Horse that Doesn’t Drink Water

In a recent graduate course on Higher Education Policy Development, one of my classmates metaphorically gave up, his hands up in the air: You can take the horse to water but you cannot make him drink. We were talking about why certain students or student groups perform chronically poorly. We have similar problems in our country, but before I get to the issue of education itself, let me share my confusion about the horse itself? If we take a thirsty horse to the source of water, why wouldn’t it drink? Is there anything that prevents a horse from drinking even if it is thirsty?


Your horse actually is the animal that carries your loads and does all the hard work for you. So it should naturally crave for food and drink. It would rather make more sense if your horse asked for more food and may be more water – it has done hard work after all. But – according to the saying, you can take the horse to the water but you cannot “make” him drink—if he himself is not willing to drink it. Coming from where I do, the metaphorical horse that doesn’t want to drink from the opportunity of education at first seemed absurd for me.

After a little research, what I found was shocking. Why horse doesn’t drink water is actually complicated. Even though water is the most important nutrient that a horse needs to keep itself going, it is likely to get dehydrated due to lack of water consumption, excessive sweating, and overwork in course of a long work, particularly in a hot day. Dehydration complicates the horse’s bodily functions so the body stops sending message to the brain that it is thirsty. It is a strange coping mechanism that the horse’s body is “equipped” with in such a way that it has an ability to keep going without drinking water. What happens is that early in dehydration, the horse can cope well with the fluid loss.  As dehydration progresses, the heart rate will rise, because there will be less fluid in the blood vessels, so the heart has to pump the blood around faster to achieve the same effect. If the fluid deficit continues, then the body will begin to pull the fluids from surrounding tissues to help support the blood volume. To help conserve fluids even further, urination will decrease. Once this “suicidal” course of action starts, your house won’t drink water because of the mismatch of communication between the body and brain and it no longer “feels” thirsty.

This also reminded me of one of our neighbors’ child that refused to eat anything. The parents were so much worried that they always did something to get their child to eat. Finally, they took the child to a children’s hospital, where a team of nutritionists and pediatricians diagnosed that the child was not given food in a structure and as a consequence she developed an aversion toward food. They said that it wouldn’t be possible for the child to come back to normal eating regime, unless the child was admitted to hospital for a few months. From what I know at this point, the child is back to normal now. And from my research in the same line, I have also found that it is possible to make the horse drink water as well. What it takes is some time, energy, patience, and some expert consultation and probably some money.


The context of discussion in the class was the education attainment data of various demographic groups in the USA. Our attention was caught by the low academic attainment rates of the minority students such as African American and Hispanic students. Even though it was not too surprising that African American and Hispanics had lower attainment rates as compared to Whites, what was more disappointing was the trend of the last decades (data from 1990 to 2012) that showed that the gaps of education attainment between Whites and Blacks and between Whites and Hispanics were continuously widening. Probably to explain this with his witticism, one of my fellow classmates (I respect him otherwise) quipped out the tired proverb: You can lead the horse to water but you cannot make him drink.

If a horse doesn’t drink, if your child refused to eat, or if a certain segment of population is not “attaining” enough education, it is a problem. So when you have a problem, you should not make a hammock out of the rotten proverbs and relax in it– not at all particularly if you are in the field of education. You should take an approach to find a solution. And once you take the latter approach, solution is out there.

If we go out of the USA and look at the global scenario, the problem is even worse. There are historically deprived populations all over the world. Most ironically, these populations happen to have made great contribution in building their nations (as the African Americans and Hispanics in the USA). There are Dalits and Janajatis, Rohingyas and Harijans, immigrants and refugees all over the world that are overworked and neglected like the dehydrated horse and there are populations that are continuously pampered with all attention.  As it is up to the parents and horse owners to ensure that their kids and horses eat and drink, so is it the responsibility of education policy makers to take steps (even if it is costly) to ensure all segments of their populations receive palatable education.

What problems do you consider tricky like the thirsty horse not drinking water in the education system of Nepal? What do you think we should do about them? I would love to hear your stories and reflections. Thanks in advance!

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