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You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” is an ancient English proverb used to refer to the stubbornness of human beings.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” is a popular English-language proverb that can be used in a variety of situations. In fact, the proverb is so popular today that it’s possible to find a wide variety of different iterations in which writers have chosen to substitute “horse” and “water” for other nouns, creating a new meaning for the phrase. 

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink

 

Meaning of “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” is an ancient English proverb that has been in use since the 12th century. The phrase refers to the fact that people are single-minded. Even if someone tells another person exactly what it is they need to do or even shows them personally, they will only do whatever it is they want to do. The horse is used as a metaphor for a creature that’s strong, and obstinate, as humans can be, and water as a metaphor for something that’s necessary for survival. This alludes to the fact that people are so stubborn they’ll ignore the best possible advice or instruction if it’s not what they personally want to do. 

 

When To Use “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”

It’s possible to use “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” in a variety of situations. It is quite informal though, so writers and speakers of the English language should be aware that it’s not going to be appropriate at all times. One will be best off using the phrase among friends and family members, or perhaps close work colleagues. Depending on how the line is used, it can come off humorously or even passive-aggressively so one has to be careful not to offend the person they see as the “horse” in the proverb. For example, one might face blowback if they use the phrase to refer to their boss not taking their advice even when it’s in their best interest. 

It’s easy to imagine this phrase being used to refer to someone or a group of people that the speaker doesn’t personally know but is judging from a distance. One great example is an elected official, or a group of officials, who are unable to see and put into practice whoever is best for those they’re legislating for. 

 

Example Sentences 

  • You know what they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. 
  • I’m not at all surprised that she chose not to take the job, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. 
  • After I showed him exactly what to do he just walked away. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. 
  • I’ve never seen a better example of how you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink as we’re seeing now in the United States Government. 

 

Why Do Writers Use “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink?” 

Writers use “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” in the same way and for the same reasons that it’s used in everyday speech. It can appear in fiction and non-fiction works of literature depending on the tone. 

One of the best-known uses of the phrase in literature over the centuries is in the play Narcissus. It was published in 1602 and has the subtitle of A Twelfe Night merriment, played by youths of the parish at the College of Saint John the Baptist in Oxford. The authorship is unknown but the proverb is used in 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

Although phrased differently than the way the proverb is used today, it is obviously alluding to the same thing. Readers from many different ages and iterations of the English language would be able to understand what’s being aid. 

 

Origins of “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” is one of the oldest proverbs in the English language. It was first recorded in Old English Homilies, written sometime around 1175. The passage from this Old English work reads: 

Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken. 

In modern English that is translated to: 

Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?

It can also be found in John Heywood’s well-known work, A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. In this work, the proverb reads: 

A man maie well bring a horse to the water, But he can not make him drinke without he will.

While it’s unclear who first used the phrase or who first connected it to a phenomenon outside of the world of horses, the fact that it can be dated back to the 12th century is incredibly telling about the importance of this proverb in the English language.

 

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