X is for Xenophon, the Original “Horse Whisperer”

Xenophon was a Greek historian, philosopher and solider from Athens. He’s well-known for his historical works, but I’m interested in him for his thoughts on horses because riding/grooming/training them would have been second nature for Guinevere and Arthur. He wrote two equine-related works, The Calvary General and On Horsemanship. The later was written somewhere around the year 350 BC, making it one of the earliest works on horsemanship in the Western world that still exists today.

In On Horsemanship, Xenophon displays a philosophy far ahead of his time, advocating over and over for the kind treatment of horses in a time when beating and whipping were the most common methods. “The golden rule in dealing with a horse is never approach him angrily…When a horse is shy of some object and refuses to approach it, you must teach him that there is nothing to be alarmed at…or, failing that, touch the formidable object to yourself and then gently lead the horse up to it. The opposite plan of forcing the creature by blows only intensifies its fear, the horse mentally associating the pain he suffers at such a moment with the object of suspicion” (28).

He also emphasizes the importance of the relationship between horse and master. “It is best that the stable be placed in a quarter of the establishment where the master will see the horse as often as possible” (20). And again, “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” (39).  He emphatically states, “Far the best method of instruction 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” (50).

Other topics include:

  • A head to hoof analysis on how to select a young horse, many of which are still applied today.
  • How to properly break a colt, with the goal that the horse will grow to love people, rather than fear them.
  • How to avoid being cheated when buying an older horse.
  • Caring for a horse, including proper stabling, feeding and attending to the horse.
  • Grooming the horse, with special emphasis on the duties of a groom.
  • Bridling the horse correctly and safely.
  • Mounting and training the horse.
  • Advanced training for the war horse, including jumping and cross-country riding.
  • Working with an overly spirited or dull horse.
  • Working with a horse for the purpose of show.
  • Using horses in parade.
  • Equipment for battle, including how to arm a horse and rider, how to mount a horse with a javelin (very popular in the Celtic world) and how to properly wield weapons while on a horse.

I found out about this wonderful book because another author who has told Guinevere’s story, Nancy McKenzie, cited it as one of her references. I’m so glad she did. It’s a great basic instruction for the novice, though more detailed questions are probably better answered by an expert or experience. But considering I’ve yet to ride a horse, I think it’s a good place to start!

Have you ever heard of Xenophon? Are there any equine books you’d recommend, especially as historical resources? If you know horses, what do you think of his ideas?

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