Ancient Equestrian Connections

By reflecting on and studying the beautiful artworks and writings of the ancient Greeks, Dr Georgina Downey discovers that many of our horse-management practices have remained unchanged, handed down over the centuries and are still being used today.

Xenophon’s texts on horsemanship written around 350BC were considered, for a long time, to be the earliest extant works on equitation.

For the training of the military horse, Xenophon set the pattern. In fact, extracts from ‘On Horsemanship’ and ‘The Cavalry Commander’ are still required reading for candidates of examinations administered by the British Horse Society1.

His writings on horse management and riding first appeared in English translation in 1584, with many other English translations to follow in the succeeding centuries. They were taken up in the Neo-Classical and Baroque periods by the great theorists of equitation, Federico Grisone, Antoine de Pluvinel, William Cavendish, Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, and thence through François Baucher, James Fillis, Faverot de Kerbrech and Alexis-Francois L’Hotte, and thence to Gustav Steinbrecht in the late nineteenth century.

A rich equine culture in Ancient Greece clearly existed in Xenophon’s time. Pottery designs from the fifth century BC in Athens show men training horses to rear and leap on cue.

Curiously to our modern eyes, all the riders we see on Attic pottery are men with the sole exception of Amazons. This is not to say women didn’t ride; they were certainly able to own, breed and race horses under their own names.

This vase (Image 2) represents a youth with his horse. He wears trousers, held together by pins in patches. Trousers were invented by the people who first rode horses—the people from the steppes; the Scythians and Persians. While the Greeks themselves despised riding in any other state than naked or in a tunic, they could see the sense of trousers when one was bareback all day.

In another example (Image 3) we see a scene drawn from Book Thirteen of Homer’s The Iliad. Poseidon’s horses are being harnessed in his underwater palace at Aigai.

The angry God is about to gallop to the aid of the demoralised Greeks, who have had a terrible pounding by the Trojans and have lost all spirit.

An atmosphere of feverish excitement reigns in the stables as grooms attempt to soothe four high-strung horses tethered to columns. Tiny, possibly supernatural figures race over the horses’ backs and swing down from the architectural frieze above.

We can see four grooms (one to each horse) who are probably tying the horses’ forelocks up in topknots prior to harnessing. The third horse from the left already has his topknot done up. Their work is supervised by the stable manager depicted on the far right, wearing a long himation (a ground length tunic) and carrying a staff.

The horses are magnificent, well-muscled, with well-sprung ribs. They have the characteristic fire and very upright necks of the ‘Thessalian horse’, the finest of the ancient Greek breeds. Their modern-day breed variant infused in the twentieth century with Nonius blood, look incredibly like their archaic ancestors2.

In the next, (Image 4) we see a red-figured design on terracotta attributed to Onesimos circa 490 B.C.

A boy groom takes a breath of air to puff dust off his curry comb while giving his horse a much appreciated back scratch. A whisk or broom hangs in the left corner.

This reminds us of what Xenophon advised on grooming:

“The groom should first clean the head and mane, and work his way down the animal’s body. The hair should be brushed first against the grain, to lift the dirt, and then in the direction of the hair, to remove the dirt. However, the back of the horse should not be touched with a brush, but the groom should use only his hand to clean it, in the direction of the hair’s growth, so that the area where the rider sits is not injured.”

These three vase images suggest how much the Ancient Greeks revered the horse, but also how simple daily horse-care practices performed in much the same way, have come down the millennia in an unbroken chain, connecting us to our horse-keeping ancestors. Moreover, the beauty of the vase designs lies in their simplicity of subject but also design.

We have to admire the tremendous skill of the vase artists, who, working with only red, white and black clay slips on complex curved surfaces, managed to create scenes of such delight and without any visible distortion in shape or readability. Above, reflecting through these works are the humane theories of Xenophon that continue to inform our practices to this day.


The Oxford Classical Dictionary (eds) Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, Oxford University Press, 2012, p 708.

For more information on the Thessalian horse see

Book V – Grooming, from On Horsemanship by Xenophon, full text on line published by Project Gutenberg. Accessed 16 June 2018.