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 nice opportunity, but you can’t make them take it if they don’t want to.
Example: My friend Brock doesn’t have a job so he’s struggling to make ends meet. I offered him money to help out, but to my surprise, he refused to take it. Later, I told my dad: “It’s hard to believe that Brock declined my money considering his circumstances.”
“Well,” said my dad, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
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 an annoyed horseback rider would come up with. Think about it: After riding around for a bit, the rider might lead his or her horse to a nearby water source so they can drink. This would be an ideal opportunity for the horse to hydrate itself. But what if the horse doesn’t want to? Well, as the saying goes, “you can’t make it drink.”
So how old is this proverb? This phrase (well, the idea of it anyways) is thought to go back to the 12th century. It’s said to have made an appearance in a book called Old English Homilies, 1175:
“Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him-self nule drinken?”
Note: I’ve seen this quote translated two different ways. I’ll list them below:
1. “Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”
2. “Who is he that may water the horse and not drink himself?”
With the first translation, the idea of the proverb is indeed being expressed. However, in the second translation, it sounds like after giving his horse water to drink, the man drinks some as well. That doesn’t sound like it has much to do with the proverb, but then again, this might be a misunderstanding on my part. In any case, since I’m unsure of which translation is more accurate, I’ll just say that the idea of this expression possibly dates back to the year 1175.
Anyway, the phrase definitely dates back to the 16th century. It appears in a book during 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.”
Did You Know?
Horses are big animals and that means they are big drinkers. They can drink anywhere between 5-15 gallons of water a day.
Example of “You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink”
- John wanted to eat healthier, but he didn’t know where to start so he asked his friend, Ryan, for advice. Ryan gave some nice tips on what foods to eat and he even told him of a website that had simple instructions on how to easily prepare healthy meals.
Despite his friend’s 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.