In spite of the derisive remarks often uttered concerning Xenophon’s
advice to young riders, and his advice on horsemanship in general and
the care of horses, there is much sound sense in plenty of the hints
he gave to the Greek riders of three hundred years before Christ,
while many of the rules he laid down are as applicable to-day as they
probably were then.
His advice on the vexed question of bits and bitting, to take but a
single example, is very sound, while his strong objection to allowing
horses’ legs to be washed frequently is shared by plenty of horse
owners at the present time.
Then, the old Athenian apparently disapproved of or disliked what we
have come to call the “American” seat on a horse, for he declares that
the legs of a man mounted should be almost straight, the body upright
Attempts have repeatedly been made to trace the life of Xenophon prior
to the time when, in 401 B.C., he first joined the army of Cyrus, but
in vain. He is, however, known to have been a close friend of Socrates
from a very early age, and probably when he wrote the “Anabasis” he
was a little over thirty. But when he died, about the year 355 B.C.,
he was quite an old man.
Historians are almost unanimous in declaring that at Marathon, in 490
B.C., the Athenians were without cavalry, though by that time many of
the wealthy citizens undoubtedly owned horses, some of which they most
likely used for racing. When, however, the Athenians came to realise
what an amount of execution could be done, and to see the execution
that was done by the Persians, with the help of cavalry, they set to
work to organise in Athens, as quickly as possible, a powerful body of
How formidable that cavalry later on proved itself to be is well known
to all classical scholars, and the more surprising it therefore is
that the Greek cavalry should not afterwards have risen to the level
of that organised by Macedonians. Indeed, according to more than one
historian, the Greek cavalry was employed chiefly to harass an enemy
when marching, or to pursue a vanquished and retreating regiment,
while one writer at least maintains that the Greek cavalry at best
never approached within javelin range of an enemy’s line of battle
during an attack.
The cost of horses at about this time varied almost as widely as it
does now. Thus it was not unusual to pay three minæ, the equivalent
of about fifteen guineas, for quite a common hack—an extraordinarily
high price when we bear in mind the purchasing value of money in those
days—while for trained war horses, or for race horses, any sum from
ten minæ upward was paid frequently.
Xenophon is known to have given approximately eleven minæ for a little
war horse that, so far as one can ascertain, did not afterwards fulfil
expectations, so perhaps it is hardly astonishing to read that some
years later the terms “horse owner” and “spendthrift” came to be
deemed more or less synonymous.
A list drawn up at about this time of the principal defects to be
guarded against when inspecting a horse with a view to purchase is
interesting, inasmuch as the points looked upon as faults three and
twenty centuries ago are with only a few exceptions deemed to be
egregious defects to-day.
The following is the list that was drawn up, so it is alleged, by
Hoofs with thin horn (_sic_); hoofs full, fat, soft and flat—or,
as Xenophon termed them, “low-lying”; heavy fetlocks; shanks with
varicose veins; flabby thighs; hollow shoulder-blades; projecting
neck; bald mane; narrow chest; fat and heavy head; large ears;
converging nostrils; sunken eyes; thin and meagre sides; sharp
back-bone; rough haunches; thin buttocks; stiff legs, stiff knees.
Though among the horses of the ancient Greeks the hogged mane must at
one time have been seen often enough, there does not appear to be in
the works of the early writers any direct allusion to the hogging of
horses as a regular practice.
Probably if the custom did exist it was on the wane by the time
Xenophon began to write. There is evidence to show that in ancient
Greece the horses at about this period were rather smaller than
those of most other countries of which we have authentic records, a
characteristic still noticeable amongst the horses in several parts of
The Greeks almost always used entire horses for all purposes. Even
in war they did not employ geldings, a custom that has given rise to
the belief that in the centuries before Christ all horses, with the
exception of the Libyan steeds, were far more savage than the horses
Emphatically we have no reason to suppose that the Greeks made friends
and companions of their horses as the Arab race is known to do or to
have done, though the fable of Achilles’ love for his horse named
Xanthus makes a pretty enough story. On the other hand, it is quite
possible that Xenophon may have been fond of horses not merely because
of the amusement they afforded him or the pleasure he derived from
riding and hunting.
For the rest the Greeks, in common with the people of most of the
warlike nations in those early days, enjoyed possessing horses mainly
because they served to enhance life’s pleasure, and were of practical
use in war.
Certainly it may be said of Xenophon that he did not preach the
doctrine of kindness to horses without himself practising it
thoroughly, also that he was ever ready to rebuke severely all who
ill-treated their own horses or his.
Apparently the Greeks of about this era did not keep what we should
term to-day pleasure horses, though they affected pleasure horses in
the sense that they kept race horses. With the death of Xenophon we
lose touch, to some extent, with the progress of the horse in history,
but the thread is taken up again in the Roman period when Varro,
writing in 37 B.C., furnishes certain details that are of interest,
Virgil adding to them a little later in his “Georgics.”
After that we find instructive comment in the writings of Calpurnius
and Columella in the first century A.D.; in those of Oppian and
Nemesian in the third century; and in those of Apsyrtus, Pelagonius
and Palladius in the fourth century.
* * * * *
When all is said, Xenophon’s information most likely is by far the
most trustworthy of any that has been handed down to us, in the same
way that his descriptions certainly are the most accurate. Only a few
fragments of the book by Simo, written probably about the year 460
B.C., remain; yet even those fragments contain peculiar statements.
