Rereading Xenophon’s “On Horsemanship”

Cavaliers: Block II from the west frieze of the Parthenon, ca. 447–433 BC.
Cavaliers: Block II from the west frieze of the Parthenon, ca. 447–433 BC. © British Museum

In an extract from his forthcoming book, Horsemen, Horse Soldiers, and Grand Illusions, Charles Caramello explores the work of celebrated horseman Xenophon.


Classics are classics for one reason: they last. Any number of books on horsemanship have lasted, sometimes for centuries, because they “inform and delight,” to invoke a classic in poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica. Equestrian disciplines vary greatly in age, but horse enthusiasts appreciate the value of their disciplinary classics new or old. Showjumpers look to the invention of the “forward seat” by Federico Caprilli in the early 20th century and to its subsequent refinement by masters such as Piero Santini, Vladimir Littauer, or Harry Chamberlin. Eventers look to the great age of horse cavalry in the 19th century, and the combined training of cavalry horses and riders that gave rise to “le militaire,” the original name for the sport of eventing, initially dominated by cavalrymen. Dressage, or manège, riders look to François Robichon de la Guérinière in the 18th century, William Cavendish or Antoine de Pluvinel in the 17th century, and Claudio Corte or Federico Grisone, the founder of modern horsemanship, in the 16th century.

Xenophon (431-355 BC)
Xenophon (431-354 BC)

Whatever one’s discipline or its tutelary giants, rereading Xenophon of Athens (c. 431-354 BC), the celebrated horseman from classical antiquity, always repays the effort. A military commander, philosopher, historian, and author of books on many subjects, Xenophon wrote the foundational On Horsemanship (also known as The Art of Horsemanship) in 362 BC. “The oldest extant work on the subject in any language, and the only one which has come down to us in either Greek or Latin,” in the words of its late 19th-century English translator, Morris H. Morgan, On Horsemanship was among the classical texts from many intellectual disciplines recovered and revived by Renaissance thinkers (Morgan, 37).1 On Horsemanship influenced not only Renaissance equestrian theory and practice, but also the vast body of European writing on dressage and equitation written from the Renaissance to the present.

Xenophon’s influence and longevity derive from two sources. First, as Littauer contended in Horseman’s Progress (1962), despite “the briefness of Xenophon’s writing and the primitiveness of his techniques …  many of his suggestions are immortal simply because they are based on an understanding of the horse’s psychology, which has probably changed little.” While Xenophon neither offered a systematic method for the training of the horse, moreover, nor could offer a scientific treatise on the basis for such training, his work “can be considered as the first attempt to reason about riding that has come down to us” (Littauer, 15). Second, as Sidney Felton pointed out in Masters of Equitation (also 1962), “Xenophon’s approach to schooling,” as both a reflection and an agent of the enlightened culture of the Greek golden age, was itself “gentle and enlightened” (Felton, 17).2

Morris Morgan translated Xenophon's work into English.
Morris Morgan translated Xenophon’s work into English. He found earlier translations “unsatisfactory” and of not “much assistance”.

Xenophon intended the concise On Horsemanship, above all, to be practical — a work of applied theory. Neither geography nor overall military strategy, that is, predisposed ancient Greece to practicing mounted warfare or to developing advanced cavalry tactics, so despite the status of Athenian cavalry as “a corps d’élite,” as Morgan argued, “the Greeks never accomplished the revolution in military art which gave cavalry a decisive role in action” (Morgan, 40).3 Nevertheless, Morgan went on, the ancient Greeks bred and reared horses primarily as war horses, as “machines for battle,” and devoted much thought and many resources to their development, even “the pomps and processions on festive days … so contrived as to be part of the horse’s training for war” (Morgan, 51). As a cavalry general writing in that context, Xenophon naturally devoted On Horsemanship to the preparation of horse and rider for battle.

Morgan’s reference to horses as “machines,” however, misses the mark. Though Xenophon does not invest the warhorse with the anthropomorphic status of fellow warrior, as much later cavalry writers would do, he works from the premise that horses are sentient beings that, with proper selection, training, and riding, willingly serve human warriors to mutual and reciprocal benefit.4 The proper warhorse should be “soundfooted, gentle, sufficiently fleet, ready and able to undergo fatigue, and, first and foremost, obedient” (Xenophon, 8).5 It also should have a “fierce,” “magnificent,” and “striking” appearance, for purposes of intimidation, and it should display appropriate “mettle.”6 Though some of these traits are innate (hence the importance of proper selection), most are cultivated (hence the greater importance of proper training and riding).

