De equo animante / Le Cheval Vivant / The living horse
by Leon Baptiste Alberti, c. 1440s
English translation by Jennifer Jobst, with French and Latin consultation by Grégoire De Beaumont. Based on the French translation by Jean-Yves Boriaud in Le Cheval Vivant.
Leon Baptiste Alberti (1404-1472) is perhaps best known for his architecture, but he also penned several booklets, including De equo animante. Dedicated to Leonello d'Este of Ferrara, it was likely written in the late 1430s or 1440s when Alberti was working on a sculpture for d'Este. The booklet is not based on Alberti's personal knowledge of horses, but is rather a compilation for which Alberti "... gather[ed] together all the possible authors, famous or obscure, who wrote about the horse, and all that I found to be elegant and interesting, I transcribed in my booklet." Alberti handily lists the authors which he included, and readers who are familiar with ancient Greek and Roman texts will note similarities throughout De equo animante.
This English translation was done for personal interest and should be used with some caution, as it was translated from Jean-Yves Boriaud's French version; however the original Latin text was consulted regularly for clarification and accuracy (the French version is not included here due to copyright, but can be obtained at the link provided above). Nevertheless, the text provides insight into the body of knowledge about horses, especially training and healthcare, available during Alberti's time. Of course, since Alberti wrote this as a compilation of ancient texts rather than based on first-hand experience, whether or not the practices Alberti described were actually followed in the mid-fifteenth century would require validation from other sources.
If you have questions or suggestions for improvements, please leave a comment or contact me directly. Please remember that this translation is copyright, and cite appropriately if used.
De equo animante
To Leonello, Prince of Ferrare,
Having returned to Ferrara to visit you and present my homage to you, illustrious prince, I find it difficult to say how much pleasure I was seized by to see your city, so beautiful, your citizens, so respectful, and to see you, a prince so distinguished and so kind. I really understood the interest of living in a State where, in peace and rest of soul [or spirit], one is subjected to the best of the fathers of the fatherland, who respects the laws and its traditions. But we'll discuss that another time.
To this pleasure was added the meeting, here, of an opportunity that was offered to me, an opportunity so pleasant for me, given my custom of exercising my intelligence: I seized it gladly, also because of my regard for you [high esteem in which I hold you]. Your fellow citizens having indeed decided to raise at great expense, in the square, in honor of your father, equestrian statues, before the rivalry which opposed the best artists, they chose me, on your order, me who relishes some pleasure to paint and carve, to arbitrate on their behalf. To examine again and again so many masterpieces done in such an extraordinary manner , it came to my mind the idea of reflecting with more attention not only on the beauty and the lines of horses, but on their nature in general, and on their characters [attitude].
I saw how much the horses lent themselves to all the uses, public and private, of men, to the violence of wars as well as to the pageantry of peace. Should it actually be what is necessary to take from the fields the materials for the construction of shelters and dwellings or what is necessary for the maintenance of a family, or what is necessary to collect onto the battlefield of their greatness of glory and the honor of liberty , to accomplish all these tasks, it is of course the strength and work of these animals that men most often resort to using, to the point that, without the help of the horses, it seems impossible to me to ensure safety and dignity. Especially since it is the only animal serves and adorns [embellishes] the gods from above. Phoebus , with his chariot of fire [sparks from the tail of a comet], the venerable Neptune, happy to brandish his trident, like a scepter, on the Ocean, and the other gods, all or almost all, seem to have the brilliance that is suits their majesty, and what device best suits their tasks, if the horses were not first harnessed to their chariots?
This [the horse] is an animal of elegant appearance, where one is astonished to see so much physical vigor and strength of soul [character] combined with such an incredible gentleness, and a spirit that is also placid and docile dwells in such a strong breast . He lets himself be led by a thin strap, he who knows how to crush the chest of iron [i.e. a cuirass]] of the furious enemy. The horse has also learned to advance in the battle, with the whole squadron [of cavalry], at a walk all together [as a group] [so that] they sound like the harmony of vocals , to tolerate only a single master to ride him and to him [allow] on the ground, to allow him to return, triumphant conqueror, to his family. It would be too long to enumerate all the services rendered to their princes by horses, services which earned them the offer, by the divine Augustus, the honor which deserves a tomb, by the citizens of Agrigento, a magnificent pyramid, by the dictator Cesar, a statue near the temple of Venus and, by Alexander of Macedonia [Alexander the Great], the largest of the funeral processions with, in the guise of a tomb and epitaph, the foundation of a city of the same name .
To train a horse for war
Causes the most frequent of the bad health in horses
Some points concerning the maladies of horses
 Paraphrased: either a man must provide for his family by working the fields and collecting up materials to build dwellings, or collecting spoils from battlefields. In any case, he needs a horse.
 He seems to be contrasting the horse’s gentleness with his great heart and strength of spirit