Thus in addition to insinuating that Thessaly was the only region
famous for horses in the centuries before Christ—an assertion
indirectly gainsaid by Xenophon—he didactically remarks that the
colour of a horse ought not to be taken into consideration when the
animal’s qualities are being summed up, a statement that the majority
of the early writers openly repudiated, and that, as most of us know,
is in every country deemed devoid of truth at the present day.
Though particulars are difficult to obtain, there is reason to believe
that the horse named after the Thracian river, Strymon—owing to its
having been bred in that vicinity—and that was immolated by Xerxes
before his invasion of Greece, was, as usual, a white horse.
By exactly what route horses were introduced into Greece has not
been ascertained for certain, but the fact that fossilised remains of
horses have not been found in Greece as they have been in many other
countries leads to the belief that the horse was not indigenous to the
From a very remote period, however, we find horses represented on
vase paintings; and from these paintings too we are able practically
to prove that the Greeks had not rowels in their primitive spurs, but
that the spur consisted of a short goad attached to the heel of the
boot by means of a strap passing over the instep and another that
passed under the sole, almost as the modern hunting spur is strapped
on. Spurs of this kind have been discovered in Olympia, also in Magna
Græcia, and elsewhere.
With regard to the Greek bits and bridles of a later date, the former
apparently had no leverage—certainly they had no curb chain—while the
pattern of the bridle seems to have remained unaltered.
* * * * *
As we come nearer still to the time of Christ, we find the young men
of Athens growing fonder and fonder of horse racing and taking more
pains and spending much time and money in their attempts to improve
the breed of horses. And though the soil of Attica was by no means
adapted for purposes of horse rearing, it must in justice be said
that their attempts met with reward.
Thus it happened that about this time—that is to say towards the
close of the third or the beginning of the second century—the comic
poet, Aristophanes, who died in 380 B.C., began to inveigh against
the increasing popularity of horse racing, and against the spread of
gambling consequent thereon.
In his immortal comedy of _The Clouds_, it will be remembered, he
portrays a typical young spendthrift, Pheidippes, and an equally
typical indignant father, Strepsiades, both of whom would serve well
as latter-day types of men of the same stamp.
The son, when the comedy opens, has lost heavily on the turf and
incurred the displeasure, not to say roused the indignation, of his
father, in addition to burdening the old man heavily with his gambling
debts. Presently the son is sued by Pasion, a characteristic usurer of
that period, for the recovery of the entire sum of twelve minæ.
“For what with debts and duns and stablekeepers’ bills,” Strepsiades
exclaims in exasperation in the opening lines, addressing his son
Pheidippes, who lies asleep before him—“what with debts and duns and
stablekeepers’ bills which this fine spark heaps on my back, I lie
awake the whilst: and what cares he but to coil up his locks, ride,
drive his horses, dream of them all night….” And so on.
This gives us, to start with, an idea of the degree of popularity that
horse racing had attained in Greece at about this time, for Pheidippes
is meant to be a character drawn from life and typical of the young
punters of the period.
Later we learn that the money for which the father is being sued had,
in the first instance, been borrowed to pay for a “starling-coloured
horse”—whatever kind of weird creature that may have been. Possibly
“fleabitten” is intended, for the geographer, Strabo, speaks of “the
starling-coloured horses of the Parthians” and of the people of
Northern Spain, and it is known that plenty of those horses were of
the colour that we should term to-day “fleabitten.”
* * * * *
Aristotle is the next to enlighten us to some extent upon the growing
fondness of the Greeks for horses, especially for race horses and war
horses. He tells us too that about the average span the horses in
his time—the middle of the second century B.C., 384 to 322—lived was
eighteen to twenty years, though a few were said to have reached five
and twenty, and even thirty, and a very few indeed to have died at
Whether the custom that then prevailed of feeding horses mostly
on barley proved beneficial or the reverse in the long run we are
not told. Finally we come to Alexander the Great and his renowned
Bucephalus, a horse bred, as we are told, by Philoneicus of Pharsalus,
Bucephalus, or rather Bucephal_os_, means ox head, or bull head, from
which we may conclude that whatever good points Bucephalus may have
had—and without doubt he had many—he certainly had not the fine head
of a modern hunter or the tapering muzzle of the thoroughbred that
nowadays we so much admire.
It has been stated that Bucephalus derived his name from a mark on the
left shoulder in the form more or less of a bull’s head. As we know,
however, that many years before Alexander’s Bucephalus was foaled
there existed a type of Thessalian horse upon which the same name had
been bestowed, the conjecture is probably a false one.
How great the fame of Bucephalus was may be gathered from the fact
that of all the horses possessed by the ancient Greeks down to this
date he alone is the animal over which they thoroughly “enthuse.” From
what we are told in the writings of Aristotle, indeed, and of later
historians, Bucephalus must have been quite a tall horse, well shaped,
coal-black, with a good shoulder and small ears. Also he had a white
star in the middle of his forehead, a mark characteristic of certain
Libyan breeds of old.
[Illustration: ALEXANDER THE GREAT ON HORSEBACK, ABOUT 338 B.C. THE
FIGURE IS BELIEVED TO REPRESENT BUCEPHALUS
_From a bronze in the British Museum_]
An unknown writer in the “Geoponics” avers that in the centuries
just before Christ many of the best horses had eyes of different
colour—what we sometimes term a wall eye, and Americans a China
eye—and from his own deductions he concludes that Bucephalus probably
had eyes that did not match. There does not, however, appear to be
direct evidence that this was so.
