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Don't Get my Goat - September 5, 2014
Submitted by Neal Murphy

Have you ever used the phrase “that really gets my goat”? I think we all use that expression from time to time which means that an occurrence or object has caused annoyance. The “that” in the statement might not even refer to an actual thing, but rather to a situation. It is also common for a person to direct the phrase at someone else as “you really get my goat” to indicate that the object of the comment is annoying the speaker.

I wondered where this phrase came from and what it actually means, so I did some research on the matter. As it turns out, there is no clear consensus on the phrase’s origin, but there appears to be agreement that the expression revolves around the idea that goats are kept with other animals to help keep them calm.

The saying is distinctly American dating back to 1909 and involved placing goats with racehorses to keep them calm. Whenever opponents wanted the horse to perform badly they would sneak out the goat during the night, the horse became unsettled and ran badly in the race. So, the bad guy “got someone’s goat”.

This idea is supported by Bette Gabriel, a horse trainer at the Arlington International Racecourse. In addition to the approximately 1,200 horses stabled there, there are more than 60 goats that call the barns home as well.

Ms. Gabriel says that these little goats serve as “pets” for the racehorses and exert a strange, calming influence on most of the skittish, high-strung thoroughbreds. In fact she has seen cases where a horse would become so attached that its goat would have to be brought along to the paddock every time the horse raced. In most cases the relationship between goat and horse is a one-on-one situation and they become inseparable for life.

While most horses don’t seem to mind the short separation for racing and exercising, if their goats aren’t around the barn with them, it often means trouble. They will pace the stalls and fail to get the rest they need. “It really affects their performance. They just can’t relax unless their goat is nearby,” she said. In fact, if a horse is sold, the goat usually goes along with the horse.

Most goats, despite their gruff reputation, are quite docile. They also stick pretty much to their horses’ stalls and don’t wander around. Gabriel noted that miniature goats are becoming popular around the race tracks, as well as potbellied pigs. The pigs sometime get too big and stubborn to transport around with the horses as they move from track to track.

Not every horse needs or even wants a goat in its stall, and no one is quite sure what the bond is between the two dissimilar animals, but horse trainers take advantage of the “equine-goat” connection whenever they can, especially since goats eat the same grain as the horses and are very little trouble. The goat seems to be a security blanket for the horse, like it has a friend who is always there waiting. It’s a useful tool.

One source noted in “Ye Olde English Sayings” the origin of “getting your goat” with reference to an old English belief that keeping a goat in the barn of cows would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize or terrorize one’s enemy, they would abscond with the goat rendering their milk cows less to even non-productive.

Finally, there is an old French phrase “to get your goat” which suggests this is because in old times a person’s goat would be their only source of milk, so they would be understandably angry if someone took it.

So, the next time someone “gets your goat”, just remember from whence the phrase originated. If the matter does not involve race horses or milk cows, perhaps you might want to use another phrase.

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