The expression cart before the horse is an idiom or proverb used to suggest something is done contrary to the natural or normally effective sequence of events. A cart is a vehicle that is ordinarily pulled by a horse, so to put the cart before the horse is an analogy for doing things in the wrong order. The figure of speech means doing things the wrong way round or with the wrong emphasis or confusing cause and effect.
The meaning of the phrase is based on the common knowledge that a horse usually pulls a cart, despite rare examples of vehicles pushed by horses in 19th-century Germany and early 20th-century France.
The earliest recorded use of the proverb was in the early 16th century. It was a figure of speech in the Renaissance. A variant of the proverb is used by William Shakespeare in King Lear Act I, scene iv, line 230: "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?"
- Whiting, Bartlett J. (1977). Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, p. 58.
- Walter, Elizabeth. (2008). Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, p. 209.
- Wilkinson, Peter Richard. (2008). Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, p. 171.
- Wolfgang, Mieder and Alan Dundes. (1981). The wisdom of many, p. 57; excerpt, "... the proverb reverses the usual chronological priority of actions A and B .... In attempting to distinguish between identificational versus contrastive features in proverbs or between nonoppositional or oppositional proverbs, one needs to bear in mind that not all proverbs fall neatly into one category."
- Knight, John. (1835). Mechanics' Magazine, and Journal of the Mechanics' Institute, Vol. 4, p. 363.
- "Cart before the horse," Popular Mechanics, April 1907, p. 425; excerpt, " ... 1- hp motor ... two speeds forward; the machine is not constructed to reverse. No lines are used, the conveyance being directed by means of a steering wheel ...."
- Apperson, George Latimer. (2006). The Wordsworth dictionary of proverbs, p. 85; Manser, Martin H. (2007). The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs, p. 63; excerpt, "The proverb was first recorded in this form c. 1520."
- Adamson, Sylvia et al. (2007). Renaissance Figures of Speech, p. 133.