Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation

Xenophon describes what to look for when purchasing a horse in fairly simplistic terms when compared to the level of detail presented in Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance (Equine Research, 2004). However, it is evident that he had a reasonably sound understanding of the importance of form relative to function and equine health. One notable shortcoming is that in some instances, Xenophon’s focus was primarily on how conformation affects the comfort of the rider and what bearing it has on the aesthetic value of the animal. This is most evident in his descriptions of the body of the horse, the back, barrel and withers.

For example, when describing the back, Xenophon says that a double back is both “better looking” than a single back and “easier to sit upon”. Based on this description, one can only assume he is referring to a groove along the spine rather than a ridge. While this is true if riding without a saddle, it doesn’t speak to the full function of the horse’s back. The back should be relatively short, straight and wide to support the weight of the horse’s ribs, muscles and organs, as well as the weight of a rider while allowing the horse to maintain balance (Equine Research, 2004).

As for the barrel, while Xenophon understood that it should have deep sides rounded at the belly, which he interpreted as a sign of strength and a healthy appetite, he states that, as with a double back, the deep sides and round belly also make it “easier for a rider to sit on the horse”. However, he makes no mention of the importance of the depth and roundness of the barrel to accommodate and protect the horse’s large heart, lungs and other internal organs within a spacious rib cage, which should have largely-spaced backward sloping ribs to allow for full expansion of the lungs (Equine Research, 2004).

No hoof, no horse

These examples aside, Xenophon (1893) was keenly aware that the feet were of the utmost importance in determining the value of a horse, and should be examined first, for “just as a house would be good for nothing if it were very handsome above but lacked the proper foundations, so too a [horse], even if all his other points were fine, would yet be no good for nothing if he had bad feet; for he could not use a single one of his fine points” (p.14).  He recognized that the pasterns should be moderately sloping and the knees supple, and perhaps most importantly, he knew the value of healthy hoofs, with an emphasis on the thickness of the horn and the height of the walls. However, his view that the frog should be kept off the ground is somewhat erroneous, failing to recognize its role in absorbing concussive force and contributing to the horse’s sense of proprioception. The size and hardness of the frog changes in response to water content and ground contact, and plays an important role in biomechanical function and shock absorption with its ability to widen and dissipate concussive force when the heel strikes the ground (Equine Research, 2004; Hood and Larson, 2013).

Nonetheless, Xenophon’s observations continue to present a good starting point from which to evaluate the conformation of the horse, even if they do seem somewhat human-centric, and understandably so, as his descriptions were based on observations and learned experience, not informed by in-depth studies of biomechanics and kinesiology as current conformation standards are.

Xenophon vs. Equine Research

Here is a full list of Xenophon’s notes on conformation compared to the book Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance by Equine Research (2004).

The Art of Horsemanship (Xenophon, 1893) Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance (Equine Research, 2004)
Head Bony, with a small jaw, a large poll. Proportional to the size of the body, long with well defined features and ample room for the nasal passages teeth, tongue and top of the windpipe. The angle where the head meets the neck must not be too acute, otherwise it may restrict the horse’s breathing by compressing the larynx
Jaws The jaws should be symmetrical.

 

 