Xenophon’s text, as its title suggests, focuses on horsemanship (and thus horsemen) far more than on horses. He excuses the proper cavalryman from breaking his own horses (5), for example, but neither from teaching his groom “the proper way to treat a horse” (11), nor from teaching “his own horse” how to ride cross-country (21).7 The cavalryman, he proposes, should be able to mount quickly from both on and off-side, should be able to ride “as though he were standing upright with his legs apart” (not in a chair seat), and should be able to ride with collection into voltes and to reach speed quickly after turning (17-18). Most important, the cavalryman must be as dispassionate as his horse is obedient: “The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this, — never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion” (14). In essence, equine obedience presupposes human patience and kindness.8 That is Xenophon’s principal lesson and his legacy.

Vladimir Littauer demonstrates his craft in this undated photo. Photo: Sweet Briar College
Vladimir Littauer demonstrates his craft in this undated photo. Photo: Sweet Briar College

Xenophon notes in his closing line that he wrote On Horsemanship “for the private [trooper],” having “set forth already in a different work” what he calls “the knowledge and practice necessary for the commander of cavalry” (34). That work, dating to the same period as On Horsemanship but obviously preceding it, is the treatise called The Cavalry General. As its title suggests, this work does not instruct cavalrymen in horsemanship, but rather instructs cavalry commanders in leadership: as soldiers are to horses in the one, so commanders are to soldiers in the other. Though much shorter than its successor treatise, and far less influential, The Cavalry General retains timeliness for anyone interested in mounted warfare by virtue of its sound reading of the soldier’s psychology, its reasoned approach to military command, and its enlightened view of leadership.

With appropriate devoutness, Xenophon immediately informs his intended reader, the military commander, that “your first duty is to offer sacrifice, petitioning the gods,” and only then, after obtaining their goodwill, to “proceed to mount your troopers” and, following that, to equip them with horses that are “well fed … in condition … and tractable [since] a horse that will not obey is only fighting for the enemy and not his friends” — a point that he would repeat in On Horsemanship.9 Once troopers have learned basic equestrian skills, a commander can train them in evolutions that will serve them “in processions,” in “maneuvers,” in “real battle,” and on the march — in short, in all mounted actions requiring the mass orderliness that only disciplined and skilled individual troopers and horses can ensure.10 As Xenophon notes, a general can and should delegate this training of horses and men to subordinate officers.

Fragmentary horse from the colossal four-horses chariot group which topped the podium of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos.
Fragmentary horse from the colossal four-horses chariot group which topped the podium of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos. © British Museum

Some duties, however, “devolve upon the general of cavalry himself,” such as offering sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the cavalry; setting a “personal example” for officers and troopers; possessing sound judgment and technical knowledge; and, especially, thinking both strategically and tactically — recognizing, for example, that playing “into the enemy’s hands may more fitly be described as treason to one’s fellow-combatants than true manliness”; that “true generalship consists in attacking where the enemy is weakest”; and that “if you attack with a prospect of superiority, do not grudge employing all the power at your command [since] excess of victory never yet caused any conqueror one pang of remorse.”11 A cavalry general’s quality of mind and strength of character, in short, carries as much weight in achieving victory, if not more, than does the quality and strength of his horses and men.

