Xenophon on Caring for Horses

At this point, I’m convinced that On Horsemanship was Pony Club Manual of ancient times, minus the ratings. Maybe there’s an extended director’s cut version by Xenophon that also includes ratings. We can only hope. 

After selecting your horse, Xenophon describes the best way to care for it. Spoiler alert: have someone else do it. Wow, who knew it was so easy!? (People who board, that’s who.) But even if you board, you need to be able to tell your servant how to care for your horse. Read on!

Housing Your Horse

Your horse is coming home with you. Fantastic! You’ll need to put it someplace where you can see it as often as possible. But also make sure it’s not in an area where the horse’s food can get stolen. This is of upmost importance:

To neglect a detail of this kind is surely to neglect oneself; since in the hour of danger, it is certain, the owner has to consign himself, life and limb, to the safe keeping of his horse.

Of Horsemanship, Xenophon

Aside from the food getting stolen, you should also make sure the horse cannot scatter his food. If your horse scatters his food, it has too much blood, and you need to call the vet to remove some. But it could also be a sign of fatigue, or indigestion, or really anything at all. But do note that all diseases are more curable when they start, so whatever the problem is, fix it right away. Maybe start throwing darts at a board with all the different possible problems, and just work your way through everything. (ahh, just like modern times.)

The hooves are extremely important. If the floor is smooth and damp, you’re going to ruin even the most perfect of feet. Instead, the floor should be sloped with channels, and paved with cobble stones the size of a horse’s hoof sunk side by side. This will strengthen the feet. 

Naturally the horse isn’t going to spend all its time in the stall, so when it is taken out, it should be in a yard of loose pebbles, each the size of the palm and about a pound in weight. This will imitate the effort of walking down a road and strengthen the frog. Also, put a border around the yard to keep in the pebbles, otherwise they’re going to go everywhere and make a mess.

But do note – while you work hard to make the hooves hard, put equal effort into making the mouth soft. Xenophon does not elaborate on this point at this time. I’ll assume he does not mean with more rocks.

Your Groom

Your number one goal is to train your groom the correct way of caring for your horse. Obviously, you aren’t going to be caring for it, but it is your duty to ensure your groom does it right. 

Ancient Greek Horseman

Train your groom correctly to:

  • Always tie the horse higher than its head so the rope will slacken if he tosses it.
  • Clean the stall everyday
  • Always have a muzzle on when handling. Don’t ever give a horse the chance to bite.

In case any of this gets too hard to remember, I made you a mood board. No one asked for it, but I’m pretty sure you wanted a mood board. Mood boards are still cool right? 

Not pictured: Extreme security for your horse’s food.


This still falls under, “Things your groom will do,” but again, you must train your groom to do it right. 

First, remember the tying rule, needs to be above the horse’s head. Start with rubbing the head and mane until clean. Brush up the hair, and then beat out the dust. Use only your hand to clean the hair on the spine, rub and smooth it in the direction of its natural growth. Using an instrument of any kind could damage it.

Rinse the head with water only, including the forelock. Forelocks should be kept carefully, as they are useful for keeping things out of their eyes. 

Mane, forelock, and tail are triple gifts bestowed by the gods upon the horse for the sake of pride and ornament […]

Of Horsemanship, Xenophon

Don’t bother with the legs, belly and lower area. It’s just going to get dirty again. Stop being so vain!

Handling the Horse

Safety first! When grooming, always turn your face the opposite way the horse is facing. This will avoid getting a knock in the face. 

(I’m imagining  ancient people picking hooves facing the head of the horse until Xenophon told them not to.)

The horse is to be led from the side. Being led from the front grants the horse too much freedom. From the side means the horse can create much less mischief. 

The correct way to bridle a horse is to approach it on the side and put the reins over the head, draping them loosely on the withers. It’s best just to have the bit in the horse’s mouth for everything – leading, eating, and riding. The bit will then be associated with everything good. 

Your groom needs to be able to give you a leg up. You should also be able to give a leg up, in case you need to help out a friend. But, as a horseman, you should be able to mount without help, so practice, practice, practice!

Finally, never approach a horse in anger. People do thing in anger that they will regret later. If a horse is afraid of something, he must be taught there is nothing to be afraid of. Don’t force the horse, as this just intensifies his fear, mentally concluding he is right to be afraid of it. 

This concludes Xenophon’s thoughts on taking care of a horse. If you’re able to accomplish all of it, or if your groom is able to, you’re probably a level “A” Horseman. #goals

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