On the Art of Horsemanship


Xenophon, creator; Scripta Minora; Marchant, E. C. (Edgar Cardew), 1864-1960, editor, translator; Bowersock, G. W, (Glen Warren), 1936-, editor, translator

Inasmuch as we have had a long experience of cavalry, and consequently claim familiarity with the art of horsemanship, we wish to explain to our younger friends what we believe to be the correct method of dealing with horses. True there is already a treatise on horsemanship by Simon,[*](A considerable fragment of this work survives in a MS. in Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The most recent editions are those of Oder and Ruhl. The cavalry commander named Simon referred to in Aristophanes’ Knights 242, is just a member of the chorus, but the name probably recalls the author.) who also dedicated the bronze horse in the Eleusinium at Athens and recorded his own feats in relief on the pedestal. Nevertheless, we shall not erase from our work the conclusions that happen to coincide with his, but shall offer them to our friends with far greater pleasure, in the belief that they are more worthy of acceptance because so expert a horseman held the same opinions as we ourselves: moreover, we shall try to explain all the points that he has omitted.

First we will give directions how best to avoid being cheated in buying a horse.

For judging an unbroken colt, the only criterion, obviously, is the body, for no clear signs of temper are to be detected in an animal that has not yet had a man on his back.

In examining his body, we say you must first look at his feet. For, just as a house is bound to be worthless less if the foundations are unsound, however well the upper parts may look, so a war-horse will be quite useless, even though all his other points are good, if he has bad feet; for in that case he will be unable to use any of his good points.

When testing the feet first look to the hoofs. For it makes a great difference in the quality of the feet if they are thick rather than thin. Next you must not fail to notice whether the hoofs are high both in front and behind, or low. For high hoofs have the frog, as it is called, well off the ground; but flat hoofs tread with the strongest and weakest part of the foot simultaneously, like a bow-legged man. Moreover, Simon says that the ring, too, is a clear test of good feet: and he is right; for a hollow hoof rings like a cymbal in striking the ground.[*](M. Bourgelat, in his preface to the second volume of Les Elemens Hippiatriques reprehends this remark as trifling and false; and if our author is to be understood literally, the criticism is certainly just.—Berenger 1.221. Yet it is unlikely that Simon and X. were both mistaken.)

Having begun here, we will proceed upwards by successive steps to the rest of the body.

The bones (of the pastern) above the hoofs and below the fetlocks should not be too upright, like a goat’s: such legs give too hard a tread, jar the rider, and are more liable to inflammation. Nor yet should the bones be too low,[*](The pasterns (of the hackney) should neither be too oblique, which bespeaks weakness: nor too straight, which wears the horse out and is unpleasant to the rider.—Blair in Loudon’s Agriculture.) else the fetlocks are likely to become bare and sore when the horse is ridden over clods or stones.

The bones of the shanks should be thick,[*](Wide would be a more suitable word.) since these are the pillars of the body; but not thick with veins nor with flesh, else when the horse is ridden over hard ground, these parts are bound to become charged with blood and varicose; the legs will swell, and the skin will fall away, and when this gets loose the pin,[*](The Greek word means the fibula in man, but the fibula, of course, is no part of the shank in the horse. Morgan rightly says that X. writes throughout of the horse as he appears outwardly, and not of the skeleton (with which he was unacquainted), and that the allusion is to the back sinew of the shin.) too, is apt to give way and lame the horse.

If the colt’s knees are supple when bending as he walks, you may guess that his legs will be supple when he is ridden too, for all horses acquire greater suppleness at the knee as time goes on. Supple knees are rightly approved, since they render the horse less likely to stumble and tire than stiff legs.

The arms below the shoulders,[*](The forearm, not the true arm, which X. includes in the chest.) as in man, are stronger and better looking if they are thick.

A chest of some width is better formed both for appearance and for strength, and for carrying the legs well apart without crossing.

His neck should not hang downwards from the chest like a boar’s, but stand straight up to the crest, like a cock’s;[*](The horse should not be cock-throttled.) but it should be flexible at the bend; and the head should be bony, with a small cheek. Thus the neck will protect the rider, and the eye see what lies before the feet.[*](He will not be a star-gazer.) Besides, a horse of such a mould will have least power of running away, be he never so high-spirited, for horses do not arch the neck and head, but stretch them out when they try to run away.

You should notice, too, whether both jaws are soft or hard, or only one; for horses with unequal jaws are generally unequally sensitive in the mouth.

A prominent eye looks more alert than one that is hollow, and, apart from that, it gives the horse a greater range of vision.

And wide open nostrils afford room for freer breathing than close ones, and at the same time make the horse look fiercer, for whenever a horse is angry with another or gets excited under his rider, he dilates his nostrils.

A fairly large crest and fairly small ears give the more characteristic shape to a horse’s head.

High withers offer the rider a safer seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders.

The double back[*](That was before the days of saddles, and horsemen had a tender interest in the double back—the characteristic back of dappled horses.—Pocock, Horses, p. 118. Duplex agitur per lumbos spina, says Virgil Georg. 3.87.) is both softer to sit on than the single and more pleasing to the eye.

The deeper the flanks and the more swelling toward the belly, the firmer is the seat and the stronger, and as a rule, the better feeder is the horse.

The broader and shorter the loins, the more easily the horse lifts his fore quarters and the more easily he brings up his hind quarters. And, apart from that, the belly looks smallest so, and if it is big it disfigures the horse to some extent, and also makes him to some extent both weaker and clumsier.

The haunches must be broad and fleshy, that they may be in right proportion to the flanks and chest, and if they are firm all over, they will be lighter for running and will make the horse speedier.

If the gap that separates the hams under the tail is broad,[*](He must not be cat-hammed (Berenger), which means that the hocks will be turned inwards. Such horses are often good trotters (Blane), but the Greek cavalry rider did not require that.) he will also extend his hind legs well apart under his belly; and by doing that he will be more fiery and stronger when he throws himself on his haunches and when he is ridden, and will make the best of himself in all ways. One can infer this from the action of a man: for when he wants to lift anything from the ground, a man invariably tries to lift it with his legs apart rather than close together.

A horse’s stones should not be big: but it is impossible to observe this in a colt.

As for the parts below, the hocks, shin bones, fetlocks and hoofs, what we have said about the corresponding parts in the forelegs applies to these also.

I want also to explain how one is least likely to be disappointed in the matter of size. The colt that is longest in the shanks at the time he is foaled makes the biggest horse.[*](For his stature this is an infallible rule that the shinne bone...never increaseth, no not from the first foaling...insomuch that if those bones be long and large, we are ever assured that the Foale will prove a tall and large Horse. G. Markham, Cavalerice, 1617.) For in all quadrupeds the shanks increase but little in size as time goes on, whereas the rest of the body grows to them, so as to be in the right proportion.

He who applies these tests to a colt’s shape is sure, in my opinion, to get a beast with good feet, strong, muscular, of the right look and the right size. If some change as they grow, still we may confidently rely on these tests, for it is far commoner for an ugly colt to make a useful horse than for a colt like this to turn out ugly.