“Ein totes Pferd reiten” means, quite literally, to ride a dead horse. As you may have worked out, it’s Germany’s version of the English saying, “to flog a dead horse”, which describes a futile waste of effort that won’t pay off in the long-run.
The phrase was recently used in a speech by AfD leader Alice Weidel to describe the government’s attempt to bring in compulsory vaccines.
“You’re riding a dead horse,” she told pro-vaccine MPs in parliament. “Please dismount.”
So, where do all these horse analogies come from?
It’s often claimed that this piece of conventional wisdom comes from a traditional Dakota Indian saying: “If you realise you’re riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to get off.”
However, others speculate that the saying moved into German from the English idiom and gained popularity with the publication of a 1995 book by business and economics guru Barry Asmus, which bore the title: “When Riding a Dead Horse, for Heaven’s Sake….Dismount!”
Though there are examples of the phrase being used in German throughout the 20th century, the suggestion that Asmus is partly responsible for its popularity is supported by the fact that its usage has mainly taken off in the new millennium.
It may also explain its popularity in the corporate world as a pithy way to urge business executives to change their strategy.
In essence, the phrase cautions people to see the reality of a situation and act accordingly, with the “dead horse” representing a hopeless situation that’s unlikely to lead to a positive outcome.
So, feel free to impress your German friends by offering them this sage piece of wisdom – but don’t be tempted to describe your own German language learning as a “dead horse” and promptly dismount.
While it can be a tricky language to learn, we can assure you: “Es lohnt sich.” (It’s worth it!)
“Meistens wissen wir es insgeheim: Das Pferd, das wir reiten, ist schon lange tot.”
“Most of the time we secretly know: the horse we’re riding has been dead for some time.”
“Wieso verstehen sie nicht, dass sie aktuell ein totes Pferd reiten?”
“Why don’t they realise that they’re currently flogging a dead horse?”