Examining Xenophon’s ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ through the Lens of Modern Equine Welfare

A Greek philosopher and cavalry officer in the 4th century BC, Xenophon is highly regarded for his writings on horsemanship, which advocate for the humane handling of horses. He produced one of the earliest written accounts on horse conformation, care, riding, and training. In examining Xenophon’s teachings in The Art of Horsemanship (1893 translation), a number of shortcomings have become evident. Although much of what he writes is reasonable from an equine welfare perspective, his philosophy lacks the scientific knowledge and learning theory that has markedly improved modern equine welfare and exhibits a tendency to anthropomorphize the horse, which can be problematic. Regardless of the contradictions and anthropomorphization, however, Xenophon does place a great deal of emphasis on a positive horse-human relationship.

Caring for & handling the horse

Sandra Olsen (1996) writes, the “most important aspect of Xenophon’s writings was his emphasis on humane treatment” ( p.107), which is a fair interpretation, for Xenophon states many times and in many ways that the horse should be treated with kindness. He advocates for a watchful eye from the master to monitor for changes in behaviour and symptoms of ill health, exhibiting a high level of regard for the welfare and comfort of the horse, and recognizes the importance of a clean, dry stable and regular turnout (Xenophon, 1893).

In terms of meeting the social needs of the horse, Xenophon (1893) writes “the horse should be stroked in the places which he most likes to have handled; that is, where the hair is thickest and where he is least able to help himself if anything hurts him” (p.21). Although, there is no specific mention of the physiological benefits of mutual grooming and how “anatomically and ethologically appropriate” grooming by a human may partially fulfill this social need, it is fair to say that Xenophon was aware of how such actions may strengthen the horse-human bond (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).

However, as indicated by Boot & McGreevy (2013), there are clear contradictions in some of the practices put forth by Xenophon, such as his view that if managed properly during its breaking period, the colt will learn to associate hunger, thirst, and horse flies with solitude, and relief from hunger, thirst, and pests with humans. Xenophon goes on to say that such conditioning will result in the colt loving and longing for humans.

While this indicates an appreciation for the benefits to be gained from conditioning the horse to associate food and physical comfort with humans, it does not appear as though Xenophon had an appropriate understanding of the health implications that could arise from the restriction of food and water, and how such practices could compromise the health and welfare of the horse. He also falsely attributes horses with the ability to feel the emotions of love and longing for humans.

Training & riding

Further illustrating how Xenophon’s approach to horse training appears to be well aligned with modern methods, Olsen (1996) writes, Xenophon believed “that a rider could achieve far more from a horse by rewarding it periodically and by encouraging it to do what it naturally wanted it to do”( p.107). That is, one should work within the horse’s natural physical capacity of self-carriage because forcing the horse to do something, or inflicting pain upon it would not achieve the desired results in a graceful manner. Upon first reading the text, one may understandably view Xenophon’s methods as being ideal and summarize them as follows. “The horse should be broken gently, and accustomed to noise and to crowds. Food and exercise are not a matter of rigid formula, but must be adjusted to the needs of the individual. Look after your horse’s feet, and make the stable floor of well drained cobblestones. Train your staff to groom, bridle and lead. School your horse to turn fluently both ways, and in all training use patience and kindness” (J.K. Anderson in D.F. McMiken, 1990, p.77).

But when one looks closer and examines a couple of specific examples of Xenophon’s training methods through the lenses of equine welfare and learning theory, it is evident that there are some contradictions and errors in his ways, such as his aforementioned tendency toward anthropomorphization, the use of conflicting signals, and in some cases, forcefully hitting the horse.

The dangers of anthropomorphization & improper cues

Xenophon’s anthropomorphization of the actions and reactions of horses attributes them with more advanced mental abilities than they possess (Boot & McGreevy, 2013) like the ability to reason, the desire to please or to act in a mischievous or malevolent way. Such an approach to training is fraught with potentially negative implications, not only for the welfare of the horse but also for the safety of riders and handlers. As McGreevy writes “[i]f you believe that a horse complying with your commands is showing a willingness to please you, then you may also believe that when the same horse fails to comply he is actively seeking to displease, defy, undermine and even embarrass you. This belief system explains why so many riders feel justified in physically punishing a horse for failure to perform” (2012, p.286). When in reality, the horse’s failure to perform is more often than not the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider. Furthermore, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours (McGreevy, 2012).

Throughout most of his text, Xenophon (1893) advocates for gentle handling of the horse and cautions against punishment, “for when horses are at all hurt … they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt” (p.38). He also advises against the use of whips and spurs, which will scare the horse into a dangerous, disorderly, ungraceful state. “What the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign” (p.62).

