In the Arab East, land of its origins, the Arabian horse is riding high once again. In the last 20 years, most of the Arab countries, at the urging of a growing number of horse lovers committed to the purity of the Arabian horse, have set up what horse circles call "stud book organizations" to trace, verify and record the invaluable bloodlines of the Arab horse.
In some cases official stud organizations - which keep track of Arabian bloodlines - have been in existence for decades. But it was not until about 20 years ago that Tunisia, Morocco, Oman and Algeria followed suit, and not until just recently that Saudi Arabia and Iraq have done so. Sanctioned by the World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO), such efforts help assure the lineage - and thus the purity - of the Arabian.
Careful records of Arabian genealogies are by no means new; to the contrary, it was the reportedly scrupulous control of bloodlines by nomads on the Arabian Peninsula that perfected the breed. But in past eras, those records were committed to memory and it was not until 1946 - when the Egyptian Agricultural Organization Stud was set up - that the Arab world began to substitute written records for Bedouin memories.
Ironically, the lands where the Arabian was perfected by breeding turned away from the horse almost as quickly as countries in the West when the automobile was introduced, and it was not until recently that Arab countries have begun to initiate efforts to preserve or restore Arabian bloodlines. Saudi Arabia, for example, launched a noteworthy program in the early 1970's to encourage the breeding of Arabians. Backed by the late King Faisal, who announced his intention of reestablishing Saudi Arabia as the homeland of the Arabian (See Aramco World, Special Issue, 1972), this program set up the annual King's Cup race at the Riyadh Equestrian Club - which in turn required the introduction of written records at the club tracing the horses' bloodlines. This awareness of the importance of recorded genealogy in breeding Arabians was the first step toward establishment of a stud book listing the parentage and offspring of all pure Arabians.
Abdulla al-Bassam, director-general of the Riyadh Equestrian Club, is eliminating mixed-breed horses at the race tracks of the kingdom. Indeed, under a directive from King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz and Crown Prince 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, the first steps are already being taken to restrict national races to purebred Arabians - especially the King Fahd Cup and Crown Prince 'Abd Allah Cup races.
Meanwhile, a special stable has been established for Arabians in Dirab, the site of Saudi Arabia's Arabsat ground station. (See Aramco World, March-April 1985). Under the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture, the stables house more than 200 pure Arabians - and these stables are by no means the only ones in the kingdom. Members of the royal family, the Saudi Guard, the Royal Guard and the Kingdom's Public Security Department also own some Arabians; 10 princes, for example, raise Arabians and maintain the stables in Riyadh and elsewhere. To ensure that only purebred Arabians race in the kingdom, the stud book will register all the pure stock in the kingdom and an official committee will accept or reject horses on the basis of a certificate presented to the committee attesting to the animal's name, antecedents, distinguishing marks plus a color photograph. Upon acceptance, a seal will be affixed to the certificate and the horse will be specially branded for breeding purposes.
As in Europe and the United States, the revival of interest in Arabians has gone hand in hand with the boom in breeding and selling horses for racing. In Bahrain, for example, a $34.5 million track was opened in 1984.
One of the more successful attempts to preserve the Arabian horse in its native habitat has been taking place at the Royal Jordanian State Stud, located in the rolling wooded hill country of Hummar, 10 kilometers (six miles) north of the Jordan capital, Amman.
Though the stud was not formally established until 1961, with five mares and four stallions, the Jordanian campaign to procure and perpetuate the Arabian goes back some 60 years - to the beginning of Jordan as a state. When Prince Abdullah first ruled the Emirate of Transjordan - it was established in the early 1920's - he brought there some Arabians that had been in the care of his family since the 19th century.
As noted, there were no written stud books in the Arab East at that time so the horses were not registered officially. It was supposed, however, that their lineage was indelibly etched into the hearts and memories of their Bedouin owners and riders. Jordan, furthermore, continued to enrich their bloodlines. In 1940, the stallion Selman from Egypt was sent to Jordan as a gift - as were, soon after, the stallions Saameh and Ushaahe from Spain.
For a brief period after Abdullah's death in early 1950, Jordan's Arabians were threatened again when they were scattered throughout the land. Most were with members of the royal family, but some saw service with the army or the Royal Mounted Guards, and one, Ghazalleh, sired by the Spanish gift-stallion, somehow wound up plowing a farmer's field in the Jordan Valley. But then, in 1952, eight pure Arabians were reassembled in Amman to form the foundation stock of the Jordanian State Stud.
Initially, these horses were kept at the small royal stables at Basman Palace in downtown Amman, under the care of a Royal Mounted Guards officer named Sa'id Ahmed Taha. Then, in 1961, a state stud was formally established and King Hussein appointed an experienced European husband-and-wife team, Mr. and Mrs. Santiago Lopez, to manage it. Four years later, the new facility at Hummar was built, and since then has been expanded regularly to keep up with growth. Lopez, a Spaniard, and his English wife, Ursula, carefully nurtured the growth of the stud for more than two decades and when Santiago died two years ago, she continued with the help of Sa'id Taha. More recently, Guy de Fontaines de Logoires has been appointed manager of the Royal Jordanian stud.
