Did someone say to you, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink,’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.
‘You can lead horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ is a proverb that means that you can show someone else how to do something, but you can’t make them actually follow through and do it. Essentially, you can do everything you can to encourage someone toward a direction that seems obviously beneficial, but, in the end, what they do is their own choice.
There are a few variations of this phrase, all of which have the same meaning, including:
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ shows up in Old English Homilies from 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?]
Some even claim that this might be the earliest English proverb that’s still in use today, though the following date back even further with either an original Greek or Biblical source:
When the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.
(Dates back to the late 9th century in English; Originally from the Bible, Luke Chapter 6)
A friend in need is a friend indeed.
(Dates back to mid 11th century in English; Originally from the 5th century BC in Greek)
Some variation of the proverb ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ has been in use continuously since the 12th century. It appears in the influential glossary by John Heywood, A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue:
"A man maie well bring a horse to the water, But he can not make him drinke without he will."
This phrase appears again and again over the centuries in a wide variety of different forms. In the 1602 play Narcissus with the subtitle A Twelfe Night Merriment, played by youths of the parish at the College of Saint John the Baptist in Oxford, we find the following passage:
Your parents have done what they coode,
They can but bringe horse to the water brinke,
But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we find many early examples of ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ in print.
One even appears in the 1870 publication Todd’s Country Homes and How to Save Money, discussing just how true the proverb is in relation to horses drinking water:
“Horses, too, suffer more from want of water than can easily be imagined. Your horse is led out to water at sunset; from some reason he does not want to drink; perhaps it is but a short time since he had his dinner drink; he may be almost thirsty, but his instinct is not reason, and he does not know how to provide against a future want; he does not, like man, drink when he is supplied, though he may not need it, but only when his stomach cries “give.” Hence the old proverb, “Any fool can lead a horse to water, but the Devil can’t make him drink.”
How would ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:
What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’?
Here are some options:
‘You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ is a very old proverb– perhaps the oldest English proverb that is still in use today– that means that you can provide someone with the necessary means to do something or an opportunity. Still, you can’t make them act upon it or take advantage of it. This phrase recognizes that you can do everything in your power to help someone or teach them something useful, but what they do is ultimately their own choice.
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