Idioms Explained #2: ‘You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can’t Make It Drink’

An idiom a day keeps your English okay! In this series we examine English idioms and teach you how to use them.

2. You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can’t Make It Drink


Have you ever put milk in a saucer for a cat, who sniffed it and just walked away? Or tried to feed a dog with the biscuits it doesn’t like? That’s what this idiom is based on. It’s easy to bring a horse to a stream and say ‘okay now drink!’ The horse might drink some of the water, or it might not. There’s nothing you can do about it!


How to Use It

This idiom is used for situations where you can only solve part of a problem, and somebody else must take the final step. For example, if you have a friend who is single and lonely, you can arrange a blind date for her. Arranging the blind date is ‘leading a horse to water’ – but it’s your friend who has to do up her hair, get dressed, and go and meet the guy – you can’t make her ‘drink’.


This idiom in real life


– Did you hear Jack wants to become a dentist?

– Yes, I bought him a book about dentistry and signed him up for an online course for dentists.

– Oh, so it’s all arranged then.

– Not really. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

– You think he won’t read the book or finish the online course?

– He might but I can’t do it for him. We’ll see if he’s really motivated.


– Where’s Jill?

– She’s in her bedroom, crying.

– Why?

– I told her she has to finish her homework before playing video games.

– You shouldn’t push her so hard.

– But she has to get good grades if she wants to go to university.

– She knows that. Maybe she doesn’t really want to go. Anyway, you can’t live her life for her. She has to make her own decisions, right? You can lead a horse to water…

– Don’t tell me how to raise my children! Get out of my house!

– Fine. Be like that. Jesus.

Idioms Explained #1: ‘A Stitch in Time Saves Nine’

An idiom a day keeps your English okay! In this series we examine English idioms and teach you how to use them.

1. A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

First, let’s look at the vocabulary of the sentence.

When you sew clothes you stitch them.

a stitch in time saves nine explained

You can also use the word stitch about someone who had an accident and went to hospital.

I hit my head and needed 5 stitches!

Even for people who understand every word, this idiom is a strange one. But it’s quite simple when you know it.

Imagine a pair of trousers with a little hole in them. If you do nothing, the hole will get bigger. And bigger.

Now that you’ve waited, the hole is so big it would take NINE stitches to fix it.

If you fix the hole as soon as you notice it, you only need ONE stitch.

‘A stitch in time’ means – if you stitch the hole at the right time – and the right time is NOW

‘saves nine’ means – you won’t have to do nine stitches later on

This Idiom in Real Life


– This sink is leaking. There’s a bit of water coming out. Look.

– Oh, we should get a plumber.

– It’s too expensive. Just leave it.

– A stitch in time saves nine.

– You’re right. It will be cheaper to repair the leak now than wait for it to get bigger.

It seems expensive to call a plumber for a small job, but it’s cheaper than repairing a flooded bathroom!


– I had a big fight with Jack last night.

– Oh?

– Yeah we both said some bad things.

– You should call him now and talk about it. If you leave it too long the problem will get worse.

– You’re right. A stitch in time saves nine. I’ll call him now.

If she doesn’t call Jack, their conflict might get bigger and harder to fix later.

What’s the Difference: Shade vs Shadow

Shade. Shadow. These words sometimes mean the same thing, and sometimes not. Oh, English! Why are you so difficult?

Shade is an outdoors area sheltered from the sun. A tree casts shade, as does a building. The inside of a building? That isn’t shade. This cat? He’s in the shade.

shade vs shadow 3

There’s an English phrase that goes, ‘It’s 40 degrees in the shade!’ (It could be another number.) It means that the day is very hot. If it’s 40 degrees in the shade, imagine how hot it is in direct sunlight!

Did you like the picture of the cat in the shade? Okay! Here’s another.

shade vs shadow 1

You’ll see on this website that you can learn everything you need about English through cats.

So what’s a shadow? If there’s a light (could be a candle, a flashlight, the sun) and something blocks it – you get a shadow.


shade vs shadow 2

Question – Does everyone have a shadow?

Answer – No.

Question – What? Of course everyone has a shadow. Don’t be ridiculous.

Answer – You need to read more books.


Question – You realise Peter Pan HAS a shadow? You can see it RIGHT THERE in the picture.

Answer – Fine, okay. He has a shadow. It just doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. Can we move on now?

Question – Just play the helpful video, will you?