Strong and broad with sufficient width between the jaws to accommodate the large amount of airflow required for optimal respiration. To ensure proper grinding of food and even wear of the teeth, the jaws should meet evenly and have good up-and-down and side-to-side motions.
Eyes Prominent eyes enable the horse to see farther. Horse’s with deep-set eyes may have a slightly limited field of vision. Prominent, round eyes that are widely-spaced at the sides of the head enable horses to see nearly 360 degrees. The eyes should also be bright, clear, alert, and intelligent in appearance. Eyes that are dark brown in colour may be preferable, as blue and green eyes are more photosensitive.
Ears should be small Ears should be proportional in size to the head. If they are too long, the horse is said to have mule ears, too far apart or droopy, they are considered lopped. Either way, this is generally of minimal concern.
Muzzle Wide nostrils are necessary for the horse to breathe freely. The muzzle should be small with large, open, thin-walled nostrils to intake large volumes of oxygen. Firm, muscular lips are needed to select and grasp food.
Neck The neck should be slim and rise straight up from the chest to the poll, where it bends to reach the head. The neck, although slender, should be muscular and slightly arched along the topline, from withers to poll, with a straight underline
Withers High withers provide the rider with a “surer” seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders. Well-defined, medium high, sloping withers usually indicate longer shoulder muscles, which allow for increased extension of the forelegs and freer movement of the hindlegs. They also help keep a saddle in place.
Chest A very broad chest is not only handsome and strong, it is better adapted to carry the legs far apart from one another. Well-defined and fairly wide, without being extremely wide or overly narrow. An overly narrow chest will result in the forelegs being too close together, and too much width will cause a rolling motion when the horse is in motion. A slight pectoral bulge should be visible from the side.  
Forelegs Moderately sloping pasterns leading up to stout cannon bones and forearms. Knees that are supple in bending indicate an overall suppleness in the legs. Long, sloping shoulders, angled toward the front to meet the upper arm, which angles toward the back to meet the forearm, then straight down from the elbow to the fetlock, where the foreleg angles toward the front again through the pastern to meet the hoof. The angles of the shoulder, pastern and hoof wall should be equal to maximize shock-absorption.
Back A double back is both better looking than a single back and easier to sit upon. Based on this description, one can only assume he is referring to a groove along the spine rather than a ridge. The back should be relatively short, straight and wide to support the weight of the horse’s ribs, muscles and organs, as well as the weight of a rider while allowing the horse to maintain balance.
Loin A broad short loin makes it easier for the horse to raise his foreleg and follow with the hindquarters. The loin plays a key role in impulsion and is most effective at supporting the lumbar vertebrae and transferring power forward from the hindlegs when it is short and well developed.
Barrel Deep sides rounded at the belly indicate strength and a healthy appetite, and make it easier for a rider to sit on the horse. The barrel should be deep and wide to accommodate the horse’s large heart and expanding lungs with a spacious rib cage to protect them, along with the internal organs. Backward sloping, largely-spaced ribs allow for full expansion of the lungs.    
Hind legs Xenophon states nothing specifically about the hindlegs, and instead refers the reader to his specifications for the forelegs. Providing most of the power for locomotion, the hind legs also absorb a great deal of concussive force.  Well muscled and strong, the angles of the stifle and hock are less than those of the shoulder and upper arm. The point of buttock, point of hock, and back of the cannon should line up with one another in a straight line.  
Hind-quarters Proportional to the sides of the chest, the hindquarters should be broad and full. Appearing square and symmetrical when viewed from behind, with a rounded croup, the muscular, powerful  hindquarters play a key role in moving the horse.
Feet The horn should be thick with high walls of the hoof to keep the frog off of the ground. Well-proportioned and set squarely on the legs with rounded toes and broad heels, the feet should be balanced and symmetrical, allowing for even distribution of concussive forces.
Starting from the top
The head, neck & chest

According to Xenophon, the head should be bony, with a small jaw and large poll. Equine Research (ER) specifies that the head should be proportional to the size of the body, long with well-defined features and ample room for the nasal passages, teeth, tongue and top of the windpipe. The angle where the head meets the neck must not be too acute, otherwise it may restrict the horse’s breathing by compressing the larynx. ER describes the jaws as being strong and broad with sufficient width between them to accommodate the large amount of airflow required for optimal respiration. To ensure proper grinding of food and even wear of the teeth, the jaws should meet evenly and have good up-and-down and side-to-side motions. Whereas as Xenophon simply states that the jaws should be symmetrical. He likewise simply indicates that wide nostrils are necessary for the horse to breathe freely, which is accurate, however, that’s where his description of the muzzle ends. In addition to a small muzzle with large, open, thin-walled nostrils, firm, muscular lips are needed to select and grasp food (ER).

Horse’s with deep-set eyes may have a slightly limited field of vision, whereas prominent, round eyes that are widely-spaced at the sides of the head enable horses to see nearly 360 degrees. The eyes should also be bright, clear, alert, and intelligent in appearance (ER). Xenophon does not elaborate on what to look for in the eyes, apart from their prominent position on the head to enable the horse to see farther. Likewise, he says simply that ears should be small, whereas, according to ER, ears should be proportional in size to the head. If they are too long, the horse is said to have mule ears, too far apart or droopy, they are considered lopped. Either way, this is generally of minimal concern.

