Riding is an empirical art. When we witness that rare round or freestyle, we know that we’re watching something beautiful. But how do we know?
With Dressage at Devon (Pa.) on the slate for this weekend, where the nation’s best will vie for the top of the freestyle leaderboard, the time is ripe to reflect on the roots of dressage—the very roots—as far back as we can historically trace them: Xenophon’s fourth century B.C. treatise On Horsemanship, which, if you’re like me, has been foisted upon you by every clinician, coach or columnist you’ve encountered as essential reading for the bookish equestrian.
Indeed, whenever I watch a particularly evocative freestyle (Andreas Helgstrand and Blue Hors Matine’s 2006 World Equestrian Games performance always does the trick), a passage from On Horsemanship now comes to mind:
“A horse so prancing is a thing of beauty, a wonder and a marvel; riveting the gaze of all who see him, young alike and graybeards. They will never turn their backs, I venture to predict, or weary of their gazing so long as he continues to display his splendid action.”
When I first read On Horsemanship in college, I found myself bewildered that Xenophon, a soldier, mercenary, historian and writer of Ancient Greece, wrote these words some 2,300 years ago, 1,900 years before the Spanish Riding School opened its doors, in a time when people still thought that they occupied the center of the universe. As I sit and watch Blue Hors Matine passage to “Lady Marmalade” on YouTube, his words have never been truer.
So who was this Xenophon, so widely credited as a forefather of dressage? How was he so far ahead of his time?
Though the exact date of his birth is shrouded in the annals of history, Xenophon was probably born in 431 B.C., the son of Gryllus, an aristocratic citizen of Athens, at the dawn of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). In fact, Xenophon’s life would be fraught by warring factions of the Athenian empire and Sparta, those tempestuous archrivals of Ancient Greece.
Though his friend and contemporary Socrates warned against it, young Xenophon joined the cavalry of Cyrus the Younger, a Persian Prince fighting for Sparta, who led 10,000 men in an ill-fated attack on Artaxerxes II, the Persian King, in 401 B.C. Cyrus was slain in the attempt, stranding his men in northern Mesopotamia without food or allies, and Xenophon was amongst those lucky soldiers elected to lead them out, eventually forcing their way to the Black Sea. He wrote the Anabasis (alternatively known as The Persian Expedition or The March Up Country) about the affair, which is said to have been used by another ancient equestrian, Alexander the Great, as a field guide for his early expeditions in Persia.
Xenophon was later banished from Athens for fighting alongside the Spartan King Agesilaus in the battle of Coronea (394 B.C.). His friendship with Socrates, who was executed via draught of poison hemlock for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth in 399 B.C., has also been noted as a potential factor in his exile.
For his efforts in battle, Agesilaus gifted Xenophon an estate near Olympia, where he lived and wrote prolifically until 371 B.C. Though the exile against him was eventually lifted by the heroic efforts of his son, Gryllus, who fought and died for Athens in the Battle of Matinea (362 B.C.), Xenophon never returned. He finished out his days in Corinth, though the date of his death is also unknown, estimated to be in 354 B.C.
Writing In Exile
While in Olympia, Xenophon devoted his life to letters, authoring four historical works, five Socratic works and five short treatises ranging from the Anabasis to Hunting With Dogs. It’s during this time he was supposed to have completed two equestrian treatises, On Horsemanship and The Cavalry General, the later of which dealt mostly with military exploits.
On Horsemanship, however, is regarded as one of the oldest extant works on the subject, with sections detailing the purchasing of horses, stabling and grooming.
While some passages are hopelessly outdated, including those explaining the most expeditious method of vaulting, spear-in-hand, astride your mount (widespread use of stirrups was, of course, still a few hundred years off), others read like a contemporary Pony Club manual:
“A horse accustomed to be led from the side will have least power of mischief to horse or man, and at the same time be in the best position to be mounted by the rider at a moment’s notice, were it necessary.”
“The one best precept—the golden rule—in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily. Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he would regret.”
Xenophon’s insistence on temperance in dealing with horses is affecting, especially since it’s assumed that his equestrian experience was largely gained in the cavalry.
But beyond his discussions of training a horse for war (“The rider must teach and train himself and his horse to meet all emergencies. In this way the two will have a chance of saving each other, and may be expected to increase their usefulness.”), Xenophon’s On Horsemanship includes a few final passages on the development of another sort of animal, one intended for those riders “not content with a horse serviceable for war,” wanting, in addition, “a showy, attractive animal, with a certain grandeur of bearing.”
Xenophon goes on to describe not only simple equitation (“It is a good thing also for a rider to accustom himself to keep a quiet seat, especially when mounted on a spirited horse.”), but also more advanced concepts of schooling, including what Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973) of the Spanish Riding School and other experts recognize as being amongst the inaugural notions of collection and passage:
“What we want is a horse with supple loins… That is the horse who will be able to plant his hand legs well under the forearm. If while he is so planting his hindquarters, he is pulled up with the bit, he lowers his hind legs upon his hocks and raises the forepart of his body, so that any one in front of him will see the whole length of the belly to the sheath. At the moment the horse does this, the rider should give him the rein, so that he may display the noblest feats which a horse can perform of his own free will, to the satisfaction of the spectators.”
It’s fascinating to imagine Xenophon, riding bareback in exile, schooling his horse in a manner that must in some rudimentary way resemble the way we school collection thousands of years later.
On Horsemanship was published in Florence by the mid-16th century, the earliest editions in Latin and Greek, preceding translations into English, French, Italian and Polish. The earliest known English edition was translated by John Astley and published by Henrie Denham in London in 1584. M. H. Morgan’s 1893 edition, originally published in Boston, has been one of the most widely circulated English translations, reissued in 2006. Today, you can download On Horsemanship for free on your Amazon Kindle.
While I’m ringside at Devon this weekend, I look forward to gazing on that “splendid action” of Saturday night’s Grand Prix freestyles, marveling at a sport that traces its history an astonishing 2,300 years.
As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.
Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby – she’d love to hear from you!