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


If someone says “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” it means that you can provide someone with a golden opportunity, making it easy for them to do something, but you can’t force them to take it if they don’t want to.

Example: Brock doesn’t have a job, and he’ll probably be evicted from his apartment soon because he’s struggling to pay rent. Knowing his friend’s plight, Carl took some money out of savings and offered it to Brock. However, Brock refused the money, even though his friend insisted he take it.

Carl was dumbfounded by his friend’s decision. “I can’t believe he’d decline my offer,” he told his dad, “especially because he needs the money so badly.”

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

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Nothing here as of now.
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 something horseback riders have had trouble dealing with many times before. Imagine it! It’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re out horseback riding. As time goes by, you and your horse become thirsty. You might have a water bottle handy for such situations, but quenching the thirst of that horse won’t be so easy.

Indeed, horses are big animals and that means they are big drinkers. In fact, they can drink anywhere between 5-15 gallons of waters a day. However, this amount varies depending on a few factors, such as the temperature outside and how hard the horse has been working.

Anyways, to sate the horse’s thirst, you lead them to a nearby water source. But after getting there, the horse doesn’t want to drink, and since it’s bigger and stronger than you, you can’t force it to take a drink either. How frustrating! You’ve made it so simple for the horse to help itself, yet it refuses to take this golden opportunity you’ve given them. Well, today, this very situation is applied to people who, like the horse, do not take advantage of the opportunities given them.

Okay, so… who came up with the expression? Here’s what is known:

This expression (or at least, the idea of it) is said to go back to at least 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 above), it does sound like what’s being said is related to the proverb that we know today. 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 taking a drink 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.

Alright, so we know the proverb possibly goes back to the year 1175. Now, what’s more certain is that it definitely does go back to the 16th century. For example, it was used in a book at that 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.”

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

  • My friend John wanted to eat healthier, but he’s unsure where to start. I gave him some advice on the subject and even linked him to a website with step by step instructions on how to prepare cheap and healthy meals quickly.

But despite all of the help, John’s eating habits did not change. Thus, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

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