Plutarch sets the price paid for Bucephalus by Alexander’s father,
King Philip, at thirteen talents, while Pliny is of opinion that the
price was higher still—namely, sixteen talents.
Now the sum that to-day would be the equivalent of thirteen talents
is approximately £3500, and when we bear in mind the prices that in
the second century frequently were paid even for the best horses
obtainable, and recollect, in addition, that at the time King Philip
bought Bucephalus the horse was probably aged—some writers aver that
he must have been quite fourteen when Philip bought him—it is not
possible to reconcile the statement that a fancy price in any way
approaching the sum named could have been paid.
The story of the trial and subsequent purchase of Bucephalus is both
pretty and picturesque. More, it would appear to be true in almost
every detail. According to Plutarch, whose account probably is the
most trustworthy, the horse was first brought before King Philip to
be given a public trial, when, to the discomfiture of its owner, it
showed itself to be apparently “a fierce and unmanageable beast that
would neither allow anybody to mount him, nor obey any of Philip’s
attendants, but reared and plunged against them all, so that the king
in a rage bade them take him away for an utterly wild and unbroken
At this juncture it was that Alexander—at the time a boy of twelve,
and Aristotle not yet his tutor—came upon the scene. We are told that
he “leapt suddenly forward and in an access of indignation cried out
before the king and everybody assembled that the men attempting to
ride the horse were ‘clumsy clowns,’” adding, with the self-assurance
of precocious boyhood, that “if they were not careful they would spoil
the horse entirely.”
Philip at first paid no attention to his son’s outburst, deeming it
to be childish spleen, but upon the lad’s refusing to be quieted he
turned to him, suddenly nettled, and demanded in a sharp tone how he
dare be so insolent as to criticise his elders. In no way abashed,
Alexander retorted that in this instance he certainly did know much
better than his elders, and that if his father would allow him he
would prove it by himself mounting the horse at once and riding it
round the ring.
“And what will you forfeit for your rashness if you are thrown off?”
the king inquired, not troubling to conceal his anger.
To which young Alexander retorted with much spirit:
“The price of the horse, by Zeus!”
It is hardly likely that Alexander, rash though he undoubtedly was,
would have said this if the price at which Bucephalus was valued
amounted to a sum in talents equivalent to thousands of pounds, for
King Philip though a just ruler was a stern father, and Alexander must
have known that his father would extort the forfeit should he fail to
ride the horse.
The lad’s reply, we are told, was received with shouts of laughter.
This public expression of ridicule it may have been that set the boy
upon his mettle, for without further parley he ran out into the arena,
ordered his father’s attendants aside, and then, grasping the reins,
began to pat the horse’s neck and “soothe him with soft words.”
For the boy had observed what apparently nobody else had
noticed—namely, that the horse grew restive at the sight of its own
shadow. Without waiting, therefore, he turned the horse to face
the sun, then at once “sprang up and bestrode him unharmed.” Next,
gradually and very gently, and using neither whip nor spur, he made
Bucephalus move round and round in a circle until the animal no longer
feared its shadow and then when it had, as we are told, “given up all
threatening behaviour, and was only hot for the course,” he gave the
horse its head, “urging him onward by raising his voice and using his
At the sight of this fine display of horse breaking and horsemanship
the spectators, now somewhat abashed at the haste they had been in
to jeer, grew silent. But not for long. Presently, as Alexander came
galloping back, “full of just pride and pleasure,” the assembled
multitude, including the king’s attendants, “of one accord raised a
great cheer, lifting up their hands from pure joy.”
Philip himself must have been of an emotional nature, for we read that
“he said nothing, but wept silently from pure joy.”
Possibly the lad too suffered from “pure joy” at that moment, for upon
his dismounting his father advanced with the remark that Macedonia was
“not big enough for such a son,” that he “must go look for a kingdom
to match him.”
Which shows that even in the centuries before Christ there was truth
in the popular platitude that nothing succeeds like success!
Then and there Bucephalus was bought for Alexander, and from that time
until its death, from wounds received in a battle fought against the
Indian king, Porus, the horse remained Alexander’s favourite charger
A remarkable peculiarity about this animal was that though
subsequently it came to allow the grooms to ride it bareback, yet
when it had on one of the cloths that at that period did duty for a
saddle it would allow only Alexander to mount it. As one writer neatly
says: “When others tried to mount the horse with the cloth on they
invariably had to take to their heels to save themselves from his.” It
is further recorded that when Alexander wished to mount, Bucephalus
would crouch of its own accord to enable its master to get on more
Alexander took Bucephalus with him on his famous expeditions into the
East, and on one occasion, in Hyrcania, the horse was stolen. The king
“thereupon became terrible to see, so great was his rage.” At once an
edict was issued that unless the horse were returned to him without
delay he would “carry fire and sword throughout the country—north and
south, east and west, sparing neither men nor women, nor, if need be,
even the smallest children.”
A chronicler of the period, commenting upon this, drily observes that
when Alexander’s determination became known, “the horse was returned
in a hurry!”
“Thus,” remarks Arrian, the great historian, “the horse must have been
as dear to Alexander as Alexander was terrible to the barbarians.” As
he here employs the word “barbarian” in its offensive signification
he evidently despised the people of Hyrcania because they had sense
enough to return the stolen horse instead of waiting with their kith
and kin to be slain or tortured!
