This old proverb means to not make a major change in the midst of a campaign or project. Throughout the years variations of this proverb have often been used to promote incumbents in American political campaigns.
Most often, Abraham Lincoln receives credit for coining this phrase. This is not true, though he did popularize it in the English language. On June 9, 1864, he was making a speech in reply to a delegation from the National Union League, which was informing him of his nomination for reelection to the presidency, and offering congratulations, when he spoke these words:
“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that either the Convention or the league have concluded to decide that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded in this conclusion, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once, it was not best to swap horses while crossing streams.”
A slightly different version of the speech was reported the following day in a number of newspapers, including the New York Tribune, leaving out his reference to the “old Dutch farmer,” and leaving the readers to assume that he had coined the phrase. And there have been many variations since as to the actual quote.
Irrefutably proving that Lincoln did not originate this proverb, the Hamilton Intelligencer in Butler County Ohio, contained the following on Sept. 10, 1846, as part of a story also in a political context:
“No Time to Swap Horses. There is a story of an Irishman who was crossing a stream with mare and colt when finding it deeper than expected, and falling off the old mare. He seized the colt’s tail in reaching the shore. Some persons on the bank called to him, advising him to take hold of the mare’s tail, as she was ablest to bring him out. His reply was that it was a very unseasonable time for swapping horses.”
The American Masonic Register and Literary Companion, however, had previously carried this tale on April 4, 1840.
Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book, “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, contact the author at email@example.com.