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.