German phrase of the day: Ein totes Pferd reiten

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Unless, of course, this German phrase applies to you.

german word of the day
Photo: Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash / Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

“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. 

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Innerer Schweinehund

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?” 

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German word of the day: Lüften

One of the first lessons you learn when living in Germany is that airing out rooms is extremely important.

German word of the day: Lüften

Whether you sublet, rent a flat or own your home in Germany, it’s likely you’ve been told how important it is to lüften, or open your windows and let air in and out regularly. 

Lüften can be a verb or noun in Germany. As a noun it uses the ‘das’ article and stands for ventilation. The verb lüften means to air out something. It comes from the German word die Luft which means air.

The proper airing out of rooms is a very German thing. Hell, it’s a way of life. 

Just check your rent contract. Foreigners in Germany are often surprised to find that ventilating their homes is usually written into their contract and accompanied by instructions. That means it’s literally legally binding! 

There are very important rules to remember, and German even has a set of vocabulary dedicated to getting fresh air safely in and out the room. 

Words like Stoßlüften – which translates to shock or impact ventilation. This is needed at least twice a day (and more in summer) and involves opening the windows or balcony doors wide to let a ‘shock’ of cold air in. According to experts, you should do this for about five minutes a time in winter, 10-15 minutes each time in autumn and spring, and up to half an hour in summer.

Meanwhile, Querlüften or cross ventilation involves opening all the windows of a house or building and letting the fresh air flow through.

The aim of all this lüften is to stop mould from forming, get rid of smells and to stop rooms from getting too humid. The more people that live in your home, the more airing out you’ll have to do. 

Germans recommend that you turn off your heating while airing out your room (to save on money and to protect the climate) – so be sure to have a big jumper on if you’re airing out in winter. 

READ ALSO: Why Germans are obsessed with the art of airing out a room

Lüften took on a whole new meaning in the pandemic as other countries – or at least those that didn’t have the same culture for airing out – began recommending it to people as a way of helping protect against Covid-19 transmission.  

A good German habit

Lüften can quickly become a habit. Whereas before Germany, I was happy to leave a window tilted open for a while to get some fresh air, I’m now obsessed with the proper way to do it. 

I throw open the windows of my flat wide at regular intervals to get that fresh air circulating, even in the dead of winter. When I’m at home in Scotland or on holiday somewhere else, I do the same thing, which can be alarming to people who think you are trying to freeze them.

I find myself feeling pleased when the neighbours across the road from my Berlin flat open their windows or balcony doors wide. It’s like we’re all part of the secret society of fresh air.

There is nothing now that stands between me and Lüften. When I tweeted about this habit, lots of people said they felt a similar way. 

One Twitter user said: “Been telling my family this for years – as they shiver and complain about how cold it is, and my partner and I passive-aggressively follow each other around shutting and reopening windows. Makes for fun times.”

Another said: “My little sister spent an exchange year in Germany before me and when I visited was thoroughly disturbed by her obsessive window opening. A couple years later I was living in Germany and had become a convert, too.”


Hey Karl, Kannst du bitte dein Zimmer lüften?

Hey Karl, can you please air out your room?

In Deutschland muss man die Zimmer richtig lüften.

You really have to air out rooms the right way in Germany.