Wednesday, March 10, 2021

English translation of De equo animante, by Leon Baptiste Alberti (c. 1440s)

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.

Translator's notes

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 [1], 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 [2], 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 [3], 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 [4]. 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 [5], 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 [6].

These examples and many others of the same kind have come to my mind, and as the matter seemed to me to deserve to test my intelligence, when I realized how pleased you were reading my text and I was myself unoccupied, I decided to spend the time of my stay with you to practice according to my habit, to write about the subject. I applied myself to gather 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. These authors, at least those who came into my hands, were either, for the Greeks, Xenophon, Absyrtus, Chiron, Hippocrates and Pelagonius and, for the Latins, Cato, Varro, Virgil, Pliny, Columella, Vegece, Palladius, the Calabrian, Crescenzio, Albert, Abbas and many others, from Gaul or Etruria, obscure but useful and erudite. I even took what the best doctors [veterinarians] what seemed to me to be about the subject.

As for my readers, I would like them to think that I did not write for workers or herdsmen, but for a prince, and at the same time a great scholar, and that in writing on this subject, I was without a doubt more plain than the ignorant masses might wish. I would like then, Prince, that when you are reading [my work] you persuade yourself that I have never researched as much, through all the work of my watchfulness [?], what of thee [?] every day, whatever the matter, more agreeable. But let's come to the subject itself.

To train a horse for war

Once educated in these behaviors, it [the horse] must be trained in the other noble arts, to endure fatigue for the honor and glory of the country, to save the citizens, to defeat the enemy and to all the other glorious practices of the same kind.

The points to be paid special attention to are the following: that he should lend himself to obedience and discretion to the formation of the line of battle, that he should remain calm in the midst of danger, that he should be quick to launch himself, to know how to slide [avoid, dodge] quickly, to be firm and decisive during the attack, agile for jumping, able to swim for a long time, quick and fierce in the fight, but without excesses, that he seems happy and sensitive to honors in the parade of triumph, and be cheerful and in a good mood.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be addressed is what the Sarmatians do, because they raise the horses so that they can withstand deprivation of food and just drink.

To achieve the greater part of these results, we have two excellent instruments: the bit, which, if the horse comes to run inconsiderately and foolishly on the enemy if he does it without the signal being given or in one an inappropriate place, or if, by timidity, out of fear, he flees at random and abandons his post, [the bit] allows him [the horse] to be kept under his [the rider’s] authority; at the same time, we have invented spurs by means of which, if he is lazy and apathetic, one can reverse it and push him to duty.

The horse must therefore be trained that the hand and the heel of the rider, and in such a way that, if it [the horse] is in a difficult mood, the first cue [push] should be [made with] bare heel [i.e. no spur] and a light rod and then apply these stimulants.

If he [the horse] begins to wander in this or that direction, against orders, he [the rider] must, at each step, by acting with the hand on the reins, with moderation and by degrees, chastise the mouth with the bit.

But as soon as he has obeyed, it is necessary to stop the action of this stimulant [i.e. using the bit], so that the restive [horse] understands that it is because of this forbidden movement that he has been thus mishandled by the bit. 

If he begins to take the bit by the teeth, perhaps by stubbornness, it is necessary to remove the four teeth of the lower jaw which fall first and are vulgarly called <cascaliones>. 

It also contributes to learning discipline if one gives him for companions horses of age [older horses], at their example which he will forget by practicing, day after day, his repugnance and will get used to imitating the virtue of the horses with merits [i.e. well-schooled horses].

With them, he will learn to follow, to precede, to go in the middle, so to speak, of the phalanx [squadron], to remain sometimes motionless, and sometimes to embark on steep and rugged terrain, and finally to run [away, i.e. retreat] for a long time.

Some prescribe to place in his path repulsive and ugly silhouettes of human busts and, for him to recognize what it is, to lead him near and around them, to stop nearby and to sometimes tie [him to it] with his lead [rope].

And also throw bales [bundles] of chaff [straw] in his path, to get him used to jumping high and without danger.

At last, without striking him, he [the rider] strives to accustom him [the horse] to disdain [scorn] all fears without objection, like that of loud noises [the din] or images.

But, using occasionally these practices, we must focus, especially, to watch [guard] the health of the horse, and also avoid that he is not impregnated [become filled/taught] with bad habits or imbued with a sort of insolence [become insolent]. 

Be careful, too, that he [the horse] does not have the occasion to abuse his liberty. 

This is what occurs, affirms our authors, if we eternally keep the habit of running or of jumping [or] we go to the same place or if we for that reason, we must one day do a modest race, another a little longer, going up, coming down, by going more often, at one time, from one side, to another, to the other, and being very careful, especially, that, in this fierceness, he does not get more insolent about the situation, [or end up] feeling victorious and triumphant [against his rider] .