In the descriptions of almost all the great victories won by Alexander
the Great, allusion is made to his favourite steed. We are told by
Gellius that in the battle that practically witnessed the death of
Bucephalus the king had pressed forward recklessly into the thick of
the fight, and apparently right into the enemy’s lines, and had thus
become “the mark for every spear”—a statement which, if literally
true, points to an enemy made up of singularly inept marksmen.
“More than one spear,” he goes on, “was buried in the neck and flanks
of the horse, but, though at the point of death, and almost drained
of blood, he succeeded with a bold dash in carrying the king from the
very midst of the foe, and then fell, breathing his last tranquilly
now that he knew his master was safe, and as comforted by the
knowledge as if he had had the feelings of a human being.”
There is something about the concluding sentence that leads to the
belief that Gellius must have been either remarkably imaginative, or
else of a more romantic nature than the majority of his contemporaries
have given him credit for being. The last line in particular is very
precious. After reading it can one feel astonished at Alexander’s
enthusiasm having carried him to the length of causing him to build
a city to the memory of the noble steed, a city to which he gave the
The handsome bronze discovered in Herculaneum is popularly supposed
to represent the figures of Alexander and Bucephalus. The work
probably of Lysippus—whom Alexander himself ordered to produce a
scene representing a fight during the great battle of Granicus—it is
A pleasing anecdote told of Alexander and Bucephalus, and more likely
to be true than are the majority of the tales that are related of
this horse and its owner, is to the effect that upon one occasion the
king went to inspect a portrait of himself mounted on his favourite
charger, that the distinguished painter, Apelles, had just completed.
Nettled at Alexander’s scant praise of his work—for we are told the
picture was so lifelike that even Bucephalus neighed when first he saw
it—Apelles turned to the king with the rebuke:
“I fear me, your Majesty, that your horse is a better judge of
painting than his noble master.”
What retort the king made is not recorded, but the story recalls one
of a similar nature related of the famous artist, Pauson, who when
ordered to produce a picture of a horse rolling on its back, sent to
his patron a picture of a horse galloping madly through a cloud of
In a great rage the patron sent for Pauson, and, upon his arrival,
“began to storm and rave,” at the same time demanding to know what
had made him commit a blunder so egregious. Without replying, Pauson
walked up to the picture and turned it upside down, when, to the vast
amusement of the hitherto irate patron, there appeared a perfect
picture of a horse rolling on its back on a dusty plain.
Of the famous artist, Micon, it is related that he once incurred
the criticism of the rider, Simon, who, upon looking at one of his
pictures, remarked drily that never in his life before had he seen a
horse that had eyelashes on its lower lids!
* * * * *
It seems certain that in the centuries before Christ the steeds bred
in Thessaly were among the most highly prized, though the horses of
several other breeds—such, for instance, as the Argive, the Arcadian,
the Epidaurian and the Arcananian—possessed great courage and
exceptional power of endurance.
[Illustration: PERSIANS FIGHTING WITH ELEPHANTS AGAINST THE ROMANS,
ABOUT THE TIME OF PYRRHUS, 280 B.C.
_This picture has been wrongly attributed to Raphael_]
In the very early times Thessalian horses were used largely for
charioteering. Allusion is made repeatedly in the classics to these
Thessalian animals, stress being laid upon their symmetry, or what
to-day we should term their make and shape. The mythical mares of King
Diomed of Thrace, the tyrant whose grim humour, we are told, led
him to feed his horses on the strangers who visited his kingdom, were
alleged to be of the breed of Thessaly, a statement made indirectly in
the description of Hercules’ conquest of the tyrant and his subsequent
“casting of the tyrant’s quivering carcass to his own horses to be
Spenser alludes to this incident in the fifth book of his “Faerie
Queene,” in the following lines:—
“Like to the Thracian tyrant who, they say,
Unto his horses gave his guests for meat,
Till he himself was made their greedy prey,
And torn to pieces by Alcides great.”
Other mythical horses of the Thessalian breed were those of Achilles,
of Rhesus, and of Orestes in Sophocles’ stirring description of the
race in _Electra_.
It seems safe to say that until about the fourth century B.C. the
Romans also did not use saddles, at least saddles with trees. That
somewhere about this period, however, they began to adopt what we
should call to-day saddlecloths, and that these were kept in place by
a strap or bandage in the nature of a girth that passed beneath the
belly, appears to be certain.
For some unknown reason this girth is more often than not omitted on
the works of art that represent horses of that period. Some of the
animals of the Parthenon frieze lead us to believe that on occasions
horses were still made to crouch when about to be mounted, though it
is not probable they crouched voluntarily, as Bucephalus did. From
impressions on the Parthenon frieze we may also conclude that the
mounting block was not unknown in the centuries before Christ.
A good idea of the exact stamp of horse harnessed to the war chariots
of those centuries may be obtained by inspecting the bronze horse of
the quadriga from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the date of the
Mausoleum being 331-341 B.C.—the building took ten years to erect.
This bronze is to be seen in the British Museum.
Hannibal’s must have been the army the best provided with cavalry
down to the year 218 B.C., for in that year Hannibal advanced into
Italy with no less than 90,000 foot and some 12,000 horse, many of the
latter being native horses mounted by Numidians who persisted still in
scorning to use either saddle or bridle, though the cavalry division,
which consisted of Spaniards, employed bridles of an elaborate pattern.
