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The Wonder-Book of Horses by  James Baldwin
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THE DANCING HORSES OF SYBARIS

[115]

I
N the south of Italy there was once a flourishing Greek colony called Sybaris. The town was well situated for commerce, the surrounding country was very fertile, the climate was the finest in the world, and for some centuries the Sybarites were industrious and enterprising, carrying on a profitable trade with other countries, and heaping up immense wealth. But too much good fortune finally proved their ruin. Little by little they lost their habits of labor and thrift, and, instead, gave themselves up to pleasure. Finally, leaving all kinds of necessary work to their slaves, they laid aside the cares of life and spent their days in eating and drinking, in dancing and in listening to fine music, or in attending the circus and watching the feats of acrobats and performing animals.

It is said, indeed, that prizes were offered to any man who would invent some new kind of amusement. A certain flute-player hit upon the [116] idea of teaching the horses to dance, and, since those creatures were as fond as their masters of pleasure, he found it a very easy thing to do. It was not long before the sound of a pipe would set the heels of every war-horse in the country to beating time with it. Imagine, if you please, a whole nation of dancing people and dancing horses—what a free-from-care time of it they must have had!


[Illustration]

"A certain flute-player hit upon the idea of teaching the horses to dance."

But the pleasantest summer must come to an end, even for grasshoppers. The Sybarites had for neighbors a community of hard workers, students, and tradesmen, called Crotoniates, who lived temperately, drank water from the original Croton River, listened to lectures by Pythagoras, and looked with longing eyes upon the fair gardens and stately white palaces of Sybaris. The Crotoniates several times came to blows with the Sybarites; but as their army was much smaller, and they had no cavalry whatever, they were beaten in every battle. Their foot-soldiers were of no use at all when opposed to the onsets of the Sybarite war-horses.

But true worth is sure to win in the end. When a spy reported to the Crotoniates that he had seen all the horses in Sybaris dancing to the music [119] of a pipe, the Crotoniate general saw his opportunity at once. He sent into the Sybarite territories a company of shepherds and fifers armed with nothing but flutes and shepherd's pipes, while a little way behind them marched the rank and file of the Crotoniate army. When the Sybarites heard that the enemy's forces were coming, they marshaled their cavalry—the finest in the world at that time—and sallied forth to meet them.

They thought it would be fine sport to send the Crotoniates scampering back across the fields into their own country, and half of Sybaris went out to see the fun. What an odd sight it must have been—a thousand fancifully dressed horsemen, splendidly mounted, riding out to meet an array of unarmed shepherds and a handful of ragged foot-soldiers!

The Sybarite ladies wave their handkerchiefs and cheer their champions to the charge. The horsemen sit proudly in their saddles, ready at a word to make the grand dash—when, hark! a thousand pipes begin to play, not "Yankee Doodle" nor "Rule Britannia," but the national air of Crotona, whatever that may be. The order is given to charge; the Sybarites shout and [120] drive their spurs into their horses' flanks—what fine sport it is going to be! But the war steeds hear nothing, care for nothing, but the music. They lift their slender hoofs in unison with the inspiring strains.

And now the armed Crotoniates appear on the field, but the pipers still pipe, and the horses still dance—they caper, curvet, caracole, pirouette, waltz, trip the light fantastic hoof, forgetful of everything but the delightful harmony. The Sybarite riders have been so sure of the victory that they have taken more trouble to ornament than to arm themselves. Some of them are pulled from their dancing horses by the Crotoniate footmen, others slip to the ground and run as fast as their nerveless legs will carry them back to the shelter of the city walls. The shepherds and fifers retreat slowly toward Crotona, still piping merrily, and the sprightly horses follow them, keeping step with the music.

The dancing horses cross the boundary lines between the two countries, they waltz over the Crotoniate fields, they caracole gaily through the Crotoniate gates, and when the fifers cease their playing the streets of Crotona are full of fine war-horses!

Thus it was that the Sybarites lost the fine cavalry of which they had been so proud. The complete overthrow of their power and the conquest of their city by the Crotoniates followed soon afterward—for how, in any contest against so idle a community, could it have been otherwise?


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