It is also necessary, in this case, that the instructor masters his own anger, so that the horse, [who is] not much designed for hesitation, can understand well, through his fear, what are the things to dread [be afraid of]. 

And it must also be ensured that the hardness of the rider's commands does not add an additional discomfort to the terror so created [i.e., the terror created by a battle].

And not only we have to watch [make sure] again and again that the young colt appears to be perfectly and excellently instructed on what he will have to use, but you must mostly [above all] pay attention to the work itself, [which can be] distressing and difficult, that you [the rider] make him [the horse] accomplish [the work] with the correction and courage that is permitted by his age. 

Which is only possible if we could keep it [the horse] in good health.

Causes the most frequent of the bad health in horses

[Things that] Are mentioned as bad for health : idleness, filth, satiety and, conversely, exhaustion, hunger and perhaps the excess of comfort, are harmful to health, because it is obvious that serious and numberless diseases result from them.

Hunger causes indeed a conflagration of the spirits and a disappearance of the forces; from the weakness, the collapse of the virtues, and the sadness of the mind, also blindness; As the members, emaciated and impoverished, do not assimilate enough of an insufficiently digested nutrients, a boiling persists in the stomach, a burning blood rises in the veins, and a corrosive mood is apparent in the skin; itching, erythema and repulsive ailments of the same kind.

Fatigue causes dissolution of the moods, induration and tendon stains, and hardening of the limbs.

Idleness, the excess of food, and satiety cause much more harm.

Thromboses and almost all types of abscess come from excessive concentration of blood in the veins and excessive swelling of the vessels, due to the action of a chyme that bubbles and shakes at the same time inside the viscera.

By a sort of contagion, filth corrupts the purity and the integrity of the humors.

The fetid steam of muck in the stable, because it excites the humors by its heat, that its fineness allows it to penetrate everywhere, it softens what it gets wet, is more than anything, a true scourge for the legs and feet of horses.

This is especially true when the steam that impregnates a horse from a warm place in the open condenses and hardens cold.

And if there is a lot of rain, our authors say that horses are taken by itchiness [restlessness?].

From all this comes a very large number of diseases.

Let us not omit to say here that we understand then that to remain inactive for a long time, especially in a gloomy stable, every horse becomes absolutely lazy, and, in front of all the sounds, even tiny, and all the shapes that we put under his eyes without him expecting it [when he does not expect it], [he will be] fearful, timid and paralyzed.

Finally, naturalists assert that with moderate and suitable physical exercises, the strength increases and consolidates and that the horse is in shape at any age and keeps his good health. 

It is therefore of the greatest interest to determine the time, place, intensity and mode of these exercises. 

The proper moment, the healthiest moment, to put oneself to these exercises, is neither [during] the great heat nor the heart of winter, nor the dark night, but the morning, at the first dawn, when a pleasant and light breeze blows, and in the evening, until sunset, before dusk. 

As for places, they must be adapted to the type of exercise and the age of the horse who is doing it. 

Any land is not suitable for every horse, but some to the young and tender foals, others to adolescent foals who are more vigorous.

It will indeed be useful to manage to bring the young horses with hoofs still tender to taste the fruits of the exercise. 

To make this more convenient, here is what is prescribed. 

We must show the foal his mother, like a boundary, in front of him, at a moderate distance, on a little meadow, moist and green, and separate his mother a little, as if for a flight, but with a moderate walk, her child who follows her, then push him, stimulating him, if necessary, with a light rod, to play at the run, with foals of his age, who will first arrive at a nice fountain. [???]

Subsequently, according to their age, it is necessary to bring these foals to bear more significant strain and harden them little by little, by the exercise, but without going to the exhaustion or the last sweat. 

When one is dealing with an animal with a proud heart and noble bearing, it is necessary, by pleasure and example, by proposing to him an honor to win, to practically put fire in his veins and, keeping this principle at every moment of his education, thus accustoming him every day more to the exercise, by minute additions.

It is also necessary to choose places and times which offer no danger for the horses when exercising, and are not unhealthy when, at the end of this exercise, they [the horses] are tired and sweaty. 

Wind are also harmful for horses heated by exercise; harmful also the icy shadow of the night, and harmful especially the rays of the moon. 

For the exercise, it is therefore necessary to lead the horse not too far from home, nor too far from a place of rest. 

When he has accomplished this task, he must not be left in the shade of a cold night, nor in a strong north wind, nor should he take risks when he is tired nor add to fatigue the weight of extra work.

Let us add here that, according to these authors, the horses that we want to stand out particularly for racing, it is necessary to castrate them so that, thus made colder, they do not warm up when their nerves animate them with a lively movement. [???]

