You Can Lead a Horse To Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink


The phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is a proverb that means you can provide someone with a great opportunity, but you can’t force them to take it if they don’t want to.

Example: My friend Brock doesn’t have a job and he lacks money to pay his bills. I told him that my dad could employ him, but he declined the offer. Later that day, I spoke to my dad about what happened: “I can’t believe Brock refused the job opportunity I gave him, especially since he needs the money.”

“Well,” said his father, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Nothing to list here, sadly.
You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

The Origin of “You Can Lead a Horse To Water…”

Where does the phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” come from? It sounds like an expression a horseback rider would come up with. Imagine it: After a long day’s work, a horseback rider leads their horse to a river. This would be a perfect opportunity for the horse to drink, but for whatever reason… they choose not to.

Anyways, what is known about this proverb’s origin? Well, this phrase (or at least, the idea of it) is said to go back to the 12th century. It was written in a book called Old English Homilies, 1175:

“Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him-self nule drinken?

[Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?]
[Who is he that may water the horse and not drink himself?]”

Note: This quote may or may not share a connection with this proverb. I say this because of the translation. With the first translation (seen in the first set of brackets), it does look like there is a connection. However, if the second translation is actually the correct one, then the quote is simply talking about a man giving water to his horse and also drinking some himself. If that’s the case, then what would that have to do with the proverb? Nothing! So the question is, which translation is accurate? I’m not so sure.

So, we can say the expression possibly dates back to the year 1175. Now, here’s something that is known for certain: The phrase definitely dates back to the 16th century. It appears in a book during this time by John Heywood called A Dialogue Conteinyng The Nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the English Tongue, 1546:

“A man may well bryng a horse to the water, but he can not make hym drynke without he will.”

Did You Know?
Horses are big animals and that means they are big drinkers. They can drink anywhere between 5-15 gallons of waters a day. This amount varies depending on a few factors, such as the temperature outside and how hard the horse has been working.

Examples of “You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink”

  • My friend John wanted to eat healthier, but he doesn’t know where to start. So I gave him advice on what foods to eat and I also gave him a website with step by step instructions on how to prepare cheap and healthy meals quickly.

Despite my help, John’s eating habits stayed the same. Thus, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

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