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31 May. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” What does this English expression mean?

This is an English proverb which has existed for many centuries although nowadays it is not commonly used. Read below if you would like to find out more about the meaning and origin.


The expression is used to express the fact that people will only do things that they want to do themselves. The idea behind the expression is that a person can try and influence another to do something but at the end of the day an individual will make their own choices.


The expression can be dated back as early as the year 1175 in Old English Homilies which reads “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?) Since this first usage in the 12th century the expression has been used frequently in articles and literature.

More recently it has also inspired another, more humorous, expression which was coined by Dorothy Parker. In 1937 she was quoted to have used the expression “you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”


An example of this expression can be found in the 1602 play Narcissus which reads “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.”

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