What Does You Can Lead a Horse to Water Mean?

You Can Lead a Horse to Water Meaning

Definition: You can show someone something that will benefit him, but you can’t force him to accept it. People, like horses, will do as they will.

The full phrase is you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. A variation uses the verb bring instead of lead: you can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.

Origin of You can Lead a Horse to Water

This phrase comes from the 12th century and may be the single oldest distinctly English proverb that is still used today. This phrase originated in English and is one of the language’s earliest proverbs.

Its first recorded English use was in 1175 in Old English Homilies:

  • 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?]

It appeared in John Heywood’s proverb collection of 1546:

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

Of course, it has many more famous uses throughout the last several centuries.

Examples of You can Lead a Horse to Water

lead a horse to water quote meaningIn this example, a man uses the expression when describing a situation at work.

Rodrigo: Alisha, I want to ask your advice about something.

Alisha: Sure. What’s up?

Rodrigo: So, you remember that I supervise a team of employees at my job, right?

Alisha: Yeah.

Rodrigo: Well, one of them is really talented. I think he would make a great supervisor. I keep encouraging him to become an assistant manager. He’d have more responsibilities, a higher salary, and more benefits, and it would look great on his resume. It would be a big step forward in his career, but he seems uninterested. He just wants to keep his current position.

Alisha: Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Rodrigo: I suppose that’s true.

drag a horse to waterIn the example below, two friends are discussing the fancy dinner party they are throwing.

Luis: Stephanie, no one is eating the dip I made for the chips!

Stephanie: Maybe they’re not hungry.

Luis: They’re eating everything else. I don’t understand why they are avoiding the one thing I made myself. I spent forever making it, it tastes delicious, and it’s super healthy! They should eat. I’m going to go offer it to people individually.

Stephanie: I don’t think that’s a great idea. People will eat it if they want to eat it. There’s no need for you to try to force them to eat it.

Luis: I guess you’re right. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about classical music.

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But what if you took it to a bar, and played classical music for it? What if, to lighten the mood, you asked it a few musical trivia questions, and handed out prizes? What if you paired music and cocktails, so that the horse had just the right drink in its hoof as it listened to Brahms? –OC Register

This excerpt is a quote from a psychotherapist who is talking about the similarities between horses and the human psyche.

  • “Just as you can lead a horse to water and let it be free to make its own choice,” she adds, “in a gentle way we can lead the mind to a more positive way of thinking, communicating and acting — and make it part of our nature.” –LA Times

Summary

People use the proverb you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink to emphasize that people will do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it.

They will do this even if you think there’s a better or different thing that they should do instead.