How wholly superior Hannibal’s cavalry proved to be to the Gallic
horsemen placed by Scipio in the front line of his javelin throwers is
well known to students of history. Indeed it was said that Hannibal’s
horsemen were superior even to the Italian and the Roman cavalry,
which was high praise.
* * * * *
Probably from about the year 200 B.C., possibly from an even earlier
period, the Romans used spurs, apparently the common prick spurs
which remained in vogue until towards the middle of the thirteenth
century A.D. Some half-a-century later, or about the year 150 B.C.,
there were issued in succession a series of Gaulish silver coins, the
majority of which bore upon one side the impression of a horseman,
though comparatively few showed the chariot at one time so generally
represented on coins.
This leads naturally to the inference that the popularity of the
chariot was already waning. Chariots, however, continued to appear
upon the gold coins made in imitation of the gold stater of Philip II.
of Macedon, coins that bore on the face Apollo’s head, on the reverse
a two-horse chariot.
Exceptionally fine horses, probably with Liberian blood in them, must
have been owned by the Iberians and Celtiberians at about the period
the Stoic philosopher Posidonius was travelling in Western Europe, and
when he incidentally visited Spain—about the year 90 B.C. Posidonius
himself remarks that the cavalry of the Iberians was trained to travel
over mountains, adding that these horses too would crouch when told
to, in order that their riders might mount or dismount with greater
A method to which this cavalry sometimes had recourse consisted in
their mounting two men on one animal. Then, in the heat of action, one
of the men would fight on foot, the other remaining by to defend him
if hard pressed. The same philosopher tells us that the horses of the
Parthians and Celtiberians “indeed were superior to all other breeds
in fleetness and endurance.”
Virgil, whose famous “Georgics” was published about the year 29 B.C.,
incidentally shows how close the connection was that in his time
existed between men and their horses—that is, in so far as the former
would probably have gained comparatively few victories and made but
little headway in civilisation had they not been materially helped by
“man’s friend and ally, the horse.”
According to Virgil, in the years just before Christ the colour
least liked in horses intended for work was white. “Yellow” also was
objected to, the prevalent belief being that white or dun horses
must _ipso facto_ be of weak constitution. White markings were
not disliked, however, and we read that Virgil’s Roman youth rode
“a Thracian steed of two colours,” it had a white fore foot and a
forehead with a white patch. The charger ridden by Turnus was also a
Thracian horse, with markings somewhat similar.
The following description in the third book of Virgil’s “Georgics”
gives us most likely an approximate idea of some points that were
looked for in a good horse in the last century B.C.:—
“Choose with like care the courser’s generous breed,
And from his birth prepare the parent steed.
His colour mark, select the glossy bay,
And to the white or dun prefer the grey.
As yet a colt he stalks with lofty pace,
And balances his limbs with flexile grace:
First leads the way, the threatening torrent braves,
And dares the unknown arch that spans the waves.
Light on his airy crest his slender head,
His belly short, his loins luxuriant spread:
Muscle on muscle knots his brawny breast,
No fear alarms him, nor vain shouts molest.
But at the clash of arms, his ear afar
Drinks the deep sound, and vibrates to the war:
Flames from each nostril roll in gathered stream,
His quivering limbs with restless motion gleam,
O’er his right shoulder, floating full and fair,
Sweeps his thick mane, and spreads its pomp of hair:
Swift works his double spine, and earth around
Rings to his solid hoof that wears the ground.”
Though chariots were still in use among the Belgic tribes who
inhabited the south-eastern portion of the island when, in 55 B.C.,
Cæsar invaded Britain, cavalry must have been coming into vogue with
them, for we read that “no sooner were these tribes warned to be
prepared for Cæsar’s contemplated invasion than they sent forward
cavalry and charioteers, which formed their chief arm in warfare.”
The people of North Britain, however, still paid but little attention
to the advice of the more intelligent among their chiefs that
cavalry ought to be adopted and chariots entirely discarded, the
principle of ultra-conservatism which remains one of the most marked
characteristics of the British nation at the present day being
apparently in force even in Cæsar’s time.
By this period the Gauls, as Cæsar soon found out, had become a nation
composed almost wholly of knights. Yet whether the aboriginal horse of
the first yeomanry of Kent that met Cæsar upon his landing belonged to
the breed believed to have been imported by the Celts or Germans, or
whether they were descendants of the horses known to have been largely
bred when Hannibal’s warlike expeditions into Spain, Gaul and Italy
were over, is not known.
Of interest it is to be told that the men who invaded this country
under the banner of the White Horse greatly valued the particular
breed of horses they found here, and that in consequence their
descendants in later centuries cut upon the chalk cliffs of the
Berkshire downs near Ilsley and Wantage the rough figures of horses
that remain there to this day.
We have it on the authority of several of the most trustworthy of
our early historians that by about the end of the third century B.C.,
at latest, the Gauls of northern Italy had become a race of horsemen;
that by about the middle of the second century B.C. the majority of
the Transalpine Gauls had done the same; and that by Cæsar’s time even
the Belgic tribes of the Continent had practically abandoned the war
chariot that the Romans had deemed so helpful.
Apparently the horses employed by the Roman warriors were of a better
stamp than those which belonged to the Gauls of Northern Italy.
