Why do we say ‘horse of a different colour’?

It's a curious saying, bit what's the meaning behind it?

Photo of a horse

At the climax of the magical movie The Wizard of Oz  (1939), the hero Dorothy is amazed that the horse pulling her carriage through the Emerald City changes colour. It is, the driver exclaims, “the horse of a different colour”. To us, the phrase refers to another matter entirely than the subject at hand – so you could say “I always thought you hated history but then I found out you read History Revealed. That’s a horse of a different colour!”

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It is speculated that the phrase comes from horse-trading. When horses are sold, their registration of birth also changes hands. As some horses change colour from youth to adulthood, however, the registration may not match the actual animal, causing confusion and accusations of foul play.

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The expression, like so many in the English language, was popularised by William Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, the scheming Maria utters “horse of that colour”, meaning ‘the same thing’. Over the centuries, and definitely by the mid-1800s according to records, the use of the phrase reversed.

This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine