On a horse, a cavalryman of ancient Athens must have felt on top of the world. No slogging along in the dust and heat of the road; instead, on horseback, one could gallop away from the main body of the army, and could engage in slashing, lightning-quick attacks against the Spartan or Corinthian enemy. Words like the English cavalier and the Spanish caballero speak to the idea that ownership of a horse made a man a gentleman, conveyed higher social status, in many societies; now, as it was then, it is a costly thing to own a horse. Accordingly, good care for one’s horse has always been at the heart of equestrian culture. And the Athenian writer Xenophon provides much more than an equestrian’s treatise in his On Horsemanship.
Xenophon is best known for his Anabasis (also known as The March Up Country or The Persian Expedition). That classic work recounts how Xenophon successfully led a stranded army of Athenian mercenaries in a “march to the sea,” across hundreds of miles of hostile territory in what is now Turkey. Accordingly, he was a man who knew a great deal about war and how to fight it; and as a practical military man, he knew the critical role that cavalry could play in warfare.
Any devoted equestrian would appreciate the practicality of the advice that Xenophon gives regarding ways to make the young warhorse ready for battle: “The groom should have standing orders to take his charge [the colt] through crowds, and to make him familiar with all sorts of sights and noises; and if the colt shows sign of apprehension at them, he must teach him – not by cruel, but by gentle handling – that they are not really formidable.”
And anyone who owns a horse and has mucked out a stall would appreciate these words of Xenophon: “A stable with a damp and smooth floor will spoil the best hoof which nature can give. To prevent the floor being damp, it should be sloped with channels; and to avoid smoothness, paved with cobblestones sunk side by side in the ground and similar in size to the horse’s hoofs. A stable floor of this sort is calculated to strengthen the horse’s feet by the mere pressure on the part in standing.” Very sensible – as your warhorse cannot sustain you in war if you don’t take care of said warhorse before the war begins.
Xenophon’s overall rule for effective horse training seems to be that “If you would have a horse learn to perform his duty, your best plan will be, whenever he does as you wish, to show him some kindness in return, and, when he is disobedient, to chastise him.” Please note that Xenophon writes “chastise,” not “punish.” A horse is a spirited animal, and Xenophon does not want to see that spirit broken.
Contemporary equestrians will likewise appreciate Xenophon’s advice that “The one best precept – the golden rule – in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily.” When a horse is fearful of something, Xenophon recommends that the rider gradually, gently make clear to the horse that there is nothing to fear. “The opposite plan of forcing the frightened creature by blows only intensifies its fear, the horse mentally associating the pain he suffers at such a moment with the object of suspicion, which he naturally regards as its cause.” If only we lived in a world in which no rider would even consider beating a horse.
Xenophon shows comparable concern for the horse’s sensibilities when he writes that “When the moment to dismount has come, you should never do so among other horses, nor near a group of people, nor outside the exercising-ground; but on the precise spot which is the scene of his compulsory exertion, there let the horse find also relaxation.” Steadiness in one’s treatment of the animal seems to be Xenophon’s watchword – as when he states that “far the best method of instruction, as we keep repeating, is to let the horse feel that whatever he does in obedience to the rider’s wishes will be followed by some rest and relaxation….[W]hat a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad.”
I thought of Xenophon’s words when I saw footage of Roy Moore, then a Republican candidate for a United States Senate seat in the state of Alabama, making a great show of dressing as a cowboy and riding a horse to his polling place. Perhaps Moore thought that his doing so would give him a “manly man” image that would help him win the election – it did not; he lost to Democratic candidate Doug Jones – but what struck me was how many knowledgeable equestrians criticized Moore for his poor handling of the horse. The criticism I kept hearing was that Moore’s clumsy handling of the reins posed the danger of cutting or tearing the horse’s mouth.
Moore would have done well to heed the words of Xenophon: “The horse’s mouth is not to be pulled back too harshly, so as to make him toss his head aside, nor yet so gently that he will not feel the pressure. But the instant he raises his neck in answer to the pull, give him the bit at once; and so throughout, as we never cease repeating, at every response to your wishes, whenever and wherever the animal performs his services well, reward and humour him.” Even now, 2400 years after the time of Xenophon, his advice on how to take care of a horse still applies.
For Xenophon, horsemanship is not simply a matter of good form, or of holding on to one’s membership in the upper class; rather, it is key to survival and success in a Greek world where warfare is a constant reality of life. Suggesting for a rider, “a good seat is not that of a man seated on a chair, but rather the pose of a man standing upright with his legs apart”, Xenophon is quick to give a practical reason why: “In this way he will be able to hold on to the horse more firmly by his thighs; and this erect attitude will enable him to hurl a javelin or to strike a blow from horseback, if occasion calls, with more vigorous effect.” Not the sort of thing that equestrians of the present day have to worry about, generally, but certainly advice that Greek readers of Xenophon’s time would have appreciated.
Sometimes, it is the shorter and more commonly overlooked works of the classical Greek writers that provide the greatest insights into life in the ancient Greek world. Xenophon’s On Horsemanship does that for us, even as it is likely to provide a particularly enjoyable reading experience for anyone who still rides a horse and understands that extraordinary experience of the bond between horse and rider.