The Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon

Xenophon Statue.jpg

As classical horsemanship goes it is not possible to be more classic than, well, an ancient Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and author who was also a student and friend of Socrates!

Xenophon, pronounced ZEN-oh-fahn, born circa 430 B.C.E., was an Athenian who   lived and fought during the Peloponnesian War. In his younger days he was a solider fighting for the mercenary Ten Thousand army and later fought with the mighty Spartans. That gives him quit the experience to pull from for his later written works, the one of particular interest here is of course his treatise of The Art of Horsemanship.

The Art of Horsemanship is a manual for what horsemanship was to the ancient Greeks, but more to the point what it was to Xenophon personally. He felt himself well versed in the horseman's art from his years of experience in dealing with and riding horses. A testament to the man who lived and breathed warfare and survived to write about it. 

It isn't a long book, and aside from the translation of its ancient language to English, it could still read as if it was a training manual for horsemanship today by a more recent master. That's pretty amazing considering it is more than twenty three centuries old!

The Art of Horsemanship is divided into three main sections:

  • Xenophon on Horsemanship
    • The first, and main, section of the book which translates Xenophon's own writings.
  • The Greek Riding Horse
    • This section is more a third party history of Xenophon and horses in the ancient world.
  • Points of the Horse
    • A collection of descriptions by ancient Greek and Roman sources on what made a good horse; sources such as Varro, Vergil, Calpurnius, and Palladius.

This book/treatise is so full of great information, and history! It was obvious that our ancient equestrians loved and admired their horses as much as we do today. So without further ado, here are our favorite pearls of wisdom from Xenophon:

  • "It has been my fortune to spend a great deal of time in riding, and so I think myself versed in the horseman's art."
    • Translation: I know my horse shit.
  • "For spirit, no very sure signs of that are offered by an animal that has never yet been mounted."
    • Translation: They could still get crazy, proceed with caution.
  • "Just as a house would be good for nothing if it were very handsome above but lacked the proper foundations, so too a war-horse, even if all his other points were fine, would yet be good for nothing if he had bad feet." 
    • Translation: No hoof, no horse, no matter how good looking. 
  • "The mane, forelock, and tail are gifts of the gods bestowed on the horse for beauty."
    • Translation: Horses are the most beautiful creatures ... ever.
  • "The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this, never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion. A fit of passion is a thing that has no foresight in it, and so we often have to rue the day when we gave way to it."
    • Translation: No ride rage. You'll regret it. 
  • "Consequently, when your horse shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be shown that there is nothing fearful in it, least of all to a courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it with gentleness."
    • Translation: Fluff his ego, when in doubt sacrifice yourself to prove it to him. 
  • "...take courage from the knowledge that the horses of the Persians and Odrysians, all of whom habitually run their races down hill, are not a bit less sound than Greek horses." 
    • Translation: Persians and Odrysians were crazy, but Greek horses were still better by comparison. 
  • "And if ever there is cavalry skirmishing, when two armies are set in array against each other, and the one side pursues even to the enemy's main body, while the other retreats among its friends, it is well just here to bear in mind that while one is among his friends he is both brave and safe in wheeling among the first and pressing on at full speed, but that when he gets near the foe he should keep his horse well in hand; for thus, while doing hurt to the enemy, he could probably best escape being hurt by them himself."
    • Translation: Pfft. Precisely why women are taking over the equestrian world.
  • "If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him. Most people think that this is the way to make him look fine; but they only produce an effect exactly contrary to what they desire."
    • Translation: Kind hands, independent seat, soft legs. 
  • "For what the horse does under compulsion, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign."
    • Translation: A willing and educated horse is a thing of grace and beauty.
  • "It is the best of lessons if the horse gets a season of repose whenever he has behaved to his rider's satisfaction."
    • Translation: Give your horse some time off to be a horse.

Live. Love. Horses.