Xenophon Had It Right

One of the early "horse whisperers", Xenophon's 4th Century BC work on the Art of Horsemanship is the oldest writing on the subject in existence. More than a few of today's authors on horsemanship give a tip of the hat to Xenophon and his work.

Xenophon was a Greek cavalry officer and military hero, student of Socrates, historian, author, and expert on horsemanship - obviously a man of many talents. His horsemanship writings addressed the proper care of the horse, how to choose a horse, and the training of the war horse.

While I don't propose that his writings on horsemanship be required reading for the horse lover, you'll find many nuggets of solid and fundamental advice therein.

We can relate more closely with what Pat Parelli, John Lyons, Mark Rashid, Buck Brannamen, Ray Hunt or other contemporary trainers have to say. But Parelli, Lyons and the others will certainly give a tip of their hats to Xenophon and acknowledge the debt owed to him by all who have followed him.

So what makes Xenophon's work so special and timeless? If nothing else it's because what he had to say is built upon his love for the horse and his strong belief that the horse's mind in many ways parallels the human mind. You can take Xenophon's teachings and distill them into a few "commandments" which, if you keep them in mind will take you a long ways in working with a horse.

A fundamental principle of his teaching is "never show anger to the horse". If we can keep that in mind we avoid many of the problems with horses which we in reality often bring upon ourselves.

Our youngest Fjord gelding, Lars, is a wonderful animal who has a stubborn streak (Norwegian background I guess). I find myself smiling at him through clenched teeth on occasion and have learned that anger on my part either produces zero results or simply makes a touchy situation worse. Anger does not work, nor does force. Xenophon taught that horses, like people, respond poorly to force.

We will do things when forced, but not necessarily do those things well - at best enough to "get by". A horse doing something under force does so without understanding and it is fundamental in teaching the horse that the horse understands.

The use of force is almost always counterproductive when the horse is in a situation in which it is afraid of something. If the horse is afraid of an object, such as a mailbox by the side of a road ( been through that one), you need to either avoid the object or slowly work the horse in closer proximity to it. Anger, force or punishment will only reinforce the horse's fear. It now associates the bad things you're doing with the object, compounding its fear. We learn this when first placing a bridle on a horse. Trying to force it on the horse only makes it that much more difficult to do the next time.

Trust and Care - Xenophon insists that a horse be well cared for including food, grooming, proper and clean quarters, and attention. While it was the custom back then that training be done by a groom, Xenophon insisted that the owner visit the horse daily to ensure it's welfare and as a means of building trust for later when owner and horse will become "partners".

My favorite riding horse comes to me instead of running away when she sees the halter in my hand. She associates the halter with grooming, a bit of grain, or exercise and perhaps a good ride. I don't have to chase her around the pasture which would be the case I'm sure if she received rough treatment. Even Lars comes to the halter, which means I have done a good job with anger management when he experiences a stubborn streak. We are indeed "partners".

Riding - Xenophon taught that the horse should be mounted slowly and the rider should be able to do so from either side. The horse should be encouraged to carry it's head properly and once that is accomplished to proceed with a loose rein.

To quote from Xenophon:

"If you teach the horse to go with a slack bridle, to hold his neck up and to arch it towards the head, you will cause the horse to do the very things in which he himself delights and takes the greatest pleasure.

A proof that he delights in them is that whenever he himself chooses to show off before horses, and especially before mares, he raises his neck highest and arches his head most, looking fierce; he lifts his legs freely off the ground and tosses his tail up.

Whenever, therefore, you induce him to carry himself in the attitudes he naturally assumes when he is most anxious to display his beauty, you make him look as though he took pleasure in being ridden, and give him a noble, fierce, and attractive appearance".

Now Xenophon was primarily introducing novice horsemen to the purchase, care and training of the war horse. But with the exception of some "battlefield" training exercises, nearly everything in

The Art of Horsemanship applies to our relationship with horses in this day and age.

Xenophon assumed zero experience on the part of his audience and, like a good teacher will do, heavily stressed the fundamentals.

If you are looking for a book, video or DVD on some aspect of horsemanship or training and have the luxury of being able to review the item in advance, try to see where the author is setting the foundation of his or her work. Is there an underlying theme based upon a few basic principles or beliefs. You will certainly find this in anything published by Parelli, Lyons, or Hempfling to name three.

If you wish to explore the world of Xenophon further, several sources are -

  • Life and Writings of Xenophon from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at -


  • His work on the Art of Horsemanship is nicely summed up at http://www.d.umn.edu/~ebrownin/Xenophonpaper.htm , and,


  • For a scholarly translation of The Art of Horsemanship - sometimes difficult to read but written in great detail -


  • You'll get a thumbnail sketch from - http://emotionalliteracyeducation.com/classic_books_online/hrsmn10.htm and at the same time be introduced to a fine Internet reference source - Wikipedia; their main page is -


    From the December 2004 Issue of "Nose to the Ground"

    Copyright © 2005 W. Savage. All Rights Reserved.

    William "Bill" Savage, a retired, engineer lives on the Goose Bay Ranch in Montana where he spends time with family, horses, and his web site. You can read other articles of his including those on horsemanship on his web site https://www.your-guide-to-gifts-for-horse-lovers.com

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