Since the early years, the Jordanian royal family as a whole has felt a responsibility to maintain the purity of the Arabian, but today King Hussein's eldest daughter, Princess Alia, has assumed the reins. A skilled and knowledgeable rider who travels, whenever free, to specialized horse shows and competitions throughout the world, she is strongly committed to this task. "We have always looked upon the Arabian horse as a part of the national heritage of the Arabs," Princess Alia said recently in an interview with Aramco World. "Our main concern at the stud is to maintain the purity of the Arabian horse in its original environment, and to assure its continuity by certifying our genuine Arabians and registering them in the state stud book."
The first Jordanian stud book, The Royal Jordanian Stud, was printed in a private edition in 1972, after the Lopezes had spent a decade painstakingly compiling the extended pedigrees of each mare, filly, stallion and colt in their care. It was the first time that "a country of the desert" had published a full record of its horse breeding and it was followed, in 1980, by the first official stud book. Entitled The Arabian Horse and Stud Book of the Royal Jordanian State Stud - Volume 1, it was officially accepted by the World Arabian Horse Organization and in 1985 also won recognition from the British Arab Horse Society and Arabian Horse Registry of America.
In late 1984, Volume II of the stud book was published, but its name was changed to The Arabian Horse Stud Book of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The change of names was necessary because the Royal Jordanian Stud Book Authority had conferred "supervised status" on the horse of a Jordanian private citizen, Sa'id Khair, thereby starting to list horses other than those of the state stud. Khair's Arabians, incidentally, were imported into Jordan from Great Britain. The stud book will be published every four years, with annual supplements in between to keep the record up to date.
In the 24 years that the Lopezes managed the state stud, the number of Arabians increased from the original eight to 80 at the end of 1985. New stallions are occasionally introduced into the stud to strengthen or encourage specific physical traits, and to guard against problems that constant in-breeding can cause. Several other Jordanians, it should be said, also have impressive stables, notably Sharif Jamil ibn Nasser and Izzat Qandoor, who have Arabians and mixed-blood steeds active in local horse races. None of their horses, however, have yet been registered in the official national stud book.
All the horses in the Jordanian state stud are blood-typed at the laboratories of the Equine Research Station at New market, England, to help verify, and therefore assure, their purity of strain.
At the sprawling Hummar stables, each horse is kept in a spacious, comfortable stall within the Spanish-style complex designed by Lopez. The horses are cared for by an array of 40 stable hands who maintain the millennia-old tradition of close rapport between man and horse.
According to that tradition, Arabians' most distinctive and treasured characteristics, good nature and patience, result from years of literally living with their human owners; in the original desert habitat, Arabians sheltered under the same tent as their masters and from birth they associated human beings with companionship, food, water and affectionate care.
Desert Arabians, traditionally, were smaller than their counterparts in Europe and North America - probably because the desert does not provide sufficient food throughout the year. Now, fed daily on alfalfa, barley, bran and fresh spring grass, they have grown larger over the years. The dry climate has also maintained their prized "dry" look, in contrast to the slightly heavier and fleshier Arabians in Europe and North America.
Jordanian state stud horses no longer race - nor are they used for trekking or polo. Several, however, are being trained for dressage competitions, and Princess Alia hopes to enter some of them in international Arabian horse shows in the near future.
Mrs. Lopez is particularly pleased that she has never had a horse with asthma or broken-windedness; she attributes this to the fine climate of Jordan's highlands. Her breeding program aims to maintain and accentuate the traditional physical and temperamental features of the Arabian.
Until 1967, the horses used to winter every year in the Jordan Valley town of South Shouneh, near the Dead Sea; at nearly 350 meters below sea level (1,300 feet) - the lowest spot on earth - this town provided a warm winter climate that the horses took to with great enthusiasm. During the 1967 war, however, this location was dangerously close to the battlefront and when fighting threatened the stables one night in June the Lopezes, Taha and all the stable boys had to mount a dramatic rescue operation similar to the U.S. Army's famous rescue of Vienna's Lippizaner Horses in Austria during World War II.
As Mrs. Lopez recalls it today, the whole operation took a week. It got underway when the most valuable mares were evacuated to Amman in several army trucks while the rest of the horses were ridden towards the safety of the eastern hills. Because there were more horses than riders, some of the horses were set loose to simply gallop freely alongside the mounted steeds until all the horses were safely outside the battle zone. For both riders and horses it was a grueling experience - it took nearly 12 hours to ride from South Shouneh to Amman over a route that climbed nearly 1,200 meters (4,000 feet).
At Hummar, newborn Arabians are kept with their mothers for six months before being given their own stalls, and mares are not ridden until the age of four - stallions at the age of three. Each horse is ridden for two hours a day, either early in the morning or near dusk. Indeed, one of the truly beautiful sights for horse lovers is to catch a glimpse of a dozen or more horses being ridden out of the Hummar stables in the quiet of an early summer morning, heading for a gallop over the thickly wooded hills of the area.
The Arabian, of course, is a desert horse so Jordanians occasionally try to make sure that this heritage is not lost. In 1972, members of the Royal Jordanian Riding Club rode Arabians from Amman to Azraq, nearly 100 kilometers (62 miles) across the eastern Jordanian desert and during the 13-hour trek, the horses stopped only twice - for food and water. Such stamina has generated the Arabian's almost mystic reputation among Middle Eastern people since its first days - and is a factor in efforts by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to keep its lineage pure - and its future intact.
Rami Khouri, a former reporter and editor with the Jordan Times, is Aramco World's Jordan correspondent.