This is an English proverb. You may want the horse to drink, but the best you can do is lead it to water. After that the horse, just like a human, drinks only if it wants to. The proverb is usually used in the senses of ‘there’s only so much you can do’ or ‘people will do what they want’ or ‘you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.’ Even favorable circumstances aren’t enough to make one to do something one doesn’t want to do.
Apparently, this proverb is one of the oldest in English, having been recorded in Old English Homilies, 1175.
There is really no great mystery about the source of this proverb. Horses were an essential part of human life for centuries and are still important in various life styles. This is reflected in the many proverbs and phrases that concern horse facts.
I’ve been on a horse kick lately, so here are a couple more ‘horse’ phrases, though neither of them needs any explanation.
Eat like a horse: Have a big appetite.
That’s a horse of a different color: Another matter entirely.
And, as another matter entirely, I’ve submitted my short story Grand Champion to a Canadian anthology of humor. The story is about cats, not horses, and describes what it might be like if cats were to hold a ‘people show’ and award prizes for obedience, agility in opening cans of tuna, and lap configuration. I should hear about this one in a couple of weeks. Fingers crossed!
Now, I wonder where “crossing one’s fingers” came from.