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What does it mean to ride a dead horse?

Riding a dead horse is an idiom that refers to continuing to do something that is futile or pointless. The phrase evokes the comical image of someone trying to ride a horse that has died and will obviously go nowhere. This metaphor can apply to many situations where people persist with strategies, beliefs or courses of action that are clearly ineffective or counterproductive, but they keep doing them anyway out of stubbornness, ignorance or denial. Some key questions around the meaning of “beating a dead horse” include:

Where does the phrase “beating a dead horse” come from?

The origins of the idiom “beating a dead horse” are uncertain, but it seems to date back to the mid-19th century in America. Some theories suggest it was originally a nautical phrase referring to continuing to swab the deck unnecessarily after it was already clean. The futile image of trying to get a dead horse to move by beating it was also likely influenced by the role horses played on farms and in transportation at the time. The phrase appeared in print in various publications in the 1860s and became widespread in the early 20th century.

In what situations might the phrase be applicable?

“Beating a dead horse” can be applicable in many types of situations where persistence is pointless:

  • In business, continuing an unprofitable product line or service that has no future
  • In technology, trying to force an outdated system or process to work rather than upgrading
  • In politics, clinging to a failed policy or repeating talking points that have been rejected
  • In science, sticking with a disproven theory rather than accepting new evidence
  • In relationships, fixating on an ex or a breakup that’s long over
  • In sports, stubbornly relying on a star player past their prime

Essentially, “beating a dead horse” can describe any scenario where people are beating their heads against a wall, so to speak, despite clear signs it’s not working.

What are some variations of the phrase?

Some common variations include:

  • “Flogging a dead horse” – more emphatic wording with the same meaning
  • “Don’t beat a dead horse” – advice to stop a futile course of action
  • “That’s beating a dead horse” – indicates someone is doing something pointless
  • “Beating a dead parrot” – humorous reference to a famous Monty Python comedy skit

But the core image and meaning remain the same – persists with something that clearly does not and cannot work.

When Beating a Dead Horse Makes Sense

While the idiom “beating a dead horse” generally has a negative connotation, there are some circumstances where persisting may be justified or worth it:

You’re gathering definitive proof

Sometimes more beating of the “dead horse” is required to absolutely confirm it is dead and be sure there is no chance of it miraculously reviving. Data gathering, testing and validation beyond normal failing points can definitively settle doubts.

You’re removing obstacles or hazards

A dead horse poses logistical challenges and health risks if left on a thoroughfare or water supply. Dragging away or dismantling it makes pragmatic sense. Similarly, dismantling or containing the negative impacts of a failed system or policy may still be prudent.

You’re sending a message

Making a dramatic example by beating a dead horse can serve as a warning and disincentive to others against repeating mistakes. Overdoing something futile can communicate seriousness and commitment.

It has symbolic value

Rituals around beating dead horses reflect metaphorical meanings important to people or cultures. Killing the proverbial “dead horse” can bring a sense of closure.

You’re blowing off steam

Sometimes people just need to vent frustrations constructively by beating the metaphorical dead horse before moving on. Catharsis matters for morale and mental health.

You’re in denial or ignorant

When refusing to admit failure or ignorance of futility, beating the dead horse can seem rational. Persistence may also feel like the only option. These require patience and better communication.

So upon closer inspection, beating a dead horse is occasionally warranted or understandable. But more often it remains a pointless exercise in denial and frustration.

How to Know When You’re Beating a Dead Horse

Beating a dead horse only compounds failures and wastes resources. To avoid this trap, look for these telltale signs:

Minimal or diminishing results

If efforts generate little tangible progress, returns are flatlining, or momentum is gone, persisting likely signals beating a dead horse. Lacking any positive trajectory going forward is a giveaway.

No traction after sustained effort

Pushing hard for an extended time with no uptake indicates beating a dead horse. Doubling down rarely pays off in these cases. If no one’s interested after a marketing blitz, it may be time to let go.

Repeated failures

Consistent failures and setbacks when attempting the same approach over and over is a clear red flag. Continued futility in spite of multiple tries beats a dead horse.

Opportunity costs

When persisting in one area compromises attention and resources for more promising opportunities, beating a dead horse may be underway. Sunk cost bias can perpetuate the tendency, but cutting losses frees up assets.

Negative reactions

Complaints, pushback and feedback that your approach is fruitless or misguided are clues. Ignoring critics and doubling down often wastes time and goodwill.

Paying attention to these signals can help determine if further efforts are worthwhile or just beating a dead horse. Being flexible and redirecting energy to new solutions is key.

What to Do Instead of Beating a Dead Horse

Once it becomes clear you’re beating a dead horse, shifting gears is essential:

Let it go

Simply ceasing futile efforts frees up time and resources for more constructive uses. Admitting defeat may be hard, but moving on is better.