For a man who advocates for kindness, gentleness, and a great deal of caution with the use of a  bit, there is a glaring contradiction to his philosophies on punishment in his method for training a horse to leap over a ditch. In the case of a horse that has no experience with leaping, Xenophon’s advice is to “take him with the leading rein loose and leap across the ditch before him; then draw the rein tight to make him jump over. If he refuses, let somebody with a whip or stick lay it on pretty hard; he will then jump over not merely the proper distance but a great deal more than is required. He will never need a blow after that, but will jump the minute he sees anybody coming up behind him” (Xenophon, 1893, p.46).

While leading the horse with pressure from the reins is an acceptable use of negative reinforcement to condition a “go” response, punishing it with a whip or stick to achieve the desired leap is not appropriate. Not only will it condition a fear response to the whip and possibly to the mere approach of a person from behind because of the association with pain, but it may also “make the desired response dependent on a human approaching from behind as the discriminative stimulus” (Boot & McGreevy, 2013, p.368). Any person approaching a horse from behind is already putting themself in harm’s way and within striking distance of a well-aimed kick or buck should the horse be fearful or startled. Hitting the horse while back there is making the risk of injury all the more likely.

Another clear contradiction in Xenophon’s training arises when he instructs the rider who wants the horse to carry himself in a “proud and stately style” to “rouse him up” by simultaneously applying pressure to the reins and with the legs. The horse “will then throw out his chest and raise his legs rather high, and furiously though not flexibly; for horses do not use their legs very flexibly when they are being hurt”. Once this posture is achieved, Xenophon (1893) instructs the rider to slacken the reins and let the horse have the bit, which “makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with proud gait and prancing legs” appearing to onlookers to be a “free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant [horse] at once beautiful and fiery in appearance” (p.59-60).

As Goodwin et al. (2009) write, this hyper-reactive state is frequently induced in modern dressage and show horses to make them appear proud and fiery, yet what is actually achieved through the practice of applying conflicting signals through simultaneous rein pressure (stop) and leg pressure (go) is a state of confusion which can lead to dulled responses from the horse. Conflict behaviours and learned helplessness may also result from the improper release of pressure, the timing of which is critical in preventing problem behaviours in the ridden and led horse (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).

Avoiding & dissociating flight responses

Although he lacked knowledge of learning theory, Xenophon did exhibit some training that aligned with modern equitation science, even if still somewhat flawed. He advised that the horse should be habituated to crowds and desensitized to an array of sights and sounds through a gentle handling process that demonstrates there is nothing to be afraid of. Likewise, if the horse shies at an object, Xenophon suggests that touching the object oneself and gently leading the horse to it will teach the horse that, again, there is nothing to fear.  While he is correct in understanding that a fear of crowds and initially fearful objects can be overcome through familiarization (habituation), Xenophon is incorrect in believing that the act of the human touching the object reassures the horse. Rather, the horse habituates to the object through exposure (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).

Conclusion

While some may place Xenophon on a pedestal and believe the The Art of Horsemanship to be akin to a bible on managing and training horses, it should be interpreted and followed with a critical eye. While it serves as a fascinating historical document and undoubtedly offers some sound advice, it lacks the breadth of knowledge and understanding of horse behaviour, intelligence, learning theory, biomechanics, welfare, et cetera  that have been gained over the past decades, and Xenophon’s sometimes cruel training methods have no place in modern horse training.

Postscript

One sound bit of wisdom that stood out to me is this:

“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 we so often have to rue the day when we gave way to it” (Xenophon, 1893, p.37).

Wise words, for horses can detect and will respond to subtle behaviour changes in each other (McGreevy, 2012) and, it is believed, humans. Recent research from the University of Sussex (2016) indicates that horses are able to perceive the difference between angry and happy facial expressions in humans. When presented with photographs of “angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli.” The horses also demonstrated increased heart rates and stress-related behaviours. The horse’s ability to recognize an angry face or perceive a subtle change in behaviour aside, for the safety of all involved, a calm, clear, fully-present state of mind is best for all involved when handling a 1,000+ pound animal that may startle at a bird flitting in a tree.

See “Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation” for a comparison of Xenophon’s guidelines to those set out in Equine Research’s 2004 publication Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance.

References

Boot, M. & McGreevy, P.D. (2013). “The X files: Xenophon re-examined through the lens of equitation science.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 8, p.367-375.

Equine Research. (2004). Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance. Guilford CT: The Lyons Press.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & McLean, A. (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal, 181, p.5-11.

Hood, D.M. and C.K. Larson. 2013. Building the Equine Hoof. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Zinpro Corporation.

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P. & McLean, A. (2010). Equitation Science. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. (chapter 8: Training & 14: Ethical Equitation)

McMiken, D.F. (1990). “Ancient origins of horsemanship.” Equine Veterinary Journal, 22(2), p.73-79.

Olsen, S.L. (1996). “In the Winner’s Circle: The History of Equestrian Sports.” In Olsen, S.L., Horses through Time. p.103 – 128. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart.

University of Sussex. (2016). “Horses can read human emotions, Sussex research shows.” Retrieved from: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/34197

Xenophon. (1893). The Art of Horsemanship. Translated by M.H. Morgan. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company.