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Xenophon Marmorbüste im Kgl. Museum, Berlin, 1905. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Some things just never change. The visitors to our Museum who ride horses are often impressed how timeless is the wisdom in the equestrian literature of years past: advice given 200 years ago is usually as pertinent to handling horses today as it was when it was written. Equestrian literature is extremely traditional, and most are unaware how far back the chain runs. When it comes to the written word, what we know and practice today truly began with the Greek soldier, historian, and philosopher Xenophon.

Xenophon of Athens (c. 430-354 BCE) was born to a wealthy Athenian family and served as a mercenary cavalry officer under Cyrus the Younger during his campaign against the Persians. After a complicated series of military misadventures, Xenophon and his fellow mercenaries were recruited to fight for Sparta, the enemies of Athens.

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Plate 8-I, from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

“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.”

 

For this (and possibly for his admiration of Socrates) Xenophon was exiled from Athens and settled into a life of writing in Scillus. It was here that Xenophon penned his treatise On Horsemanship, widely credited as one of the earliest works on the selection, care, and management of horses.

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Plate 4, from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

The earliest printing of Xenophon appears to have been around 1516. On Horsemanship was widely re-popularized during the Renaissance with the explosion of equestrian literature from the mid-1500s forward.

“If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him.” — Xenophon, On Horsemanship Morris Morgan translation, 1893.

By the 1580s, authors were debating fine points of the precepts laid down by Xenophon. On Horsemanship was translated into English by Richard Berenger in 1771.

“[I]t is evident that by word of mouth you can teach a horse nothing. If, however, you reward him with kindness after he has done as you wish, and punish him when he disobeys, he will be most likely to learn to obey as he ought.” — Xenophon, On Horsemanship Morris Morgan translation, 1893.

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Left: Greek (Cretan), Fragment from Pithos or Relief Amphora, ca. 660-630 BCE, terracotta, Tampa Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Knight Zewadski in honor of Dr. J. Michael Padgett, Curator of Classical Art, 1990-1992. (1991.023.001). Photo Credit: Courtesy Tampa Museum of Art Right: Plate 5-I from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

“When the horse bolts suddenly off, the rider should lean forward, for then the horse would be less likely to draw in under the rider and jolt him up; but he should bend back when the horse is being brought to a poise, as he would then be less jolted.”

On view in the Museum right now is The Horse in Ancient Greek Art, an exhibition of Greek pottery depicting horses from the time of Xenophon and beyond. Visitors to the Museum can experience the unbroken chain from the ancient world to today by visiting this great exhibition and our permanent collection works on view.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

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