7 Things Modern Riders Could Learn from Xenophon

Xenophon was a member of the landed Equestrian class who could train a lean, mean, warhorse machine. And his writings from 350 BC can teach modern riders a thing or two.

[top image: a Thessalian war horse, one of the most favored breeds among the Greeks. Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Greeks didn’t have clinics, lessons or even saddles — so Xenophon’s advice cuts right to the most essential aspects of riding and horsemanship that have worked for over two thousand years, from treating horses fairly to why you should never, ever expect a horse to stay clean overnight.

Here’s a collection of his useful quotes.

No Hoof, No Horse


[Wikimedia Commons]

“…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 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

Don’t Ride if You’re Upset

“The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this — never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion.”

Good-Looking Colt, Good-Looking Horse

“…there are a great many ugly colts that turn out handsome than handsome ones that turn out ugly.”

Disobedience is Dangerous



“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.”

Stand Still Till I’ve Got My Spear

“The horse should be taught to stand still when is rider is taking his seat, and until he has drawn his skirts from under him, if necessary, made the reins even, and taken the most convenient grasp of his spear.”

There’s No Point in Bathing the Night Before



“And no matter what pains one has spent on, it, the horse is no sooner led out than it gets exactly as dirty as before.”

And One Thing NOT to Do…

Xenophon advises that all riders have at least two bits — a smooth one, and a rough one for correction. In my edition of the book, there are two illustrations.

photo 2

photo 1

Yikes! I really hope neither of those is supposed to be a “smooth” bit. Thankfully we have more humane options today, but Xenophon’s advice for how to use the bit holds true:

“Whatever the kind of bit…The horse’s mouth must not be checked too harshly, so that he will toss his head, nor too gently for him to feel it. The moment he acknowledges it and begins to raise his neck, give him the bit. And in everything else, as I have insisted over and over again, the horse should be rewarded as long as he behaves well.”

Which piece of Xenophon’s advice holds most true for your riding?

photo 3

On Horsemanship is available free through the Gutenberg Project online.

Leave a Comment