Art of Horsemanship

Art of Horsemanship

by Xenophon

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Among the earliest known works on choosing, caring for, and riding horses, this book is still hailed--2,300 years after it was written — as one of the most complete, thoughtful, and accessible guides of its type. Civilization has changed radically in the centuries since it was written, but the equestrian arts have remained essentially the same. Much of


Among the earliest known works on choosing, caring for, and riding horses, this book is still hailed--2,300 years after it was written — as one of the most complete, thoughtful, and accessible guides of its type. Civilization has changed radically in the centuries since it was written, but the equestrian arts have remained essentially the same. Much of what we presently accept as common wisdom about horsemanship derives from this volume.
A student of Socrates, Xenophon was an accomplished cavalryman and one of the foremost scholars of his day. This translation by Morris H. Morgan offers a fluid interpretation of the ancient Greek's advice, plus 38 carefully chosen illustrations. Equestrians and other horse lovers as well as military history buffs and students of Greek culture will find The Art of Horsemanship a treasury of practical tips and enlightened observations.

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The Art of Horsemanship


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31782-3


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. This makes me willing to set forth to the younger of my friends what I believe would be the best way for them to deal with horses. It is true that a book on horsemanship has already been written by Simon: I mean the man who dedicated the bronze horse at the Eleusinion in Athens with his own exploits in relief on the pedestal. Still, I shall not strike out of my work all the points in which I chance to agree with him, but shall take much greater pleasure in passing them on to my friends, believing that I speak with the more authority because a famous horseman, such as he, has thought as I do. And then, again, I shall try to make clear whatever he has omitted.

To begin with, I shall describe how a man, in buying a horse, would be least likely to be cheated. In the case of an unbroken colt, of course his frame is what you must test; as for spirit, no very sure signs of that are offered by an animal that has never yet been mounted. And in his frame, the first things which I say you ought to look at are his feet. 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; for he could not use a single one of his fine points.

The feet should first be tested by examining the horn; thick horn is a much better mark of good feet than thin. Again, one should not fail to note whether the hoofs at toe and heel come up high or lie low. High ones keep what is called the frog well off the ground, while horses with low hoofs walk with the hardest and softest part of the foot at once, like knock-kneed men. Simon says that their sound is a proof of good feet, and he is right; for a hollow hoof resounds like a cymbal as it strikes the ground.

As we have begun here, let us now proceed to the rest of the body. The bones above the hoofs and below the fetlocks should not be very straight up and down, like the goat's; for if they have no spring, they jar the rider, and such legs are apt to get inflamed. These bones should not come down very low, either, else the horse might get his fetlocks stripped of hair and torn in riding over heavy ground or over stones. The shank bones ought to be stout, for they are the supporters of the body; but they should not be thickly coated with flesh or veins: if they are, in riding over hard ground the veins would fill with blood and become varicose, the legs would swell, and the flesh recede. With this slackening of the flesh, the back sinew often gives way, and makes the horse lame. As for the knees, if they are supple in bending when the colt walks, you may infer that his limbs will be supple in riding; for as time goes on, all colts get more and more supple at the knees. Supple knees are highly esteemed; and justly, because they make the horse easier and less likely to stumble than stiff ones. Forearms stout below the shoulders look stronger and comelier, as they do in man.

The broader the chest so much the handsomer and the stronger is it, and the more naturally adapted to carry the legs well apart and without interference. The neck should not be thrown out from the chest like a boar's, but, like a cock's, should rise straight up to the poll and be slim at the bend, while the head, though bony, should have but a small jaw. The neck would then protect the rider, and the eye see what lies before the feet. A horse thus shaped could do the least harm, even if he were very high-spirited; for it is not by arching the neck and head, but by stretching them out, that horses try their powers of violence. You should note also whether his jaws are fine or hard, whether they are alike or different. Horses whose jaws are unlike are generally hard-mouthed. A prominent eye rather than a sunken one is a sure sign that the horse is wide awake; and such a one can see farther too. Wide nostrils mean freer breathing than close ones, and at the same time they make the horse look fiercer; for whenever a horse is provoked at another or gets excited during exercise, he dilates his nostrils very widely.

