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

Meaning of ‘You Can Lead a Horse To Water’

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 has been unemployed for months and will probably be evicted from his apartment soon unless he comes up with enough money to pay the bills.

Carl wanted to help his friend Brock. His father was a contractor looking to hire, so perhaps this would be an opportune time to get Brock working again. After speaking to his dad about his friend’s situation, the dad agreed to help. But when Brock heard the news, he refused the job.

“I can’t believe he’d decline such a great opportunity,” Carl said to his dad, “especially because he needs the money so badly.”

“Well,” said his father, “as they say, 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, proverb.

The Origin Of ‘You Can Lead a Horse To Water’

When you’re out horseback riding, eventually both you and your horse are gonna get thirsty. Having a water bottle with you is handy for such situations, but to qunech the thirst of a horse, it will require much more than whats in that tiny plastic bottle.

Yes, horses drink quite a bit. In fact, they 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.

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. What, come on! You’ve made it so easy for the horse to drink, yet they refuse the opportunity you’ve given them. How annoying! Today, this situation is applied to people who, like the horse, do not take advantage of opportunities given to them.

So, who came up with this 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?]”

So, this quote may or may share a connection with this proverb. The reason I say this has to do with the translation. The first translation (seen in the first set of brackets above) does make it sound like it’s related to the proverb we know today. However, if the second translation is actually correct, then the quote is simply talking about a man giving water to his horse and also drinking some himself. To me, that has nothing to do with this proverb or the idea behind it. So the question is, which translation is accurate? *shrugs* I don’t know.

Anyways, this proverb most certainly goes back to the 16th century. It’s 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.”


  • John wants to eat healthier, but he doesn’t know which foods to add and cut from his diet. His friend offered some great advice on the subject and even linked him to a website that has step by step tutorials on how to prepare cheap and healthy meals quickly.

But despite all of this 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.