Q: If I want to give a person freedom to do what she wants, do I give her free reign or free rein?

A: Free rein. Here’s why. Long before we had the Toyota Prius or Nissan LEAF, people drove green, grass-powered vehicles that looked like this:

Idioms aside: a picture of a horse walking

Their steering devices, called reins, looked like this:

Idioms aside: a picture of a horse in reins

Trained horses follow instructions sent to them via reins. But sometimes it’s best to leave enough slack in the reins so that the horse knows you are giving it permission to choose the best path. Giving a horse “free rein” makes sense in an obstacle-filled landscape or when the horse knows its route well. A rider letting a horse do its own thing also is called “giving the horse its head.” Sometimes people use that metaphor instead of “free rein,” as in “I gave her her head on that project.”

With horse-and-buggy days in the distant past, most people today are more familiar with “reign,” as in kings and queens and heavyweight champions. Plus, there’s a certain logic to “free reign” as a reference to self-determination. So it’s not surprising that “free reign” gets substituted erroneously on occasion.

English is full of horsy phrases and idioms:

  • You want to “rein in” your spending when it’s out of control. Tugging on both reins simultaneously signals a horse to slow down or stop.
  • A person who is excited to get started is said to be either “champing at the bit” (not “chomping”), a reference to a horse that shows impatience by anxiously fussing with the bridle bit inside its mouth, or “raring to go,” a reference to horses rearing up on their hind legs to show impatience at being held back.
  • It is rude and ungrateful to “look a gift horse in the mouth” because you’d be inspecting its teeth to determine its age, and therefore appraising its worth, in front of the giver.
  • If you’re getting married, your friends are likely to throw you a bridal shower, not a “bridle” shower – unless they know you’re into leather, in which case, enjoy!

Find lots more horse idioms in The Free Dictionary.

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