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

Background

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!

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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’.

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This idiom in real life

1.

– 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.

2.

– 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.