Q: I know that the phrase “stalking horse” means a sham candidate or a ruse used to disguise a hidden purpose. But were there ever real stalking horses, and what did they stalk?
A: Yes, there were real stalking horses, but they didn’t actually stalk anything. They helped hunters stalk game birds.
When the phrasal noun “stalking horse” showed up in the early 1500s, it meant “a horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest citation for the noun in the OED is from a bill, dated 1519, for shoeing a stalking horse: “Item pd for Shoyng of Thomas Lawes Stawkyng horse.” (From Archaeologia, a collection of early documents published in 1834 by the Society of Antiquaries of London.)
By the early 1600s, “stalking horse” was being used to mean “a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game,” the dictionary says.
This 1621 citation from Gervase Markham’s Hungers Prevention, or the Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land, uses the term for both equine and canvas stalking horses:
“The Stalking-Horse … is any old lade trayned vp for that vse, which … will gently … walke vp and downe in the water … and then … you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder. Now forasmuch as these Stalking horses … are not euer in readinesse … In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse … let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise.”
In the late 1500s, as “stalking horse” was evolving in the hunting sense, it took on the figurative meaning of an “underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first example for this new sense is from a 1579 religious polemic by William Wilkinson, attacking a mystical evangelizing sect called the Family of Love: “Abusing the pretence of the Gospell as a stalking horse to leuell [level] at others by.”
In the early 1600s, the noun took on the figurative sense of a “person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected.”
The first Oxford citation is from The White Divel, a 1612 tragedy by the English playwright John Webster: “You … were made his engine, and his stauking horse, / To undo my sister.”
It’s unclear from the dictionary’s examples when that last sense evolved into the modern political meaning of a sham candidate put forward to divide the opposition or mask the candidacy of another.
The earliest example we’ve found is from a May 7, 1869, hearing in the House of Commons of the Select Committee on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections:
“He polled a very small number compared with the other candidates, but he was a mere stalking horse for his colleague, who polled within 74 of the next candidate on the poll.”