Leading Horses to Water

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. This proverb has always puzzled me. People say it as a lament, as if it's frustrating that you can't make a horse drink water.

Here's what I don't get: Why the heck do you want the horse to drink? Horses are pretty smart about water. When they're thirsty, they drink. When they're not thirsty, they don't drink. If they aren't drinking, it's probably because they're not thirsty. Why do you want a horse to drink if it's not thirsty?

The proverb is a metaphor. What does the metaphor map to? "You" is the change agent. The water is some good idea that the change agent thinks would benefit some people. The horse is the people that the change agent thinks would benefit. "Lead" is what the change agent does by offering or advocating the obviously good idea. "Drink" means to apply the idea.

So "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink" means "We smart change agents can tell people about our brilliant ideas, but we can't make them adopt the ideas."

And this is offered as a lament, as if it's frustrating that we brilliant change agents can't make people adopt our brilliant ideas.

Horses are pretty smart about whether to drink water. Maybe, too, people are pretty smart about whether to adopt the ideas we're offering. Maybe they know when to adopt them and when not to. Lamenting the fact that people don't adopt our ideas seems to me to be about as useful as lamenting that horses don't drink the water we've led them to.

Here's an idea: Try leading a thirsty horse to water and see what it does. If the horse is tired, lead it to shade and a soft place to lie down. If the horse is hungry, offer it hay and oats. If the horse doesn't need anything, maybe leave it alone.

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