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What is a One Horse Town?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “one horse town” is an American idiom for a very small, unimportant place, typically in a rural area. Many dwellers of small towns refer to their homes as one horse towns, emphasizing the fact that the town is small and not terribly interesting. Youth who live in small towns tend to try and escape them as soon as possible, out of a desire to experience the outside world. Some people also idealize one horse towns, thinking of them as cheerful, peaceful places where people are familiar and friendly with one another.

The first documented use of the term occurred in 1857, and it is believed to imply that a town is so small that only one horse would be needed. It may also imply that not many people in the town are interested in travel, so horses would not be a hot commodity. Oddly enough, many one horse towns actually have a sizable horse population, due to a general interest in horses among rural communities.

Several features distinguish a town as a one horse town. The first is the noncompetitive nature of business. Often, there is only one grocery store, one hardware store, one bookstore, and so on, with few options for people who might be seeking unusual products or supplies. Many of these small businesses are local and family owned, and they may offer charge accounts, special discounts, and other perks for long-established members of the community. Citizens are usually forced out of town for many goods and services, ranging from unusual food ingredients to sophisticated surgeries.

Schools in a one horse town tend to be small, and not as culturally diverse as schools in larger towns and cities. The lack of cultural diversity is common to the rest of the town, which may be lacking in arts and culture in general. The small population usually does not support very extensive nightlife, with many one horse towns essentially dying after sunset. The limited cultural experience in a one horse town can be somewhat frustrating for residents with greater aspirations.

Such towns can also be highly insular, viewing newcomers with extreme suspicion. Many families have been citizens for multiple generations, and it is not uncommon to see a few families dominating business ownership and real estate in the town. However, members of the community are also often very supportive of each other, lending assistance to people who are in need in the form of a place to sleep, help building a new house, or the subtle delivery of needed groceries, clothing, and supplies to a family which has fallen upon hard times.

The sense of a community in a one horse town is vitally necessary, since the town often relies on it for services like a fire and rescue department, or an ambulance service. Many small towns have all-volunteer fire departments, for example, since they do not have the budget to support a paid fire department. Many other community services ranging from coaching local sports teams to creating a community center are also provided by volunteers, and citizens are usually encouraged to have strong community and work ethics, as this benefits the whole town.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993119 — On Oct 24, 2015

A one horse town is a small town like Hooterville on the Green

Acres TV show, where the one general store also functions as

the post office.

By anon252381 — On Mar 05, 2012

An alternate explanation is that "one-horse" town meant a poor town, where few if anyone could a team of horses to pull their buggies and wagons. Such towns were indicated by dirt roads with three ruts instead of two. The buggy wheels traveled in the outside ruts and the single horse pulling the buggy created the center rut. More prosperous towns had people with horse teams that needed only two ruts in the road.

By anon133825 — On Dec 12, 2010

One horse. One school. One teacher. One classroom. No more than 40-50 children of school age.

The gifted would finish school somewhere else with a scholarship, and the rest would finish early and start working at a young age.

By anon114361 — On Sep 28, 2010

I think your definition is incorrect. From my grandparents' definition; "one horse town," meant a small town served by one railroad company. The rail company owned the town through its monopoly of the transportation asset. This company often charged more in places where it had no competition. The horse in "One Horse Town" is an iron one.

By anon97436 — On Jul 19, 2010

It originally meant "a small town," but it is growing to mean something else. Actors refer to "Hollywood" as a "one horse town" because it has one industry. It has one horse and everybody rides it. This led musicians to talk about L.A. the same way. (See John Hiatt's "Slow Turning").

And naturally the Silicon Valley people started to talk about the small town nature of their gossipy, insular, everybody knows everybody else's business, tech/venture capital community, as a "one horse town".

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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