You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
Quite a phrase, isn’t it? I imagine a young mother reciting those words while attempting to feed her stubborn toddler. I picture a senior salesman lending this advice to a new recruit before making his first sales pitch. What causes someone to utter these words? Generally, it is a way of relieving a frustrating situation such as the mother feeding her child. Other times, it is a reality check for someone like the young salesman. Little more thought goes into dissecting this phrase. However, I will indulge myself.
You can lead a horse to water. Who is involved in this situation? You have some person, most likely the horse’s owner or caretaker, who is in control of the horse. The audience with fresh ears assumes this person (let’s call him Eric) has almost total control of the beast. Eric cares for the horse and wants the horse to drink water. Water is refreshing. It cools a hot body as it rolls down the throat. It cleanses grime off of calloused hands after a hard day’s work. Most importantly, water is a necessity for life. Who wouldn’t want water? Even if I am not thirsty, I still find myself enjoying a nice glass of water. If you lead a horse to water, the horse will obviously drink, right?
You cannot make it drink. The listener is caught off guard. “What do you mean I can’t make it drink? The horse’s face is almost touching the water already. I would drink the water! Why won’t the horse?” Eric is irritated. Imagine him pointing trying to direct the horse’s gaze to the water. Perhaps, he gets on his knees and acts like a dog lapping at the water hoping the horse will imitate. To goad the horse, maybe he forces the horse’s snout closer to the water until it yields to the pressure. Whatever Eric does, the horse refuses to drink. It’s hopeless. Eric simply cannot impose his will onto the horse.
This old proverb is simple to understand. As Phrase Finder explains, “People, like horses, will only do what they have a mind to do.” Yet, I still have a question eating away at me: for what specific reason does the horse not drink? The most realistic answer is that the horse was not thirsty. What if the horse was thirsty and wanted a nice Coca-Cola instead? The horse really hated tasteless water and refused to drink until some lemonade powder was stirred into the liquid. Perhaps, the horse had a fear of water and wanted nothing more than to run as far away from it as possible. Even worse, the horse was living a difficult life and was contemplating plunging its head into the water in order to end it all.
Anytime someone uses this phrase, they are evidently not referring to a horse. The mother is thinking of her child’s health, the elder employee wants to see his co-worker excel, and the concerned friend wants to see his old pal escape from a reckless life…but you cannot make them drink. You have done everything in your power to coax them into enjoying the cool, life-giving water, and they will never yield. What is left to do?
I honestly wish I had an answer. Well, I do have an answer, and it’s very cliché. Never give up. Keep trying. In time, your relentless care will break them down, and everybody lives happily ever after. Yet, this is very hard to say when one finds himself in such a situation. Sad endings happen. Even after long nights of prayer and petition to God, tragedy strikes. No matter how badly you want something to change for the better, the worst occurs.
Here is my last word. The water is good. Please, drink.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”