Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon

I had occasion to revisit one of my favorite books, Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship. Xenophon was a Greek general who lived 2500 years ago. This is the first book on horsemanship that has survived the ages.

What I love about this book is the chance to take a glimpse into another time. We experience a little of the day-to-days with horses as they were then. And, really, they have not changed at all. This first passage is a perfect example:

[5.9] Washing down of the legs we disapprove of; it does no good, and the hoofs are injured by being wetted every day. Excessive cleaning under the belly also should be diminished; for this worries the horse very much, and the cleaner these parts are, the more they collect under the belly things offensive to it;1 [5.10] and notwithstanding all the pains that may be taken with these parts, the horse is no sooner led out than he looks much the same as an unwashed animal. So these operations should be omitted; and as for the rubbing of the legs, it is enough to do it with the bare hands.

Sounds like horses are still horses and have always BEEN horses. They will get dirty no matter what you do! This next quote made me smile. It is awe inspiring to me to see how old such tiny everyday things are. What is more interesting though is it is clear that he understood that it is not the method per se but the consistent application that is important.

[9.10] It should also be known that a horse can be taught to be calm by a chirp with the lips and to be roused by a cluck with the tongue. And if from the first you use with the cluck aids to calm him, and with the chirp aids to rouse him, the horse will learn to rouse himself at the chirp and to calm down at the cluck.

This next quote demonstrates that even 2500 years ago it was understood that the smart and obvious way to train horses is to reward the behavior you want.

[8.13] Now, whereas the gods have given to men the power of instructing one another in their duty by word of mouth, it is obvious that you can teach a horse nothing by word of mouth. If, however, you reward him when he behaves as you wish, and punish him when he is disobedient, he will best learn to do his duty. [8.14] This rule can be stated in few words, but is applies to the whole art of horsemanship. He will receive the bit, for example, more willingly if something good happens to him as soon as he takes it. He will also leap over and jump out of anything, and perform all his actions duly if he can expect a rest as soon as he has done what is required of him.

These next passages also illustrate that he understood how important the Release is as a Reward for the horse. Also interesting is the reference to raising the neck.

[10.12] The mouth must neither be pulled so hard that he holds his nose in the air, nor so gently that he takes no notice. As soon as he raises his neck when you pull, give him the bit at once. Invariably, in fact, as we cannot too often repeat, you must humor you horse whenever he responds to your wishes.

And, now he talks about the horse’s joy in movement and that in order to be supple in his movement he cannot be restrained.

[10.15] When your horse has progressed so far as to bear himself proudly when ridden, he has, of course, already been accustomed in the early exercises to break into a quicker pace after turning.1 Now if after he has learnt this you pull him up with the bit and at the same time give him one of the signs to go forward, then being held back by the bit and yet roused by the signal to go forward, he throws his chest out and lifts his legs from the ground impatiently, but not with a supple motion; for when horses feel uncomfortable, the action of their legs is not at all supple. [10.16] But if, when he is thus excited, you give him the bit, then, mistaking the looseness of the bit for a deliverance from restraint, he bounds forward for very joy with a proud bearing and supple legs, exultant, imitating exactly in every way the graces that he displays before horses.

Here he talks about how important it is to retain the horse’s natural willingness to move freely forward and to nurture it for it is crucial to all desirable outcomes.

[11.5] We, however, consider that the lesson is most satisfactory if, as we have repeatedly said, the rider invariably allows him relaxation when he has done something according to his wishes. [11.6] For what a horse does under constraint, as Simon says, he does without understanding, and with no more grace than a dancer would show if he was whipped and goaded. Under such treatment horse and man alike will do much more that is ugly than graceful. No, a horse must make the most graceful and brilliant appearance in all respects of his own will with the help of aids. [11.7] Further, if you gallop him during a ride until he sweats freely, and as soon as he prances in fine style, quickly dismount and unbridle him, you may be sure that he will come willingly to the prance.

The book is not long but it is packed with amazing wisdom that can guide us even today. I recommend it highly! If you don’t already own this book you can buy it in my Amazon bookstore.

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