The salient feature of that mind and character is inventiveness, or, creativity.12 The general must be “a man of invention, ready of device to turn all circumstances to account”; a thief and trickster, who knows “not only how to steal an enemy’s position, but by a masterstroke of cunning to spirit his own cavalry away, and, when least expected, deliver his attack”; an illusionist, who can make a small force look large, or a large one small, and who can make his force seem near when far, or far when near; and a master of psychology, who, in a weak position, can convince the enemy, by feigning intimidation, not to attack, or, in a strong position, can entice him, by dissembling weakness, to attack. In a word, though “inventiveness is a personal matter, beyond all formulas, the true general must be able to take in, deceive, decoy, delude his adversary at every turn, as the particular occasion demands. In fact, there is no instrument of war more cunning than chicanery.”13

Xenophon portrays his ideal cavalry general, in sum, as a sagacious, judicious, courageous, charismatic, and cunning leader who appoints capable officers as deputies; recruits troopers who not only will “practice of their own accord the art of horsemanship,” but also “will dash forward and charge an enemy … with an eager spirit and unfailing courage”; and who ensures that they purchase quality horses and train them well.14 A commander who fails to discharge those duties invites catastrophe, for when ill-prepared men riding poor horses face a superior force, “the worse mounted will be captured,” the unskilled “will be thrown,” and the rest “will be cut off owing to mere difficulties of ground.” Once engaged, moreover, ill-prepared men and mounts will produce collisions and “kicks through mutual entanglement” that inflict as much damage as does the enemy. Perhaps most important, as Xenophon admonishes in closing, a general must do as well as think, and must do with determination, for “without pains applied to bring the matter to perfection, the best theories in the world … will be fruitless.”

Federico Grisone’s The Rules of Riding: An Edited Translation of the First Renaissance Treatise on Classical Horsemanship.

Though Grisone did not cite On Horsemanship in his seminal Renaissance treatise, Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Rules of Riding, 1550), John Astley’s Art of Riding (1584), the second book on horsemanship published in English, provides a sense of Xenophon’s and Grisone’s dual status at the origins of modern horsemanship. Astley presented his work as “a breefe treatise,” to cite its title page, “with a due interpretation of certain places alledged out of Xenophon, and Gryson [Grisone], verie expert and excellent Horssemen.”15 Invoking them throughout his text as exemplars whose precepts, or rules, “all those that are desirous to haue the true order and exercise of this Art” should follow” (Astley, 10-11),

Astley attributes specifically to Xenophon “the patterne that Art should imitate,” namely, regaining (or simulating) through artifice the natural movement of the horse.16

The Renaissance aesthetic ideal of art imitating nature carried ethical import with specific application to the art of horsemanship. First, as Astley puts it, since “an Horse is the matter and subiect wherevpon this Art worketh, and is a creature sensible” (3), the rider must embrace gentleness and patience and shun violence and unruly passion as “contrarie to nature, which to content and please is the end of the whole art” (44).17 When he defines obedience as the horse’s “readie willingnes to doo the will of him that dooth command” (3), as a result, he accents the horse’s willingness rather than the rider’s control.18 Second, as Astley also puts it, obedience, however important as a goal, is a means rather than an end: enabling the horse to regain its natural movement while carrying a rider is the end, or ultimate goal, of the art. Gentleness and patience, as demanded by ethics and aesthetics, result in obedience; and obedience results in free and natural movement. Horse enthusiasts will recognize these two axioms as central not only to the history of horsemanship, but also to their own practice of it. For that, we can thank Xenophon.



[1] Not Xenophon’s first English translator, Morgan found earlier versions, including Richard Berenger’s translation in The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771), “unsatisfactory” and of not “much assistance” (i).

[2] Morgan notes in “The Greek Riding Horse,” an essay appended to his translation, that “Xenophon probably comes as near to loving the horse as any Greek ever did, and no modern humanitarian was ever more earnest in urging over and over again the principle of treating horses with kindness” (51).

[3] Littauer points out “that classical Greece was not horse country. Made up of islands and a rocky mountainous mainland, lacking good pastures, its main military strength consisted in its navy and in its foot soldiers” (Littauer, 18).

[4] Both horse and rider, for example, must practice galloping downhill and jumping obstacles: “The two will thus become obviously the more helpful and useful to one another” (Xenophon, 21).

[5] Xenophon cautions that “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” (1). He also cautions that “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” (7).

[6] Since “mettle is to a horse what temper is to a man,” a “very high-mettled horse,” like a very hot-tempered man, Xenophon argues, is not suitable for battle (25-26).

[7] “Those who are enlisted in the cavalry in our states are persons of very considerable means, and take no small part in the government,” so they cannot be expected to break colts (5).