Moving down from the head, Xenophon prized a slim neck rising straight up from the chest to the poll, where it bent to reach the head. However, the neck, although slender, should be muscular and slightly arched along the topline, from withers to poll, with a straight underline (ER). At the base of the neck, the withers should be well-defined, medium high, and sloping. This indicates longer shoulder muscles, which allow for increased extension of the forelegs and freer movement of the  hindlegs. They also help keep a saddle in place (ER). This last feature is what was prized by Xenophon, as high withers provide the rider with a “surer” seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders.

Handsome and strong, Xenophon indicates that a very broad chest is better adapted to carry the horse’s legs far apart from one another. The ideal chest according to ER should be well-defined and fairly wide, without being extremely wide or overly narrow. An overly narrow chest will result in the forelegs being too close together, and too much width will cause a rolling motion when the horse is in motion. And a slight pectoral bulge should be visible from the side.  

The legs: supple & powerful

The forelegs should consist of long, sloping shoulders, angled toward the front to meet the upper arm, which angles toward the back to meet the forearm, then straight down from the elbow to the fetlock, where the foreleg angles toward the front again through the pastern to meet the hoof. The angles of the shoulder, pastern and hoof wall should be equal to maximize shock-absorption (ER). Xenophon describes the forelegs in simpler terms, with an emphasis on suppleness and moderately sloping pasterns leading up to stout cannon bones and forearms. Knees that are supple in bending indicate an overall suppleness in the legs, and refers the reader to these same specifications for the hindlegs, greatly underestimating their importance in locomotion.

Providing most of the power for locomotion, the hindlegs also absorb a great deal of concussive force.  Well muscled and strong, the angles of the stifle and hock are less than those of the shoulder and upper arm. The point of buttock, point of hock, and back of the cannon should line up with one another in a straight line (ER). Proportional to the sides of the chest, the hindquarters should be broad and full (Xenophon). Appearing square and symmetrical when viewed from behind, with a rounded croup, the muscular, powerful  hindquarters play a key role in moving the horse (ER).

The loin plays a key role in impulsion and is most effective at supporting the lumbar vertebrae and transferring power forward from the hindlegs when it is short and well developed (ER). Xenophon was definitely in tune with this, as he indicates that a broad short loin makes it easier for the horse to raise his foreleg and follow with the hindquarters.

The End.

References

Equine Research. (2004). Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance. Guilford CT: The Lyons Press.

Hood, D.M. and C.K. Larson. 2013. Building the Equine Hoof. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Zinpro Corporation.

Xenophon. (1893). The Art of Horsemanship. Translated by M.H. Morgan. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company.

 

Examining Xenophon’s ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ through the Lens of Modern Equine Welfare

A Greek philosopher and cavalry officer in the 4th century BC, Xenophon is highly regarded for his writings on horsemanship, which advocate for the humane handling of horses. He produced one of the earliest written accounts on horse conformation, care, riding, and training. In examining Xenophon’s teachings in The Art of Horsemanship (1893 translation), a number of shortcomings have become evident. Although much of what he writes is reasonable from an equine welfare perspective, his philosophy lacks the scientific knowledge and learning theory that has markedly improved modern equine welfare and exhibits a tendency to anthropomorphize the horse, which can be problematic. Regardless of the contradictions and anthropomorphization, however, Xenophon does place a great deal of emphasis on a positive horse-human relationship.

Caring for & handling the horse

Sandra Olsen (1996) writes, the “most important aspect of Xenophon’s writings was his emphasis on humane treatment” ( p.107), which is a fair interpretation, for Xenophon states many times and in many ways that the horse should be treated with kindness. He advocates for a watchful eye from the master to monitor for changes in behaviour and symptoms of ill health, exhibiting a high level of regard for the welfare and comfort of the horse, and recognizes the importance of a clean, dry stable and regular turnout (Xenophon, 1893).

In terms of meeting the social needs of the horse, Xenophon (1893) writes “the horse should be stroked in the places which he most likes to have handled; that is, where the hair is thickest and where he is least able to help himself if anything hurts him” (p.21). Although, there is no specific mention of the physiological benefits of mutual grooming and how “anatomically and ethologically appropriate” grooming by a human may partially fulfill this social need, it is fair to say that Xenophon was aware of how such actions may strengthen the horse-human bond (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).