A rather large poll and ears somewhat small give the head more of the look which a horse should have. High withers make the rider's seat surer, and his grip on the shoulders stronger. A double back is easier to sit upon, and better looking than a single one. A deep side, rather rounded at the belly, generally makes the horse at once easier to sit upon, stronger, and a better feeder. The broader and the shorter the loins, with so much the greater ease does the horse raise his forehand and bring up the hind-quarters to follow; then, too, the belly looks smallest, which, when it is large, is not only disfiguring, but makes the horse weaker and more unwieldy. The quarters should be broad and full in proportion to the sides and chest; and all these parts, if firm, would be lighter for running, and make your horse a great deal faster. If he has his buttocks well apart under the tail with the line between them broad, he will be sure to spread well behind; in so doing he will have a stronger and a prouder look, both when gathering himself in and in riding, and all his points will be improved. You may take the case of men to prove this; whenever they wish to lift anything from the ground, they do it with their legs apart rather than close together. The horse should certainly not have large stones; but this point cannot be determined in the colt. As for the hocks below, or the shanks and the fetlocks and hoofs, I say about them here just what I did in the case of the forefeet.

I will set down, too, how you are least likely to miss the mark in the matter of size. That colt always turns out the largest whose shanks are longest at the time of foaling. For the shanks do not grow very much in any quadrupeds as time goes on, but the rest of the frame grows so as to correspond to the shanks. It seems to me that, by testing a colt's shape in the manner described, people would get, as a general rule, an animal with sound feet, strong, good-conditioned, graceful, and large. Even though some alter as they grow, we should still apply these tests with confidence, since there are a great many more ugly colts that turn out handsome than handsome ones that turn out ugly.


It does not seem necessary for me to describe the method of breaking a colt, because those who are enlisted in the cavalry in our states are persons of very considerable means, and take no small part in the government. It is also a great deal better than being a horse-breaker for a young man to see that his own condition and that of his horse is good, or if he knows this already, to keep up his practice in riding; while an old man had better attend to his family and friends, to public business and military matters, than be spending his time in horse-breaking. The man, then, that feels as I do about horse-breaking will, of course, put out his colt. He should not put him out, however, without having a written contract made, stating what the horse is to be taught before he is returned, just as he does when he puts his son out to learn a trade. This will serve as a reminder to the horse-breaker of what he must attend to, if he is to get his fee.

See to it that the colt be kind, used to the hand, and fond of men when he is put out to the horse-breaker. He is generally made so at home and by the groom, if the man knows how to manage so that solitude means to the colt hunger and thirst and teasing horseflies, while food, drink, and relief from pain come from man. For if this be done, colts must not only love men, but even long for them. Then, too, the horse should be stroked in the places which he most likes to have handled; that is, where the hair is thickest, and where he is least able to help himself if anything hurts him. The groom should also be directed to lead him through crowds, and to make him familiar with all sorts of sights and all sorts of noises. Whenever the colt is frightened at any of them, he should be taught, not by irritating but by soothing him, that there is nothing to fear. It seems to me that this is enough to tell the amateur to do in the matter of horse-breaking.


I shall now set down some memoranda to be observed in buying a horse already broken to riding, if you are not to be cheated in the purchase. First, then, the question of age should not pass unnoticed; for if he no longer has the markers, the prospect is not a glad one, and he is not to be disposed of so easily. His youth once made sure of, the way in which he lets you put the bit into his mouth, and the head-piece about his ears, should not escape you. This would be least likely to pass unnoticed if the bridle were put on and taken off in the sight of the purchaser. Next we ought to observe how he receives the rider upon his back; a good many horses hardly let come near them things whose very approach is a sign that there is work to be done. This, too, must be observed, — whether, when mounted, he is willing to leave other horses, or whether, when ridden near horses that are standing still, he runs away towards them. Some horses, also, from bad training take flight towards home from the riding-grounds. The exercise called the Volte shows up a hard mouth, and even more the practice of changing the direction. Many horses do not try to run away unless the mouth is hard on the same side with the road for a bolt towards home. Then you must know whether, when let out at full speed, he will come to the poise and be willing to turn round. It is not a bad thing to try whether he is just as ready to mind when roused by a blow as he was before. A disobedient servant is of course a useless thing, and so is a disobedient army; a disobedient horse is not only useless, but he often plays the part of a very traitor.

As I assume that the horse to be bought is meant for war, trial should be made of all the qualities that war itself puts to the test. These are jumping ditches, going over walls, breasting banks, and leaping down from them; you must try him riding up hill and down dale and along the slope. All these tests prove whether his spirit is strong and his body sound. He should not be rejected, however, if he does not perform them all very finely; as many animals fail, not from inability but from want of practice in these feats. With instruction, habit, and practice they may do all finely, provided they are sound and not vicious. But you must beware of horses that are naturally shy. The over-timid let no harm come to the enemy from off their backs, and they often throw the rider and bring him into the greatest danger.