[8] Having invoked in his opening paragraph “a book on horsemanship … written by Simon” (1), Xenophon returns to it for the key point that too much correction and too little reward retard rather than advance training: “For what a horse does under compulsion, as Simon also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer” (31).

[9] Xenophon also anticipates On Horsemanship when he emphasizes the need for horses with good feet that “will stand being ridden over rough ground,” and for troopers who can “ride with freedom” and “keep a firm seat” over “every sort of ground.”

[10] Xenophon advises that “horses that kick on the exercising-grounds” should be discarded, “since it is impossible to keep such animals in the ranks.” Evolutions are “simple positions and movements of troops … the combination of evolutions is called a manoeuvre; and the art of applying these manoeuvres to the operations of war, in such a manner as to attain the object in view, is called tactics” (Bismark, 8).

[11] A general should know to safeguard “the horses’ backs and the troopers’ legs” when on a march; to deploy “secret pickets and outposts” so that “in supplying a guard to protect your friends you are contriving an ambuscade to catch the enemy”; to rely on one’s own eyes, rather than on spies, in identifying the enemy’s position; to make “it a rule always to pursue a weaker with a stronger force”; and even to know matters such as “within what distance a horse can overhaul a man on foot, or the interval necessary to enable a slower horse to escape one more fleet.”

[12] Reflecting the nexus of military leadership and artistic creativity, the same word — auctor — applied to both generals and authors. The experimental American writer, Gertrude Stein, would make much of that double meaning in Four in America (1947), her nearly opaque biographical “studies” in militarism and creativity.

 [13] One can give a troop “an appearance of numerical strength beyond reality,” for example, by outfitting grooms with lances (or sticks passing for lances) and interspersing them among the troopers. Similarly, “one can work on the enemy’s fears by the various devices of mock ambuscades, sham relief parties, false information.”

[14] Recruited from the upper classes, Athenian cavalrymen purchased their own horses and equipment. Xenophon advises commanders, as a recruiting strategy, to ensure their guardians that “you will undertake to deter their lads from mad extravagance in buying horses.”

[15] Astley identifies proper use of the “Cauezzan” (cavesson) as a gap in Xenophon and Grisone (20), and thus appends to his text a “discourse … of the Chaine or Cauezzan, and likewise of the Trench & Martingale … not the Authors worke, but the experience of another Gentleman” (69-79).

[16] “Thus if nature be obeyed, and hir order preciselie kept,” Astley adds, “it cannot be but the end will haue such successe as we do desire” (5).

[17] Astley earlier had cautioned that “the profitablest waie of teaching the Art of Ridingi, is not to deale rigorouslie or hastilie: for anger foreseeth nothing, and is the companion of repentence” (14).

[18] Discussing the use and abuse of harsh bits, Astley adds: “But as these things happen by vnskilfull riders, and violent meanes by them vsed, so they seeke to remedie their owne defaults by more violent waies (as is before mentioned) vntill they ascend vnto the highest degree of violence most horrible to nature, as by cutting those knobbes, and their toongs out of their mouthes, and also the grissels our of their nostrils, and thereby deserue the name of Butchers rather than of Riders” (8). In repudiating harsh training measures, Astley aligns himself more closely with Xenophon than with Grisone, though he follows Grisone on most other points, including, for example, the need for the rider to “accompanie [his horse] in time and measure, so as to the beholders it shall appeare, that [horse and rider] be one bodie, of one mind, and of one will” (57).



Astley, John. The Art of Riding, set forth in a breefe treatise [etc]. London: Henrie Denham, 1584.

Bismark, Friedrich Wilhelm. Lectures on the Tactics of Cavalry: And Elements of Manoeuvre for a Cavalry Regiment. Trans. N. Ludlow Beamish. London: William H. Ainsworth, 1827. Originally published 1818; Elements of Manoeuvre, 1819.

Littauer, Vladimir. The Development of Modern Riding. Rpt. Horseman’s Progress, 1962. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Xenophon. The Art of Horsemanship. 1894. Trans. Morris H. Morgan. London:  J. A. Allen, 1962. Pagination is given parenthetically in the text. Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship is readily available in paperback.

Xenophon. The Cavalry General. In The Works of Xenophon. Trans. H.G. Dakyns. London: Macmillan, 1890. Unpaginated.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.