As for those whom they wish to be more pugnacious and more fierce in the face of enemies who pursue or confront them, every autumn, at the moment when their veins are most filled with seminal fluid, they must be allowed one mating and no more. 

But in either case, one must take into consideration their age, their strength, and finally their natural physical dispositions in the activity for which it is intended. 

Do not forget to say that, according to them [the ancients], they [the horses] should not be brought to exercise, in the career [arena or carriera] or on the race track, before they have deposited what weighs down their belly [i.e. defecated], and do not allow them to graze or drink, after exercise, if they have not urinated. 

For fat and overweight horses, sudden exercise, especially if they are not used to it, is, according to their [the ancient’s] advice, harmful. 

So they prescribe, at the beginning of spring, at a time when, thanks to the growth of new grasses, they renew and purify their blood, when they have eaten their fill for ten days, to cut off their main vein [bleed them from the main vein], close to the belly, because they will have an excess of blood.

And likewise [bleed them] in the summer, to prevent the blood from becoming sludge from the heat, and turning itself into poisonous abscesses. 

And the same way in autumn, to avoid having them succumb to the charm of pastures and new and juicy grains, they do not overfill themselves, and that their too swollen veins do not put them in danger, it is necessary to bleed them from this vein. 

They give, on this question, a general prescription: do not cut vein on a horse that is tired and thin [skinny]. 

They add that the amount of blood in the geldings should not be thoughtlessly reduced. 

After the phlebotomy, they [the ancients] affirm that it is necessary for [the horse] to refrain from eating or drinking for a large amount of hours. They likewise prescribe not to allow the horses to become cold, or [keep them] in a place exposed to wind, or near water. And this is enough for this exercise.

Our authors advise to pay special attention that filth does not cause them any damage. 

Here is how to welcome them when they come back from the school [carriera] and the racecourse. 

They must first be covered with blankets and walked on a small course, at a slow pace, until they have refreshed themselves in their veins. 

After that, if they want, let them lie down freely on their straw and roll around a bit. 

Then, with scraper or brush, it is necessary to totally remove the filth on the back, the belly and the flanks. 

Some people say that when they sweat, they must be completely coated with oil. 

After that, it is necessary, with handfuls of hemp [straw], to rub particularly, and in full [completely], the head and the legs, but this chafing should be neither too sharp nor too strong, nor too frequent or too painful, [especially] on tender skin, neither soft nor lazy by dint of nonchalance, but apt to drive the filth from the folds of the skin where it is lodged and to get rid of it. 

The effects of friction are interesting because it brings the humors from the muscles to the surface of the skin, and once [you have] removed the filth which, as it dried, had unfortunately absorbed the liquid humors which came out [of the horse as it sweated], it [the friction] brings back the humors and allows them to stay there [at the skin].

That done, it is necessary to wash the feet with a lot of water, using the least sandy water possible, because that would damage the hooves. 

Finally, it is necessary to attach the horses, in the stable, to a well-washed manger, cleaned of all manure, and rid of any unpleasant odor.

Finally, they prescribe keeping them away from conflicts and brawls with their co-inhabitants [i.e. other horses] by means of long poles. 

In the morning, you must have the same concern for cleanliness, that is to say, to get rid of the filth and clean the hoofs of manure that has accumulated during the night: in short, clean all the impurities that you find. 

And finally, it is advisable to lead the horse to learn his duty and accomplish his tasks. 

When he returns, he will be welcomed to the stable with the care for cleanliness that we have indicated. 

[During] the day, moreover, and especially during the summer, it is necessary to keep [the horse] on a hard ground, which is not strewn with any straw. 

For hungry and thirsty horses, but especially for those who are too hot, or else when they have cooled, it is necessary to offer, first and foremost, water that is not cold, nor recently fallen, nor thoroughly repugnant and spoiled, but thickened and evaporated in the sun, and lukewarm [i.e. room temperature, normal temperature]. 

And also, to make them take as much water as possible, it is necessary to encourage them to drink with salt: it contributes strongly to reinforce their limbs. 

They say indeed that the monsters with gigantic bodies only grow in the sea, because of the amount of salt found there.

Immediately after [working], one must offer each horse not more than three livres [3 US pound, or about 1.5 kilos] of perfectly pure barley, in a deep hole, so that, [in working for] for his own pleasure, he strengthens his forelegs and the muscles on his chest. 

On the other hand, for straw and fodder cut short and clean, they recommend to place it up high, after having shaken out the dust, and to leave it thus in the air, so that by stretching the head, the horse works his neck and become more flexible and finer at the top of the neck. 

That same evening, when he has drunk well, he must be given three livres of barley and a large quantity of hay. 

But we must absolutely ensure that it is neither fed to saturation nor fed in excess. When given his fodder, they ask that one is watchful that he is not inconvenienced and is not obliged, to reach for food placed too low or too high, to bend or to stretch his members to excess. 

