Thank You Xenophon, for Dressage

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Xenophon

By Sally O’Dwyer, Dressage Passionista

The Birth of Dressage.  Ever wonder how we got to be doing what we do? Many are unaware that the evolution of dressage stretches acrossmillennia. The earliest historical evidence we have of dressage are the writings of a man named Xenophon. Xenophon was born to an Athenian family around 431 BC, in Ancient Greece, during the early years of the Peloponnesian war.  There were three factors in Xenophon’s life that likely led to him becoming the celebrated creator of dressage (or at least the first person to write about it).

  • Xenophon grew up in an equestrian family, had excellent training, and was a great lover of horses.
  • He was a philosopher- a thinker.  He was deep, and considered riding as an art.
  • He needed to ride well for his day job.  In fact, his life depended on it.

Who was this first dressage badass?  When he wasn’t riding, Xenophon hung out with his friend, Socrates. He became a Greek Military Calvary Commander, fought battles, and was even exiled for a time. Aside from writing about horsemanship, Xenophon wrote about military history and Socrates. His writings are important because they describe ancient Greek life.

The God Father of Dressage. Our Cavalry Commander developed his riding techniques for the battlefield.  Xenophon was brave. No one had to tell him to keep his head up, shoulders back, and chest out!  This man rode forward and to the bridle.  During his day, cavalrymen rode bareback (saddles and stirrups had not yet been invented) and wielded spears. To outmaneuver the enemy, Xenophon needed a horse that was quick, highly maneuverable, and super responsive.  You can probably imagine some dressage moves that could come in handy if you were trying to avoid getting stabbed by a spear! Check out his book “On Horsemanship”, which is available as a free ebook from the Gutenberg project: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1176/1176-h/1176-h.htm.    

Xenophon’s Writings. Some of his recommendations are amusing.  He advised against riding when angry, which would hard to do if you were in battle.  He was a hoof man, suggesting tossing rocks into the horses’ enclosure is good to toughen up the horse’s feet. He believed that horses who scatter their hay around have too much blood. In his rather small book, he devoted an entire section on how not to get cheated when buying a horse, adding that one should avoid horses with sunken eyes and to look for horses with dilated nostrils. He said you should avoid a horse with large testicles.

Xenophon recommended that when you are trying out a horse to buy, you should leap ditches, scramble over walls, and spring off high banks. You must also gallop the horse up and down steep pitches and sharp inclines to ensure the horse is suitable.

Ahead of his time. Xenophon elevated the horse as an amazing animal, insisting that riders understand the horses’ psyche.  He was concerned about the horse’s wellbeing and wrote, “For 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.”  

New concepts in his book. Xenophon explained that the mouth and jaw of a horse should be soft, and rider’s hands should be balanced.  He introduced the idea of two bits, the benefits of clucking, and warned against pulling on the horse’s mouth. He said the rider should use his seat to control the horse and described the classical dressage seat as not “that of a man seated on a chair, but rather the pose of a man standing upright with his legs apart.” Xenophon also said, “The rider should accustom the whole body above the hips to be as supple as possible.”. He added that horses need to be supple as well so that they can bring their legs underneath themselves. He advised that when the horse uses his hind end, “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.” He added that, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.”

Folks, we have a Hero. It’s Xenophon!  I like to think that Xenophon still rides, but now it is across the skies in the heavens.  He may be up there bareback, the great commander wielding his spear. Needing motivation or inspiration? Having a bad day?  Think about the great Xenophon. Call upon his mighty spirit, channel his persona, ride tall and brave as you carry your imaginary spear.

Fun Fact: Xenophon and the word Xenophobia (fear of strangers or foreigners) are not related. According to the website Quora, “The only connection between Xenophon and xenophobia is that his name happens to contain one of the words that make up the word xenophobia, xeno which is Greek for foreign/strange. The second half in his name and in xenophobia does sound vaguely similar but the original spelling is different, as is the meaning. The second half of Xenophon’s name means voice/sound (think phonetics, telephone etc) whereas phobia means fear.”

Riding George at Devon.

About me. I am a boomerang rider, like many other amateurs. I began as a kid on backyard ponies.  Then college, family, career consumed me, and horses took a back seat in my life.  I attribute, or blame, Megan, my youngest, for getting me back into horses about ten years ago.  She showed an interest in riding, and I jumped all over it.  Turns out, she was a lot less interested in horses that I was.  But it got me going again and now I have two horses, George and a young Warmblood, Rayme.  I hope to earn my silver medal next year. Check out my blog at getdressage.com

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