Whenever I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing one of those painful leg muscle spasms known as a charley horse, I’ve often wondered why it’s called that (and also, “Why does this hurt so damn much?”).
Admittedly, the pain is the dominant thought, but still, I’ve been left asking, “Who is Charley? What was the deal with his horse?”
It turns out there are a few theories on the origin of the term, but most lead to baseball.
In the 1880s, multiple publications referred to the term “charley horse” (often capitalized as “Charley horse” or spelled “Charlie horse”) as something familiar to baseball players, who reportedly used it to describe certain muscle injuries or pains. Two ballplayers, Jack Glasscock and Joe Quest, are each credited as the originator of the phrase.
A version of the Glasscock story appears in a July 1886 issue of a West Virginia newspaper called the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer:
Base-ballists have invented a brand new disease, called ‘Charley-horse.’ It consists of a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which ball players are liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls ... Jack Glasscock is said to have originated the name because the way the men limped around reminded him of an old horse he once owned named Charley.
Other accounts suggest Glasscock adopted this phrase from his father, who took care of Charley. When the dad saw his son limping due to this kind of leg injury, he supposedly remarked, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?”
The Quest story has a few variants as well. Outfielder Hugh Nicol told the Chicago Tribune in 1906 that Quest coined the phrase in 1882 while playing for the Chicago White Stockings.
Apparently, the teammates spent an off day watching horse races on the South Side. According to a tip they’d received the previous night, a horse named Charley was practically guaranteed to win.
“The tip was touted as a cinch, it simply couldn’t lose, and we all got on,” Nicol recalled, noting that everyone placed bets on Charley except for Quest. The other players teased him for his choice.
But Quest got the last laugh. Although Charley had a sizable lead from the beginning, he ultimately stumbled and injured himself going around the last turn and lost. Quest allegedly told his teammates “Look at your old Charley horse now!”
Per Nicol’s account, he kept up the ribbing the next day and even exclaimed, “There’s your old Charley horse ― he’d made it all right if it hadn’t been for that old Charley horse” when a teammate strained himself in a similar way while running to second base.
Another theory is similar to the Glasscock story. In June 1889, the Grand Rapids Daily Democrat reported:
Years ago, Joe Quest was employed as an apprentice in the machine shop of Quest & Shaw in Newcastle, his father, who was one of the proprietors of the firm, had an old white horse by the name of Charley. Doing usage in pulling heavy loads had stiffened the animal’s legs so that he walked as if troubled with strained tendons. Afterwards, when Quest became a member of the Chicago club, he was troubled, with others, with a peculiar stiffness of the legs, which brought to his mind the ailment of the old white horse Charley. Joe said that the ball players troubled with the ailment hobbled exactly as did the old horse, and as no one seemed to know what the trouble was, Quest dubbed it ‘Charley horse.’
It’s worth noting that “charley horse” initially seemed to refer to more serious athletic injuries, rather than the painful but short-lived spasms people often experience in the middle of the night. As a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, noted, “Let a man suffer from a genuine attack of ‘Charley horse,’ and he is lucky if he gets over it in a season, while it may cling to him through life.”
Another name origin theory is that charley horse comes from an old horse named Charley that dragged equipment at the White Stockings ballpark. Apparently injured players would compare their limping to Charley’s gait and called a leg muscle injury a charley horse.
Some have theorized that it was Quest specifically who made that comment in reference to the horse while playing for the White Stockings.
Yet another theory is that “charley horse” referred to pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, who experienced bad cramps while playing in the 1880s. The Washington Post published this anecdote in 1907:
Just as Charley passed third base something seemed to crack in his leg, and he came down to the home plate limping, and evidently in pain. [A teammate named] Nova, who had sprung from the players’ bench in excitement, rushed up to him. ‘What’s a mattah wit you, Charley Hoss?’ he shouted, combining Charley’s given name and nickname. ‘My leg is tied up in knots,’ said Charley. And from that day to this lameness in baseball players has been called ‘Charley Hoss,’ or ‘Charles Horse.’
Others have offered an even simpler explanation. According to a July 1887 edition of the Boston Globe, “The name is said to owe its origin to the fact that a player afflicted with it, when attempting to run, does so much after the fashion of a boy astride of a wooden horse, sometimes called a ‘Charley horse.’”
While we may never know the true origin of the term “charley horse,” one thing is certain: They hurt like hell, so stay hydrated and remember to stretch.