a cooler nor a fly sheet but instead sits ambiguously somewhere between the two and is generally brought out only at horse shows.

Maybe this one is obvious to some, but I’m not too proud to admit it wasn’t obvious to me. It is now, of course.

My dictionary tells me scrim means “a durable plain-woven cotton fabric used in upholstery, curtain lining, etc” and “a transparent sheet of fabric used in theatre sets as a backcloth or screen.”

According to the internet, scrim also means a thing that conceals or obscures something, such as fog.

It seems to me our scrim sheets fit all the above definitions rather well.

I should mention, in case you were wondering, the word scrim has no relation to scrimmage, scrimp, scrimshank or scrimshaw.  

Why Lead Shank?

Speaking of a scrimshank, which is a person who avoids work, why do we call the thing we lead our horses around with a shank?

According to all sources, a shank is the part of our leg between the knee and ankle. This is where the expression shanks’ pony or shanks’ mare comes from, meaning to you use your own legs as a means of transportation. To be honest, I had never heard of those expressions until just now.

Shank is also a cut of meat, the straight narrow part of an object such as a nail, a way to get murdered in prison, a poorly hit golf or tennis ball, part of the shoe sole or the band of a ring.

There is one more definition to shank and I suspect this is where our meaning comes from, “part of an object by which it can be attached to something else.” Most notably the projection on the back of a button.

Buttons aside, this has to be where we get our word since there is a snap at the end of a lead shank that attaches to our horse’s halter. It seems a barely passable reasoning, but it’s the only one that makes any sense at this point.

And now we know

Shadbelly, scrim sheet and shank. I think I can finally say that today’s post has been “brought to you by the letter S.”


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