A Hungarian colleague of mine just impressed upon me the idiom

An old donkey pulls all the weight all alone.

The phrase itself isn't a common English idiom (not to my knowledge, anyway). I think in the translation from Hungarian it has become... well, not less eloquent, but perhaps less English. Though hearing it in context I felt it was an apt metaphor.

To provide some context, my colleague is talking about the fact that as the senior member of the team he feels like he expected to cover for the less senior members' mistakes. In this sense, he is the old donkey pulling the weight of the others.

I was trying to come up with a similar phrase in English which describes the same situation that would be more familiar to English speakers, but I am at a loss.

Is there a widely recognised idiom that represents the struggle of feeling all alone unable to rely on the people around you, even with a team/family/group who should be helping or supporting you?

  • 1
    It's not a phrase, but workhorse is the word that comes to mind. That, or beast of burden.
    – user13141
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 12:15
  • Judging by the amount of work he takes on, workhorse is appropriate! But in part he's also reluctant to pass work he's given on to subordinates - for fear that he might end up correcting mistakes and having to do more work in the long run. He's so stubborn about doing it himself that the comparison to a donkey rings particularly true with me.
    – Andy F
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 13:19
  • I think using metaphors in translation is fine, as long as they are comprehensible. Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 14:59
  • Any chance you could post the Hungarian version of this? I don't think I've ever heard it.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 16:32
  • 2
    @AndyF, yeah, that comes out to "the antique donkey pulls the crowd himself", where "the crowd" and "himself" are in the wrong case. :/
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 19:37

6 Answers 6


A related saying might be, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." It definitely has the connotation of not being able to rely on other people (particularly subordinates) to do something. But it doesn't really imply that therefore all the work falls on you.


These aren't idioms I've heard, but how about:

"The older the horse, the heavier the burden"

Or to reverse the idiom of "The chain is only as strong as the weakest link", you could say:

"The strongest link in the chain has to hold the others together"

If I haven't answered it correctly, I at least hope I've gotten close.


"It's lonely at the top", possibly?

  • 1
    I think "Lonely at the top" is more about having to distance yourself from your subordinates in order to be a more effective manager - I suppose what I'm trying to express is a frustration about not being able to rely on the people around you, rather than feeling isolated by them, but a +1 for coming closer than I was able to.
    – Andy F
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 14:46

A vaguely comparable English catch-phrase is, "If you want to get something done, give it to the person who's busiest." The idea being, people who are competent and industrious tend to take on all the work, and people who are sitting around doing nothing are often in that position because they are either too lazy to do the work that's given them or because they are so unreliable that no one trusts them with any important work.


Old or not, this much I know is true: "It's the horse that runs that gets flogged," derived from "Nobody flogs a dead horse." This is true for people, as much as for donkeys and horses, young or old.


I'd say, "An old veteran does the whole job without the help of others."

This could occur for two reasons: 1) The "old veteran" is unusually competent and doesn't need help, or 2) the "old veteran" is "set" in his/her ways, and refuses help from others, even when needed.

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