For the rest, they all agree that it is very important to offer the horses a little less comfort each day, so that they harden themselves to bravely endure the cold, lack of sleep, hunger, heat, wind and dust. That's why we must also shoe as late as possible: if an incident makes it so they have to get about with bare hooves, these hooves will be used to it, because this ancient practice will have made them callous and hard.

It is also fitting to remember that horses, for the purposes for which we train them, are, so to speak, part of our family, so that it is absolutely shameful that our impatience, our negligence, our laziness, might cause them the slightest damage. 

And if we ask them [the ancients] what must come first [is most important] in their education, I will say that it is, in my opinion, that the horse is well exercised. 

Our ancestors in effect wanted their horses not to know days of rest. 

And second? We take care of the horse properly. Filth rots even statues made of hard material, like ivory or bronze. 

In the third place? Feed him well. Our ancestors decided that horses should have the place of servants: we must therefore provide them with what they need and command them to what they can reasonably accomplish. 

All this, they say, cannot be done in good conditions unless one puts the care that a father gives his  family. 

We read in Xenophon this old proverb: the look of the master fattens the horses [the eye of the master maketh the horse fat?]. 

It is therefore very useful to repeat again and again their advice: always be careful not to make them stubborn by the fault of asking too much and [using] too severe a punishment. Nothing makes them so stubborn, recalcitrant, and lazy as the furious authority of an excessive master.

I had decided to write something about caring for sick horses, but when I noticed that many ancient authors, and some of the best, like Absyrtus, Chiron, Pelagonius, Caton, Columella, Vegece, but also good and useful modern writers, like Palladius, the Calabrian, Albert, Rusio, Crescenzio, Abbas, and a few others, had dealt with it skilfully and elegantly, I decided that I did not have to waste my time on this business, especially that I understood that I could write or otherwise only the Ancients without losing my dignity, nor like them while avoiding being unfairly accused of plagiarism.

Allow me, however, to set forth here some particularly useful warnings concerning the care of horses, and that the Ancients themselves have not mentioned. Here they are.

Some points concerning the maladies of horses

If the horse, in fact, is not well, some signs can make us understand [what is wrong].

This will be the case when this horse does not behave according to his old habits, when he used his limbs normally to fulfill his duty. 

If, for example, he sleeps more, if he is less active, if he eats with too much voracity, if he drinks too greedily, if he refuses with disgust drink or food, if he urinates a little more or a little less, if his stomach is more relaxed or more constipated, if he remains inert, his neck inclined towards the ground, if he is uncomfortable [labored in?] his breathing, if, from his belly, he emits malodorous farts [yes really], if his ears are a little cold, if he is perspiring at rest, if he has bad breath, if he loses weight or swells. 

All these signs make us understand that the horse is not healthy. 

Above all, the signs that have appeared, examine them again and again, in their relation to each disease. 

Compare them most carefully with the possible causes and put all your intelligence to seek the origin of the evil, rather than its nature. 

And put all your efforts and your application to divert and dry up the source of the disease. 

The bad force draws it from one noble member to another less noble. 

Ensure that what has happened does not remain on the spot, that it does not rot that to which it adheres; remove what has rotted, to prevent it from spoiling what is healthy. [talking about proud flesh i think]

That which may have been too hard softens, that which burns hotly, that the lukewarm regains its heat, that what is softened regains its firmness, that which, layer upon layer, has grown to excess, decreases, that what has disappeared reappears: watch it!

As for you, do not hurry to give medicines but, as the horse struggles with its own strength against the disease, meanwhile [you should] provide him with all you can to help nature. 

And nature, if it has largely begun its work of healing, do not try to rush its work. 

But if, perhaps, it seems a little slow, do not try to assault the disease, as by violence, with a strong drug, but bring it gently to accomplish its task, that of restoring health. 

In all this, take heed, [though you may] want to do experiments, not to change treatment inconsiderately, from hour to hour. 

Choose, for this treatment, what seems most safe, but preferably use that of the most value, verified by experience. 

Everything on the path to the cure, keeps the rhythms, the ways and even the things which you are used to, during convalescence. 

This cure should be continued until you have the clear feeling that the root of the evil has been completely removed - it would be to consider the horse as sick for eternity but persevere in the treatment that you have undertaken until that time that you realize that having almost recovered all his strength, the animal does not go so badly.


[1] Alberti is surprised by the quality of the masterpiece, which is not common.

[2] 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.

[3] Apollo

[4] He seems to be contrasting the horse’s gentleness with his great heart and strength of spirit 

[5] Perhaps Alberti means “keeping pace to the music”

[6] These stories seem to be taken from Pliny’s book 8