What Does A Charley Horse Mean?

Charley Horse Meaning

Definition: A painful cramp or muscle spasm, usually in the thigh or leg muscles.

The term charley horse refers to a painful muscle spasm in the leg. This term was first used in the 1880s among baseball players. Although its origin is unclear, 19th century baseball player Joe Quest is often accredited for coining the idiom. It is not commonly used in everyday English and is much more common in America than other English-speaking parts of the world.

Origin of A Charley Horse

What is a charley horseAlthough its exact origin is unverified, this term is thought to have originated during the 1880s, and baseball players first used it.  The first recorded use of this idiom can be traced back to an 1886 Boston Globe article,

  • Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of “Charlie horse” to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh…

There is a legend surrounding the origin of the term, which involves the baseball player Joe Quest. As a young man, Quest had an old horse named Charley, who assisted his father in the family’s machine shop.

Over the years, the work made it difficult for the horse to walk, which caused him great pain. When Quest became a baseball player, he struggled with a similar problem, which he called “a charley horse.” The truth of this origin story has never been verified, but it seems plausible.

For a discussion on the spelling of this phrase (charley or charlie), see here.

Examples of A Charley Horse

what causes charley horse in legThis idiom is not commonly used in everyday English because of its context. It is most commonly used to refer to physical activities that may result in leg cramps or muscle spasms. This sample conversation between a team player and his coach illustrates the correct use of this idiom.

Player: We’ve stretched enough; can we play now?

Coach: No, you haven’t finished stretching yet. If you don’t stretch properly before you run, you’ll give yourself a charley horse.

Another instance of a charley horse is when someone hits you directly in your leg. The pain from being punched is referred to as a charley horse.

For example,

Steve: Can you believe that Mike hit you like that?

Sean: Yeah, I know. He caught me off guard and gave me a charley horse.

More Examples

  • The sports pages of newspapers are riddled with stories of athletes who are suddenly laid low by a severe, cramping pain in their thigh muscle, a pain otherwise known as a charley horse. –The Washington Post


The English term charley horse is used to refer to a painful cramp or muscle spasm in the legs. It can also refer to the pain caused when someone hits you in the leg.

It is most commonly used in American English.