However, as indicated by Boot & McGreevy (2013), there are clear contradictions in some of the practices put forth by Xenophon, such as his view that if managed properly during its breaking period, the colt will learn to associate hunger, thirst, and horse flies with solitude, and relief from hunger, thirst, and pests with humans. Xenophon goes on to say that such conditioning will result in the colt loving and longing for humans.

While this indicates an appreciation for the benefits to be gained from conditioning the horse to associate food and physical comfort with humans, it does not appear as though Xenophon had an appropriate understanding of the health implications that could arise from the restriction of food and water, and how such practices could compromise the health and welfare of the horse. He also falsely attributes horses with the ability to feel the emotions of love and longing for humans.

Training & riding

Further illustrating how Xenophon’s approach to horse training appears to be well aligned with modern methods, Olsen (1996) writes, Xenophon believed “that a rider could achieve far more from a horse by rewarding it periodically and by encouraging it to do what it naturally wanted it to do”( p.107). That is, one should work within the horse’s natural physical capacity of self-carriage because forcing the horse to do something, or inflicting pain upon it would not achieve the desired results in a graceful manner. Upon first reading the text, one may understandably view Xenophon’s methods as being ideal and summarize them as follows. “The horse should be broken gently, and accustomed to noise and to crowds. Food and exercise are not a matter of rigid formula, but must be adjusted to the needs of the individual. Look after your horse’s feet, and make the stable floor of well drained cobblestones. Train your staff to groom, bridle and lead. School your horse to turn fluently both ways, and in all training use patience and kindness” (J.K. Anderson in D.F. McMiken, 1990, p.77).

But when one looks closer and examines a couple of specific examples of Xenophon’s training methods through the lenses of equine welfare and learning theory, it is evident that there are some contradictions and errors in his ways, such as his aforementioned tendency toward anthropomorphization, the use of conflicting signals, and in some cases, forcefully hitting the horse.

The dangers of anthropomorphization & improper cues

Xenophon’s anthropomorphization of the actions and reactions of horses attributes them with more advanced mental abilities than they possess (Boot & McGreevy, 2013) like the ability to reason, the desire to please or to act in a mischievous or malevolent way. Such an approach to training is fraught with potentially negative implications, not only for the welfare of the horse but also for the safety of riders and handlers. As McGreevy writes “[i]f you believe that a horse complying with your commands is showing a willingness to please you, then you may also believe that when the same horse fails to comply he is actively seeking to displease, defy, undermine and even embarrass you. This belief system explains why so many riders feel justified in physically punishing a horse for failure to perform” (2012, p.286). When in reality, the horse’s failure to perform is more often than not the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider. Furthermore, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours (McGreevy, 2012).

Throughout most of his text, Xenophon (1893) advocates for gentle handling of the horse and cautions against punishment, “for when horses are at all hurt … they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt” (p.38). He also advises against the use of whips and spurs, which will scare the horse into a dangerous, disorderly, ungraceful state. “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. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign” (p.62).

For a man who advocates for kindness, gentleness, and a great deal of caution with the use of a  bit, there is a glaring contradiction to his philosophies on punishment in his method for training a horse to leap over a ditch. In the case of a horse that has no experience with leaping, Xenophon’s advice is to “take him with the leading rein loose and leap across the ditch before him; then draw the rein tight to make him jump over. If he refuses, let somebody with a whip or stick lay it on pretty hard; he will then jump over not merely the proper distance but a great deal more than is required. He will never need a blow after that, but will jump the minute he sees anybody coming up behind him” (Xenophon, 1893, p.46).

While leading the horse with pressure from the reins is an acceptable use of negative reinforcement to condition a “go” response, punishing it with a whip or stick to achieve the desired leap is not appropriate. Not only will it condition a fear response to the whip and possibly to the mere approach of a person from behind because of the association with pain, but it may also “make the desired response dependent on a human approaching from behind as the discriminative stimulus” (Boot & McGreevy, 2013, p.368). Any person approaching a horse from behind is already putting themself in harm’s way and within striking distance of a well-aimed kick or buck should the horse be fearful or startled. Hitting the horse while back there is making the risk of injury all the more likely.