It is well known that Cæsar’s opinion of the value of chariots in war
was, to say the least, rather inflated. His description of the action
of war chariots during an engagement is of itself almost sufficient to
“At the first onset,” he writes, “they [the warriors] drove the cars
in all directions, hurled their javelins, and by the din and clatter
of horses and wheels commonly threw the ranks of the enemy into
“Then, making their way amongst the squadrons of the enemy’s cavalry,
they leaped down from the chariots and fought on foot.
“Little by little the charioteers withdrew out of the fight and placed
their chariots in such a way that if they were hard pressed by the
enemy they could readily retreat to their own side.
“Thus in battle they afforded the mobility of cavalry, and the
steadiness of infantry.
“Daily practice enabled them to pull up their horses when in full
speed on a slope or steep declivity, to check or turn them in a narrow
space, to run out on the pole and stand on the yoke, and to get nimbly
back again into the chariot.”
All of which sounds simple and delightful. In practice, however,
it did not often “work out.” For too frequently the wheels of the
chariots became clogged, sometimes they jammed in the wheels of other
chariots—not necessarily the enemy’s—and frequently the horses, driven
to frenzy by pain and terror, stampeded on all sides.
Therefore the “steadiness of infantry,” of which Cæsar talks so
glibly, must in many instances have existed purely in his imagination,
and there can be little doubt that the warriors, carried away _nolens
volens_ by their frenzied horses, often “retreated readily to their
own side” long before the enemy pressed them to do so, a regrettable
incident which Cæsar passes over with perfunctory comment. And perhaps
he is not to be found fault with for doing this, seeing that similar
tactics have been indulged in by many of the most successful of our
military strategists of modern times.
Probably by Cæsar’s time the practice of placing a covering of some
sort upon the backs of “saddle” horses had become quite common, at
least amongst the Romans. Among German tribes the use of any sort
of covering was still not merely laughed to scorn, but deemed to be
actually effeminate, disgraceful and a mark of laziness.
To do the Germans justice, they thoroughly acted up to their theory
in this connection, for never, when riding bareback, did they fear to
attack cavalry equipped with the horsecloth termed an _ephippion_,
which means literally a horse cover.
Referring again to war chariots, Diodorus tells us almost in so many
words that the Celts of Gaul and of Northern Italy went to war in
two-horse chariots down to quite a late date, after the manner of the
Homeric Acheans. These chariots held each two warriors, or a warrior
and a charioteer. One of the occupants first hurled a spear at the
enemy and then quickly alighted to finish the attack on foot; the
other occupant managed the car.
Though Horace himself was not a practical horseman, the views which he
expressed upon the subject of horses and of horsemanship are for the
most part admirable. In common with Xenophon he deemed good hoofs to
be an essential. Listen to the following rather amusing though at the
same time quite sensible observations uttered by Horace in one of his
“Swells,” he writes, “when they buy horses, have a way of covering
them up when they look over them, for fear that a handsome shape set
upon tender feet, as often happens, may take in the buyer as he hangs
open-mouthed over fine haunches, small head, and stately neck. And
they are right.”
At this time the ancients did not shoe their horses, though it is
generally believed that the Romans often covered the hoofs of their
mules with a sort of cap made of leather, which they then tied about
These caps or coverings were named _soleæ_, and in the majority of
cases had a thin plate or sole made of iron. Nero is said to have used
for his 2000 mules plates made of silver instead of iron, and Pliny
declares in his famous “Natural History” that Nero’s ridiculous wife,
Poppæa, used plates of gold for the same purpose.
It seems more than likely that caps of this pattern may have been worn
by some at least of the horses of the immortal Ten Thousand, for it
is recorded that during the great retreat an Armenian explained to a
group of Greeks how best to protect their horses’ feet when snow lay
thick upon the ground, and the way he recommended was to wrap them up
In the early history of Ireland we find references. There is an
Irish epic cycle said to be quite one of the oldest known—the cycle
of Cuchulainn—in which the warriors all fight from chariots and do
terrible things. In this respect the poems of the Ossianic cycle
are different, from which it has been inferred that the latter were
If this was so it helps to bear out the argument that chariots went
steadily out of use as cavalry came more and more into vogue. Various
dates have been assigned to the “Cuchulainn Saga,” but from the
records that exist it seems safe to say that the original poem must
have been written in Pagan times—the events referred to in it are
supposed to have occurred about the first century B.C.—though probably
it was revised and added to in later years.
Indeed it is beyond dispute that as early as the seventh century A.D.
some of these poems were already deemed to be of great antiquity.
Cuchulainn’s horses are described at length in “The Wooing of Emer.”
They were “alike in size, beauty, fierceness and speed. Their manes
were long and curly, and they had curling tails. The right-hand horse
was a grey horse, broad in the haunches, fierce, swift and wild; the
other was jet-black, his head firmly knit, and he was broad-hoofed
and slender; long and curly were his mane and tail. Down his broad
forehead hung heavy curls of hair.”
We are further told “that was the one chariot which the host of the
horses of the chariots of Ulster could not follow on account of the
swiftness and speed of the chariot and of the chariot chief who sat in
These peerless animals were guided by “two firm-plaited yellow reins,”
and presumably the black with “long and curly mane and tail” was of
Spanish or Gaulish blood.