You must learn, too, whether the horse has any particular vice, shown towards other horses or towards men, and whether he is very skittish. These are all troublesome matters for his owner. You could much better discover objections to being bridled and mounted and other vices, by trying to do over again, after the horse has finished his work, just what you did before beginning your ride. Horses that are ready to submit to a task the second time, after having done it once, give proof enough of high spirit. To sum it all up, the least troublesome and the most serviceable to his rider in the wars would naturally be the horse that is sound-footed, gentle, sufficiently fleet, ready and able to undergo fatigue, and, first and foremost, obedient. On the other hand, horses that need much urging from laziness or much coaxing and attention from being too mettlesome, keep the rider's hands always engaged, and take away his courage in moments of danger.


When one has bought a horse that he really admires, and has taken him home, it is a good thing to have his stall in such a part of the establishment that his master shall very often have an eye on the animal; it is well, too, that the stable should be so arranged that the horse's food can no more be stolen out of the manger than his master's out of the storeroom. In my opinion, the man who neglects this matter is neglecting himself; for it is plain that in moments of danger the master gives his own life into the keeping of his horse. A secure stable is a good thing, not only to prevent the stealing of grain, but also because you can easily tell when the horse refuses his feed. Observing this, you may know either that there is too much blood in him, or that he has been overworked and wants rest, or that barley surfeit or some other disease is coming on. In the horse, as in the man, all diseases are easier to cure at the start than after they have become chronic and have been wrongly diagnosed.

The same care which is given to the horse's food and exercise, to make his body grow strong, should also be devoted to keeping his feet in condition. Even naturally sound hoofs get spoiled in stalls with moist, smooth floors. The floors should be sloping, to avoid moisture, and, to prevent smoothness, stones should be sunk close to one another, each about the size of the hoofs. The mere standing on such floors strengthens the feet. Further, of course, the groom should lead the horse out somewhere to rub him down, and should loose him from the manger after breakfast, so that he may go to dinner the more readily. This place outside of the stall would be best suited to the purpose of strengthening the horse's feet if you threw down loosely four or five cartloads of round stones, each big enough to fill your hand and about a pound and a half in weight, surrounding the whole with an iron border to keep them from getting scattered. Standing on these would be as good for him as travelling a stony road for some part of every day; and whether he is being rubbed down or is teased by horseflies, he has to use his hoofs exactly as he does in walking. Stones strewn about in this way strengthen the frogs too. As for his mouth, you must take as much care to make it soft as you take to make his hoofs hard; and the same treatment softens a horse's mouth that softens a man's flesh.


It is also a horseman's duty, I think, to see that his groom is taught the proper way to treat the horse. First of all, he ought to know that he should never make the knot in the halter at the place where the head-piece fits round. The horse often rubs his head against the manger, and it may make sores if the halter is not easy about the ears; and of course when there are sores, then the horse must be somewhat fretful in bridling and grooming. It is well that the groom should have orders to carry out the droppings and the litter every day to a given place; by doing so he may get rid of it in the easiest way for himself, and would be doing the horse good too. The groom must understand that he is to put the muzzle on the horse when he leads him out to be rubbed down or to the place where he rolls; in fact, the horse ought always to be muzzled whenever he is taken anywhere without a bridle. The muzzle, without hindering his breathing, allows no biting, and when it is on, it serves to keep horses from mischievous designs. The horse should by all means be fastened from above his head; for instinct makes him toss his head up when anything is worrying him about his face, and if he is fastened in this way, the tossing slackens the halter instead of pulling it taut.

In grooming, begin with the head and mane; if the upper parts are not clean, it is waste labour to clean the lower parts. Next raise the hair on the rest of the body by the use of all the ordinary cleaning implements, and then clear away the dust by working with the grain of the hair; but the hair on the backbone should never be touched by any implement at all. It is to be rubbed with the hand, and softly smoothed in its natural direction; for thus the seat would be least injured. The head, however, must be washed with water; it is bony, and to clean it with iron or wood would hurt the horse. The forelock also should be wetted; this hair, even though pretty long, does not prevent the horse from seeing, but clears away from his eyes things that would hurt them. The gods, we must believe, gave this tuft to the horse instead of the huge ears which they gave to asses and mules to protect their eyes.


Excerpted from The Art of Horsemanship by MORRIS H. MORGAN. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Xenophon , also known as Xenophon of Athens and Xenophon of Thebes, was a soldier, mercenary, and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates. He is known for his writings on the history of his own times, preserving the sayings of Socrates, and the life of ancient Greece.

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