Another clear contradiction in Xenophon’s training arises when he instructs the rider who wants the horse to carry himself in a “proud and stately style” to “rouse him up” by simultaneously applying pressure to the reins and with the legs. The horse “will then throw out his chest and raise his legs rather high, and furiously though not flexibly; for horses do not use their legs very flexibly when they are being hurt”. Once this posture is achieved, Xenophon (1893) instructs the rider to slacken the reins and let the horse have the bit, which “makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with proud gait and prancing legs” appearing to onlookers to be a “free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant [horse] at once beautiful and fiery in appearance” (p.59-60).

As Goodwin et al. (2009) write, this hyper-reactive state is frequently induced in modern dressage and show horses to make them appear proud and fiery, yet what is actually achieved through the practice of applying conflicting signals through simultaneous rein pressure (stop) and leg pressure (go) is a state of confusion which can lead to dulled responses from the horse. Conflict behaviours and learned helplessness may also result from the improper release of pressure, the timing of which is critical in preventing problem behaviours in the ridden and led horse (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).

Avoiding & dissociating flight responses

Although he lacked knowledge of learning theory, Xenophon did exhibit some training that aligned with modern equitation science, even if still somewhat flawed. He advised that the horse should be habituated to crowds and desensitized to an array of sights and sounds through a gentle handling process that demonstrates there is nothing to be afraid of. Likewise, if the horse shies at an object, Xenophon suggests that touching the object oneself and gently leading the horse to it will teach the horse that, again, there is nothing to fear.  While he is correct in understanding that a fear of crowds and initially fearful objects can be overcome through familiarization (habituation), Xenophon is incorrect in believing that the act of the human touching the object reassures the horse. Rather, the horse habituates to the object through exposure (Boot & McGreevy, 2013).

Conclusion

While some may place Xenophon on a pedestal and believe the The Art of Horsemanship to be akin to a bible on managing and training horses, it should be interpreted and followed with a critical eye. While it serves as a fascinating historical document and undoubtedly offers some sound advice, it lacks the breadth of knowledge and understanding of horse behaviour, intelligence, learning theory, biomechanics, welfare, et cetera  that have been gained over the past decades, and Xenophon’s sometimes cruel training methods have no place in modern horse training.

Postscript

One sound bit of wisdom that stood out to me is this:

“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 we so often have to rue the day when we gave way to it” (Xenophon, 1893, p.37).

Wise words, for horses can detect and will respond to subtle behaviour changes in each other (McGreevy, 2012) and, it is believed, humans. Recent research from the University of Sussex (2016) indicates that horses are able to perceive the difference between angry and happy facial expressions in humans. When presented with photographs of “angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli.” The horses also demonstrated increased heart rates and stress-related behaviours. The horse’s ability to recognize an angry face or perceive a subtle change in behaviour aside, for the safety of all involved, a calm, clear, fully-present state of mind is best for all involved when handling a 1,000+ pound animal that may startle at a bird flitting in a tree.

See “Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation” for a comparison of Xenophon’s guidelines to those set out in Equine Research’s 2004 publication Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance.

References

Boot, M. & McGreevy, P.D. (2013). “The X files: Xenophon re-examined through the lens of equitation science.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 8, p.367-375.

Equine Research. (2004). Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance. Guilford CT: The Lyons Press.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & McLean, A. (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal, 181, p.5-11.

Hood, D.M. and C.K. Larson. 2013. Building the Equine Hoof. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Zinpro Corporation.

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P. & McLean, A. (2010). Equitation Science. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. (chapter 8: Training & 14: Ethical Equitation)

McMiken, D.F. (1990). “Ancient origins of horsemanship.” Equine Veterinary Journal, 22(2), p.73-79.

Olsen, S.L. (1996). “In the Winner’s Circle: The History of Equestrian Sports.” In Olsen, S.L., Horses through Time. p.103 – 128. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart.

University of Sussex. (2016). “Horses can read human emotions, Sussex research shows.” Retrieved from: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/34197

Xenophon. (1893). The Art of Horsemanship. Translated by M.H. Morgan. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company.