The Art of Horsemanship

Ionic Frieze of Horse and Rider

The earliest of known works on selecting, caring for and riding horses, “The Art of Horsemanship” by Xenophon is regarded – 2,300 later(!) – as essential reading to any amateur or serious rider.  Great civilizations have come and gone over the centuries, but the fundamentals of the equestrian arts have remained largely unchanged.

Our knowledge of the Greeks comes to us via two primary veins: literary and artistic.  The use and love of horses is transmitted to us in both forms, though I prefer at the moment to celebrate the former, particularly Xeonophon’s work.  The famed rider Simon’s treatise on Horsemanship predates that of Xenophon’s, but only fragments survived through the ages.  Varro and Vergil resumed the examination of the equestrian arts much later, and similarly detailed works didn’t appear until the Christian era.

The Celebrated Rider and General, Xenophon

A student of horses and of life, a goal of mine is to discover and magnify the refined expression of excellence in any field of human endeavor.  A particular concept espoused by Xenophon piqued my curiosity and excitement about the possibilities of overcoming a set of persistent base human compulsions by working with horses.

Xenophon wisely stated that: “The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this, – never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion.  A fit of passion is a thing that has no foresight in it, and so we often have to rue the day when we give way to it.  Consequently, when your horse shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be shown that there is nothing fearful in it; least of all to a courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it with great gentleness.  Compulsion and blows inspire only more fear; for when horses are at all hurt at such time, they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt.”

How often I have seen people who take an aggressive posture against horse (or spouse, child, friend or dog for that matter) in an effort to teach a positive lesson, for a so-called “good” reason.  Courage is not something that is pounded in or tacked on, rather, it is drawn forth through praise and constancy. Encouragement is a powerful aid as it gives heart to another.  Gently discouraging or even ignoring that which is inappropriate while positively reinforcing that which is can make an instant friend of a noble animal such as a horse.

Does your every word, your every deed build your horse’s confidence in himself and in you?  Aggression, shortness of temper, lashing out are all marks of immaturity and a lack of proper grounding in the correct principles of classical horsemanship.  Xenophon and many others since him have sought to convey the importance of this foundational principle, yet riders through the ages have tried in vain to short-cut the process and craftily dodge the inescapable repercussions.

The Author, with Galileo's Star

The semblance of proper relationship between rider and horse may be achieved through harsh demand, but it will not be sustainable as the cracks in the relationship or preparation will inevitably appear.  The horse or rider will give evidence at some point of the lack of unity and of integrity, typically through the expression of tension in some form or another.  In horsemanship as in all things, expediency instead of integrity brings failure.

Civilization has changed tremendously over the centuries, but basic elements of human nature have not.  This lesson, provided so generously through the ages by the patient, kind and noble creatures we call horses, is one that could stand thorough review by anyone seeking to be more effective in their particular riding discipline.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Horsemanship

  1. I am grateful that Freshly Pressed introduced me to your blog.

    The beautifully distilled wisdom in this post is equally appropriate and encouraging for dealing with two legged acquaintances. Well done!


  2. Brad Baetz

    My oldest son has really taken to biking. He is courageous, determined, and a quick study of the “how to’s” in life.
    Riding in an open area is quite different than riding on a single track trail through the woods. Recently we had our first opportunity to experience the difference.

    There is a sweet spot in the trail where the rider, bike, and trail become one – it’s smooth – you’re in the flow. And when you’re experiencing it with another person, well that’s just cool!
    We ventured out to the trail for our first “mountain” ride…he watched the other Men at the trailhead prepare, he went thru the same check list with his bike & gear – he was patient, methodical, & ready to see what this was all about. Uneasy at first we started off thru the woods on smooth sweeping trail with plenty of room – the breaks had more use than the pedals. We were greeted by many encouraging words from other riders – “such a little man for a big challenge, keep it up” (he was the youngest rider by 15+yrs)….this excited him even more. He gained more confidence, let off the breaks a bit and began using pedal power…..soon we were zipping along thru miles of single track together. At one point, we did see a grown man in a fit because he “couldn’t do it” – curious?? – didn’t quite know what to make of it – guess his “passion” got the best of him and the experience was ruined.
    Moving on, when we reached a big hill my son simply hopped off the bike and began running and pushing to get to the next spot where he could hop back on. I would gently make suggestions and show that there were tough spots even for dad, and that we could get better so next time we’d ride smoothly right thru it. Ultimately he was able to discover that sweet spot in most of the trail all on his own. The experience wasn’t about going fast or doing it “right” – it was simply the experience itself, us together. We were both grinning ear to ear when we reached the car – tired and hungry WE had done it together. To me, that’s what this journey called life is about – doing it together, expecting the best of each other, lending a hand as needed and always striving to be better.
    Amazing how far a little encouragement goes -….now we’re set up for future rides.

    Thanks for your reminder of the power of encouragement.


  3. Brenda Ruppright

    Although I have not personally spent a lot time with horses, I have enjoyed your blog so much that I had to read this post. Am I glad I did. The Art of Horsemanship can be applied to the lives of anyone by simply replacing the word horse for employee, friend or spouse, etc. These lessons provided by horse and rider can be used in any relationship we find ourselves in on a daily basis. Thank you for the thoughtful insight. I look forward to the awareness in the days to come of seeking the similarities and applying the same truths you speak of with horses with those individuals I encounter in my daily life.


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