Soon after the coming of Christ, or probably about the year 60 A.D., a
tribe referred to as the Iceni is known to have lived on what is now
called Newmarket Heath, and to have owned horses, apparently in great
Tacitus speaks of the Iceni, who must have been a greater and more
powerful people than the majority of modern historians lead us to
infer. Again, it is interesting to note that nearly all the gold
and silver coins of the Iceni bear upon one side the impression
of a horse. Cæsar refers to the Iceni as a race that dwelt in
Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and Tacitus
wrote practically to the same effect.
Though horse racing is spoken of incidentally as having been indulged
in early in the Anglo-Saxon era, quite the earliest _bonâ-fide_ horse
races that took place in England, of which we have authentic record,
were those organised about the time of the Emperor Severus Alexander,
or towards the beginning of the third century A.D. The meeting was
held at Netherby, in Yorkshire.
These races were run apparently not long before the assassination
of the ill-starred emperor in 222 by the soldiers whom Maximus had
corrupted. At other stations as well horse races took place during the
Roman occupation, and Carleon, Silchester, Rushborough and Dorchester
are mentioned as being among the localities which had to do with the
very primitive “Turf” of that period.
Perhaps the undeniable superiority of the British thoroughbred over
the horses of other nations to-day may in a measure be due to the time
and attention the Romans of that era devoted to the importation of
horses of Eastern blood. This seems more likely still to be the case
when we remember that the majority of the best of the English mares
were crossed with Arabian stallions in the years that followed, and
that a succession of such stallions was imported throughout the early
and the Middle Ages, and from that time onward right down through
the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as we shall see
By the beginning of the era of the Saxon kings an Arab steed had
come to be looked upon as a recognised royal gift. According to one
authority, indeed, Boadicea, the intrepid queen who led the Iceni
against the Roman invaders, was greatly attached to her horses.
Most likely she was attached to them, however, only because they
helped her so materially in her raids upon her enemies. To pretend
that “the sturdy queen,” as one historian nicknames her, harboured
anything in the least approaching a sympathetic or a sentimental
affection for any particular horse would be the acme of all that is
Haydn has the misplaced gallantry to allude to Boadicea as “the heroic
queen.” That her good fortune in possessing horses with considerable
staying power enabled her to win her great victory at Verulam is now
common history. Therefore we read with the more interest that “this
relentless queen destroyed London and other places, slaughtering many
Romans, but at last she was overcome near London, by Suetonius, and
she ended by committing suicide.”
In the second century A.D. the Arabs probably had not begun to breed
horses, for at that time we do not hear of Arab horses being held
in the high esteem with which they later came to be regarded by the
Yet even before this, or towards the middle of the first century A.D.,
the sport of chariot racing had become immensely popular, and the sums
spent upon organising the races, training the horses that were to be
entered for competition, and in purchasing prizes to be bestowed upon
the victors, may justly be said to have been enormous if we bear in
mind the purchasing value of the coinage of the period.
That the Romans were given to sacrificing horses to their gods,
Pliny the elder has made plain to us. He is said to have written an
exhaustive work upon steeds of a certain stamp, but unfortunately
the book must have been destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79
A.D., when Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried, and some 200,000 human
beings killed, among them Pliny.
As he points out in his “Natural History,” however, the sacrifices
of horses took place frequently, especially upon occasions of public
solemnity, and he mentions that horses to be immolated were not
allowed to be touched even by the Flamen.
Whether or no the Romans habitually sacrificed white horses, after the
manner of the Greeks, Illyrians and Persians, is not stated. They did,
however, harness white horses to their chariots upon these and other
state occasions, and thus we read that when Julius Cæsar returned from
Africa the quadriga in which he drove was, by order of the Senate,
drawn by milk-white steeds.
Tacitus tells us that on some occasions when a distinguished chief
died the dead man’s horse was cremated on the funeral pyre beside
its master’s body, and we know that the superstitious beliefs of the
Persians were upon a par with those of their Germanic kinsmen in so
far as the immolation of horses was concerned.
In some instances alleged divination of the future was brought about
by the aid of horses. Tacitus himself remarks that it was peculiar to
this people (the Germans) “to seek from horses omens and monitions.”
“Kept at the public expense in these same woods and groves,” he
continues, “are white horses, pure from the taint of earthly labour.
These are yoked to a sacred chariot and accompanied by the priests
and the king, or chief of the tribe, who note their neighings and
snortings. No species of divination is more to be trusted, not only by
the people and by the nobility, but also by the priests, who regard
themselves as the ministers of the gods, and the horses as acquainted
with their will.”
Amusing, but probably more or less fictitious, stories of Incitatus,
the notorious horse of the Roman emperor, Caligula, have been handed
down to us. That this beast had the absurd honour conferred upon it of
being elected priest and consul we must believe, and there probably is
truth in the statement that it ate regularly out of an ivory manger
and drank from a golden pail.
[Illustration: CALIGULA ON HORSEBACK. ABOUT 37 A.D.
_From a figure in the British Museum_]
But we must accept with reservation the story that the horse alone had
eighteen attendants in gorgeous apparel or livery to attend to it.
Almost equally fantastic are the tales told of the famous horse that
belonged to the Roman emperor, Verus, in the second century A.D. Celer
by name, it ate nothing but almonds and raisins, and its stable was
a suite of apartments in the emperor’s principal palace. In place of
horse clothing it wore a garment of royal purple.
I need hardly repeat that these and similar stories that have been
handed down to us must be received with considerable scepticism.
