The earliest of known works on selecting, caring for and riding horses, “The Art of Horsemanship” by Xenophon is regarded – 2,300 later(!) – as essential reading to any amateur or serious rider. Great civilizations have come and gone over the centuries, but the fundamentals of the equestrian arts have remained largely unchanged.
Our knowledge of the Greeks comes to us via two primary veins: literary and artistic. The use and love of horses is transmitted to us in both forms, though I prefer at the moment to celebrate the former, particularly Xeonophon’s work. The famed rider Simon’s treatise on Horsemanship predates that of Xenophon’s, but only fragments survived through the ages. Varro and Vergil resumed the examination of the equestrian arts much later, and similarly detailed works didn’t appear until the Christian era.
A student of horses and of life, a goal of mine is to discover and magnify the refined expression of excellence in any field of human endeavor. A particular concept espoused by Xenophon piqued my curiosity and excitement about the possibilities of overcoming a set of persistent base human compulsions by working with horses.
Xenophon wisely stated that: “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 so we often have to rue the day when we give way to it. Consequently, when your horse shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be shown that there is nothing fearful in it; least of all to a courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it with great gentleness. Compulsion and blows inspire only more fear; for when horses are at all hurt at such time, they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt.”
How often I have seen people who take an aggressive posture against horse (or spouse, child, friend or dog for that matter) in an effort to teach a positive lesson, for a so-called “good” reason. Courage is not something that is pounded in or tacked on, rather, it is drawn forth through praise and constancy. Encouragement is a powerful aid as it gives heart to another. Gently discouraging or even ignoring that which is inappropriate while positively reinforcing that which is can make an instant friend of a noble animal such as a horse.
Does your every word, your every deed build your horse’s confidence in himself and in you? Aggression, shortness of temper, lashing out are all marks of immaturity and a lack of proper grounding in the correct principles of classical horsemanship. Xenophon and many others since him have sought to convey the importance of this foundational principle, yet riders through the ages have tried in vain to short-cut the process and craftily dodge the inescapable repercussions.
The semblance of proper relationship between rider and horse may be achieved through harsh demand, but it will not be sustainable as the cracks in the relationship or preparation will inevitably appear. The horse or rider will give evidence at some point of the lack of unity and of integrity, typically through the expression of tension in some form or another. In horsemanship as in all things, expediency instead of integrity brings failure.