Change your approach

If the overall objective remains worthwhile, brainstorm innovative alternatives or enlist fresh perspectives to revamp strategy. Find different routes to the same destination.

Improvise and adapt

Flexible thinking and willingness to evolve beats rigid fixation. Experiment with tweaks until gaining traction. Be willing to abandon what clearly fails.

Learn from failure

Analyze thoroughly where things went wrong and capture lessons. Make corrections to avoid repeat mistakes. Failure often seeds eventual success.

Focus energy elsewhere

Reinvest freed-up resources into more promising opportunities where your efforts will have impact and ROI. Play to your strengths.

Knowing when to change track avoids the sunk cost fallacy and opportunity costs of beating dead horses. Don’t let stubbornness undermine judgment – quit while you’re not ahead.

Signs Your Team or Organization May be Beating a Dead Horse

Beating a dead horse is not just an individual trap. Entire teams and organizations can wear blinders that allow futile pursuits to drag on. Some symptoms include:

Sticking rigidly to the plan

Unwillingness to modify or abort commitments, despite ineffectiveness or changing conditions, signals a horse-beating mentality.

Doubling down after failures

Increasing investment and effort after the method has proven unsound wastes resources chasing bad money with good.

Lack of post-mortems or accountability

No analysis or learning from failure allows beating dead horses to continue indefinitely.

Shooting messengers of bad news

Ignoring or retaliating against critics who point out the futility reinforces marching in place.

Insular culture

Groupthink and deference to authority figures who champion failed initiatives entrenches dead-horse behaviors.

Sunk cost bias

Letting past investments of money, time and ego justify continued wasted effort, even when writing off sunk costs would be more rational.

Saving face over success

Hesitating to pull the plug on fruitless policies, products or plans to avoid embarrassment or perception of failure.

These cultural traits and cognitive biases enable dead horses to be beaten long past their expiration date.

Tips to Stop Beating Dead Horses as a Team or Organization

To break free of collective dead horse traps, leaders, managers and team members should:

Emphasize flexibility

Build adaptable systems and a culture of creativity that expects and accepts the need for regular course corrections.

Analyze thoroughly

Don’t be afraid to shine a light on what went wrong post-failure. Capture lessons rather than play blame games.

Encourage transparency

Make sure bad news can travel fast to decision makers without people shooting messengers or covering up setbacks.

Incentivize trial and error

Take measured risks and celebrate intelligent failures on the road to innovation. Allow experimentation and evolution.

Empower people to speak up

Flatten hierarchies that concentrate authority with rigid thinkers unable or unwilling to change track when efforts clearly fail.

Reward willingness to pivot

Praise those who take hits to their ego or status in the interest of redirecting energy to more productive ends.

Avoid loss aversion

Make write-offs emotionally and professionally acceptable to enable cutting bait on sunk costs for the greater organizational good.

Fostering a nimble, proactive mindset avoids teams beating dead horses together. The focus should be on bright futures, not salvaging past losses.

Examples of Beating a Dead Horse

Some real-world instances where persistently sticking with fruitless endeavors meant beating dead horses:

Blockbuster doubling down on retail stores

The video rental chain reacted too slowly to streaming, trying to prop up its brick-and-mortar model long after customers switched to on-demand video at home.

Nokia missing the smartphone transition

The cell phone giant rejected adapting its Symbian operating system for touchscreens, surrendering the market to iPhones and Android.

Microsoft’s Zune and Windows Phone flops

Microsoft spent billions trying unsuccessfully to compete against Apple’s iPod and iPhone juggernauts.

Sears clinging to old ways

The iconic retailer clung to physical stores too long while failing to compete effectively online against Amazon and other e-commerce disruptors.

Blockbuster video streaming attempts

After massive retail store declines, Blockbuster’s belated efforts to launch their own streaming platforms failed to catch up with Netflix and other established players.

Energizer’s silly smartphone sequel

A dual-screen sequel smartphone by the battery brand bombed terribly, but they soldiered ahead to launch a third version no one wanted.

History provides endless examples of dead horses being beaten by individuals, teams and organizations. The difficulty lies in recognizing it and changing course before irrevocable harm is done. Awareness and flexibility are key.


Beating a dead horse refers to persistently pursuing a futile activity and applies to many situations where people continue a course of action or strategy that is clearly ineffective. Though occasional exceptions exist, typically this represents denial, stubbornness, ignorance or inability to adapt. Organizations and teams are also prone to collectively beating dead horses through rigid thinking, insularity and loss aversion. But the sunk cost fallacy only worsens losses. Wiser leaders accept when a horse has died and redirect energy where it can make an impact. With self-awareness, analysis and flexibility, both individuals and groups can avoid the dead horse trap and create positive change.