In the proverb "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink", why is the horse a male? Is there an origin/backstory, similarly to how boats are considered female?

Also, I think "...make him drink..." is the original, rather than "...make it drink...". Does anyone know if this, or the opposite, is correct?

Edit: I found from my research that Old English Homilies, written in 1175, might have been where the proverb came from (the exact reference was "Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken"). However, this doesn't seem to explain why the horse is referred to as "him" in the proverb.


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    Not all ships – except man-of-war and merchantman and possibly others. Aug 13, 2020 at 16:18
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    A female horse is called a "mare"?? And perhaps male animals have the fame of being stubborn?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 13, 2020 at 16:47
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    The male was used as the default generic long before PCness was championed. @Weather Vane Then there was 'There's the Duke of Gloucester – she's a lovely engine'. And Thomas. Aug 13, 2020 at 18:43
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    FYI, Elephind newspaper database searches covering newspapers in Australia and the US find 854 matches for "but you can't make him drink," dating to 1858; 61 matches for "but you can't make it drink," dating to 1864; and 2 matches for "but you can't make her drink," dating to 1920 (the first of those two instances refers to a chicken rather than to a horse, but the second, from 1931, refers to a horse). I didn't check the individual results for duplicate matches—but even if they are fairly numerous, the overall preference for "him" over "it" is quite substantial.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 13, 2020 at 20:26
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    As it's usually pronounced in English, the final phrase is /mekəm'drɪŋk/, which could be transcribed as make him drink or make them drink. Both are grammatical, both mean the same thing. Differences between them are social and political, not linguistic. Aug 13, 2020 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


In basic terms, A horse was a male and a mare was female.

From The Middle English Compendium:

Hors (n.) 1.(a) A horse [often presumably = (b)]; (b) an adult male horse; male ~.

c1400(?c1382) Wycl.Lincoln.(Bod 647)231 : As a horce unrubbed, þat haves a sore back, wynses when he is oght touched or rubbed on his rugge.

Although "mare" also meant "horse of any gender and type:

  1. A riding horse, a steed; also, any beast of burden; also, cattle, livestock, pastured domesticated animals;

Etymology OE mēares, mēare, etc. (infl. forms of mearh, *merh 'horse') & WS mȳ̆re, A *mēre 'mare'.

it was later used chiefly for the female horse:

"(c1300) Havelok (LdMisc 108)2504 : Þei garte bringe þe mere sone..And bunden him rith at hire tayl.

?a1425(c1400) Mandev.(1) (Tit C.16)167/21,29 : And men putten a mare besyde him with hire fole & an hors sadeled & brydeled..

  • Thank you, @Greybeard! Very clear and detailed answer.
    – Dxml
    Aug 14, 2020 at 2:18

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