You Can Lead a Horse to Water – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to describe someone’s stubborn attitude towards heeding your advice? If so, you can use “you can take a horse to water.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The proverbial expression “you can lead a horse to water” is the shorter version of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It refers to a stubborn person refusing to heed other people’s advice.

You can give the person all the tools and skills they need in life, but you can’t force them to use them. That’s up to the individual, not you.

Example Usage

“I tried to convince Greg to take a flu shot, but he refuses. You know what they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

“I’ve sent the team home with the training manuals. They know what they need to do, but as they say, you can lead a horse to water.”

“I’m tired of trying to convince you. You can lead a horse to water. If you don’t want to take my advice, that’s on you.”

Origin

The origin of the expression “you can lead a horse to water” comes from England in the late 1100s. The phrase first appears in “Old English Homilies” as the following.

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

The modern English translation is “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

John Heywood included the saying in his work, “A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue,” where it appears as follows.

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

The phrase went into widespread use in the language. By the 1600s, the expression was in active use by the population. The play “Narcissus,” performed and published in 1602, has the phrase as follows.

“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.”

Phrases Similar to You can Lead a Horse to Water

  • Leave me out of it.
  • Some people don’t want to hear it.

Phrases Opposite to You can Lead a Horse to Water

  • Willing submission.
  • I’ll do anything you say.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • You can lead a horse to water.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Ways People May Say You can Lead a Horse to Water Incorrectly

The phrase has nothing to do with horses or water. In this case, the horse is a stubborn person, and the water is your advice or recommendations.

It’s common for people to say “take” a horse to the water, but this is incorrect, and “lead” is the proper choice for the expression.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase You Can Lead a Horse to Water

You can use the phrase “you can lead a horse to water” when trying to explain that some people won’t heed your advice or listen to your instructions. The expression suits professional and social use.

At the office, you could use it to describe how a team member refuses to adhere to their training. Or you could use it when you’re giving your friends good advice or recommendations, and they refuse to listen to you.

It’s common for people to use the full version of the phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” However, since it’s such a widely adopted saying, most people use the shorter version.

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