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What is a One Trick Pony?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The slang term "one trick pony" is used to refer to something that can only be used for one very specific application, or a person who can only do one thing well. A chef who can only produce one really good dish, for example, might be described as a one trick pony. The phrase is generally used in a disparaging way, since it suggests a lack of flexibility and an inability to work outside very specific parameters.


The term probably originates in early 19th century in America from small circuses called "dog and pony shows." These circuses had a limited number of animals and performers, and often the shows were simple or lackluster. A horse that performed just one trick probably wasn't considered very impressive.

The exact origin of the phrase is not known, but it was in popular use at least as far back as 1905; there is a mention of a traveling circus featuring a one trick pony in a reunion announcement for the Oregon Pioneer Association. The term fell out of use, so much so that some people think the phrase originated with a 1980 movie and recording created by musician Paul Simon, both titled One Trick Pony.


Some industries are particularly known for turning out one trick ponies. In software development, for example, computer programs that only do one thing might be given this name. Many kitchen devices, such as a rice cooker or an egg cooker, are also labeled with the term because they are designed for a very specific function and nothing else. If a program or tool performs its one task very well, however, it might be considered valuable despite its apparent limitations.

The phrase is also sometimes used to refer to commentators and academics who use the same material repeatedly without variation; they could also be called "one note." A politician could be accused of being a one trick pony if he or she focused exclusively on one issue while ignoring others. While single-minded pursuit of a goal might seem admirable, it can also suggest that someone does not have a wider grasp of the world, which could ultimately prove to be a problem.

In music, the name "one hit wonder" may be used to mean the same thing as a one trick pony. In this sense, an artist or band releases one very popular song, but cannot repeat the initial success. The term can also be used to describe an artist or band with limited abilities or range. In this case, all of the band's songs might sound the same, and the artist relies on one special feature to attract fans.

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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 anon348324 — On Sep 16, 2013

Rice cookers are called such, but those can cook other stuff too. Not your one trick pony, I think.

By anon332566 — On Apr 30, 2013

Oh no, a rice cooker is definitely not a one trick pony. It can cook many kinds of Chinese cuisine.

Ask any Taiwanese, almost every Taiwan family has at least one rice cooker at home, and they cook a lot of food by using it.

By anon322956 — On Mar 02, 2013

Seems to me that some of the posters here have heard of the Paul Simon movie, but never listened to the lyrics of the title song. I love how Simon turned the phrase on its ear; the world needs more "one trick ponies" like that.

As to bands and musicians allowing their sound to grow and evolve, I'm all for this. However, it's important for a band also to retain some kind of "sonic center" that long-time fans will recognize; if they lose this center, it can break their fan base.

By StarJo — On Oct 22, 2012

A lot of politicians are one trick ponies. I grow tired of hearing them speak, especially when they are debating their opponents.

Many of them won't even answer the questions they are asked. Instead, they will harp on one thing.

It might be an element of their platform, or it could be something negative about the opponent. Either way, they run it into the ground, and it loses its power. People get sick of hearing one thing over and over, and they can tell that it is a method of escaping the true question.

By seag47 — On Oct 21, 2012

In the world of office supplies, I think that staplers are one trick ponies. All they can do is staple things together. Unless your stapler also has a remover at the other end, then it can only do one thing.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 21, 2012

@Oceana – I agree with you. I think this is also the reason we have so many one hit wonders in existence.

Bands who hang onto the same sound for years grow stale, and the public grows tired of them. If your second single sounded just like your first, then it likely wouldn't be another hit for you.

By Oceana — On Oct 20, 2012

There seem to be quite a few bands popular today that I would consider to be one trick ponies. I can always identify them even when I hear one of their new songs for the first time, simply because they rely on one technique.

Many bands that have achieve long lasting success have done so by expanding the scope of their sound. They might include new instruments or experiment with other styles.

I think it's great when a band tries to broaden its horizons. It keeps them from falling into the trap of monotony and relying on what has worked in the past.

By anon255408 — On Mar 17, 2012

Anon, Heard it all my life (1946-xxxx) by people who lived a long time before me, so I am assuming it goes as far back as humans have raised ponies.

By anon168476 — On Apr 17, 2011

I hope the statute of limitations expired on this one, but you forgot to mention the 19th century Irish. They sure could grow potatoes, better than everyone out there, but when their crops got infected, their farming was as useful as a previously-viewed Circuit City Divx disc in 2008.

By anon160090 — On Mar 14, 2011

Oh, thanks for the explanation. I supposed it was really and idiomatic expression, and the name of the movie and the album made me look for it in the net.

By anon76840 — On Apr 12, 2010

I think a "one trick pony" artist can have many hits, but only relying on the same "technique". I would say that Hootie and the blowfish is a one trick pony band, not judging the number of hits, but its versatility on composing and performing. Some bands may not have a hit in all their careers but not fall into the "one trick pony" category.

By anon62497 — On Jan 27, 2010

Hell no, "one trick pony" encompasses much more than that expressed in the rocker movie! It is an idea, an actual fact of life, and it says volumes about a facet of life! Look further for the answer and see the real thing.

By anon22121 — On Nov 28, 2008

I read somewhere that the expression "one trick pony" wasn't used until after the movie of that name in 1980. Is that true?

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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