In Part One, I suggested that the shaping and developing of the horse through breeding and theories of horsemanship tells the contemplative person quite a bit about individuals and even civilizations. Part Two is about the first surviving Western treatise on horsemanship. It's still a useful book, but I contend it tells us more than how to manage a horse.
Xenophon: The Art of Leadership
The prehistory of horsemanship suggests brutality and force. So does much of the history of horsemanship. Force, brutality, and even outright cruelty have dominated since the beginning, but a few prominent texts scattered through the ages suggest other methods. In the Western tradition, the first of these is The Art of Horsemanship written around 350 BCE by Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a prominent military man. Xenophon’s slim treatise remains a worthwhile read for horsemen today, both for its practical advice and as a guide for the moral development of leaders in democracies.
I wonder if Xenophon himself was fully aware of what he was doing. For example, here's his first line:
It has been my fortune to spend a great deal of time in riding, and so I think myself versed in the horseman’s art. This makes me willing to set forth to the younger of my friends what I believe would be the best way for them to deal with horses.
This is advice on leadership and delegation. His forthright and practical advice does not romanticize horses or even suggest a mutual friendship between man and horse. The horse is not a friend, but more a willing subject. Still Xenophon is the first to advocate that patience and judicious care bring willing submission. For example, he says,
See to it that the colt be kind, used to the hand, and fond of men when he is put out to the horse-breaker. He is generally made so at home and by the groom, if the man knows how to manage so that solitude means to the colt hunger and thirst and teasing horseflies, while food, drink, and relief from pain come from man. For if this be done, colts must not only love men, but even long for them.This doesn't sound like today’s idealized partnership of horse and rider, does it? In this stage, the owner/rider isn’t even directly involved. To me, it sounds like tasks are designated to underlings whose duty is to develop something like a horse version of Stockholm Syndrome.
I am not attacking Xenophon. His advice is still sound horsemanship, but his words reveal strong political and military undertones in his methods. For him, horsemanship is about learning control—both self-control and the command of others, horse or human. That his advice is meant for future leaders is also clear. His audience, “the younger of my friends,” had to be the sons of power and privilege, for only these people would have been literate and able to afford good horses.
So to those young men, Xenophon gives not a didactic treatise on morality or tactics, but excellent advice on practical horsemanship, a skill and a sport that still appeals to the vigorous, athletic youth of today. Under that though is another message: Knowing good horsemanship provides a model on how to lead, to command with ease, with authority, and even with the cooperation of the led.
It’s unsurprising that Xenophon of Athens would laud this type of relationship with a horse. Although we are taught that democracy means equality and freedom, people like Noam Chomsky have noted that underlying the concept is the art of convincing people to be willingly led. In a totalitarian society, the rulers simply use intimidation or outright force to silence those who resist.
The swings between authoritarian force and authoritative seduction are evident throughout man’s relationship with horses.
More of that in Part Three.