A description, probably true, of what were deemed in the first century
A.D. to be the best points about a horse, is to be found in the
“Eclogues.” The lines, translated, run somewhat as follows:—
“My beast displays
A deep-set back; a head and neck
That tossing proudly feel no check
From over-bulk; feet fashioned slight,
Thin flanks, and brow of massive height;
While in its narrow horny sheath
A well-turned hoof is bound beneath.”
Towards the middle of the fourth century A.D. the popularity of what
must be described as circus riding would seem to have increased rather
suddenly, and we read that at about this time the Sicilian horses were
nearly as much in demand for public performances and processions as
the Cappadocian and the Spanish. Though such performances must have
been primitive indeed by comparison with even the simpler of the
feats we see performed to-day, they were then deemed marvellous in the
extreme, and people came from far and near to witness them.
This probably was in a measure due to the general love of riding that
prevailed amongst the wealthier classes at that period. Indeed the
possession of a large stud of horses was in many parts of Greece,
and especially in Athens, considered the hall-mark of what we should
term to-day a man of culture, in the same way that the possession
of horses, hounds and hawks was supposed to mark the aristocrat in
Thus a man often would be named after the class of horse he owned.
Xanthippus meant “He of the dun horses”; Leucippus, “He of the white
horses”; and Melanippus, “He of the black horses.”
* * * * *
By the close of the fourth century A.D. the Romans apparently had
outgrown their prejudice against the use of saddles, for at about that
time the saddle is referred to with some frequency. Certain it is that
in 380 A.D. the famous cavalrymen of Theodosius were mounted on horses
provided with true saddles—that is to say saddles with a tree, also
with a bow in front and behind.
Generally a cloth or numner was worn beneath saddles, but it is known
that at one time Roman horses suffered from sore backs owing probably
to the way the Roman soldiers sat their horses when saddles first came
into vogue. Soon after this it was that the saddle came to be known as
“the chair,” presumably because of the Latin word _sella_, from which
we have the French noun, _selle_, meaning saddle.
Some famous horses are referred to in the records of the sixth
century, but little is said of their history. Thus we have the Persian
steed of Chosroes, called Shibdiz, a name signifying “fleeter than the
wind.” Apparently he was a famous charger, for we read that he carried
his master safely through several important engagements. Yet he was
used for other purposes.
The story of King Arthur is so closely bound up with fable and fiction
that the truth is difficult to get at. He must have owned many good
horses, however, of which Spumador—a word signifying “the foaming
one”—and the mare Lamri were perhaps the most renowned. There are,
nevertheless, historians who maintain that these horses never actually
Sir Tristram’s charger, Passe Brewell, mentioned in the “History of
King Arthur,” and elsewhere, is another animal around which “a web
of imaginative description,” as one writer terms it has been woven.
Consequently we shall be well advised to pass these fables by without
* * * * *
In the first half of the sixth century the practice of regularly
shoeing horses apparently came into vogue, for shoes are referred
to in the records of the ways and customs of the famous Emperor
Justinian. It seems certain, however, that the shoes fashioned at
about that period were clumsy in design, also needlessly heavy.
Specimens of them have from time to time been discovered, and it is
said one was found in the tomb of King Childeric, the date of whose
death is placed so far back as 460 A.D.
Though Tacitus, who wrote between 80 and 116 A.D., does not allude to
the horses of the Swedes, it is certain that about the sixth century
A.D. the Swedes had become not only a race of fine horsemen, but
owners of magnificent horses. Indeed in 550 A.D., or thereabouts,
Jornandes went so far as to compare them favourably with the race of
Probably it was in a measure owing to the intense devotion of the
Swedish king, Adhils, to horses and to all that appertained to them
that the Swedish nation became so renowned for their horses and their
horsemanship. Then, though the Arabs had no horses at the beginning of
the Christian era, they probably were breeding them in great numbers
by the beginning of the sixth century A.D., for it was due mainly to
a quarrel at about that time over a famous horse named Dahis that two
formidable tribes entered into a deadly and long-drawn-out struggle.
At about this period the Romans began to pay almost fastidious
attention to the colour of their horses. The colour most preferred for
a war horse was dark brown, chestnut, or bay, with a white blaze up
the face, or a white patch or star upon the forehead. Light-coloured
horses were avoided as much as possible, except when the animals were
needed for processions, and so forth.
A graphic description is given of a fierce combat between
approximately 1000 of Justinian’s cavalry, led by the renowned
general, Belisarius, and an equal number of Goths.
The latter, determined to enter Rome, had crossed the Tiber, when the
column of Belisarius came upon them suddenly.
The engagement began at once.
We are told that “Belisarius himself fought like a common soldier,” as
the bravest of the chiefs of that period sometimes did. He was astride
one of his favourite and best-trained chargers, a horse described as
having “all his body dark-coloured, but his face pure white from the
top of the head to the nose.”
An animal so marked was termed by the Greeks _phalios_, and by the
barbarians _balas_, words signifying “bald.” While the battle was in
progress a number of Belisarius’ soldiers left his ranks and joined
the Goths’. Thus it came about that suddenly Belisarius heard shouts
from the enemy’s lines, and the cries distinctly audible:
“Belisarius rides the bald-faced horse! Strike him! Slay it!”
And most likely the bald-faced horse and his gallant rider would have
been slaughtered had Belisarius’ bodyguard not hastened to rally round
him and eventually succeeded in beating off his assailants, many of
whom, earlier in the day, had fought beside him.