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Volume 16, Number 3May/June 1965

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Where Honor Dwells

"The air of Heaven is that which blows between the ears of a horse."

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi

Legend has it that Ishmael ibn Ibrahim, the progenitor of the Arab people, was the possessor of a fine horse named Ahwaj. Like the Old Testament patriarchs who rode him and his offspring, the tribe of Ahwaj in time increased mightily, and after five generations Ishmael's descendant Salman was entrusted with the awesome task of breeding them. After much deliberation, Salman found an ingenious solution: he withheld water from the herd until the horses were mad with thirst; then, just as they were taking their first deep draught, he had the war trumpet sounded, and the five mares who instantly sprang from the stream to answer the call to arms became the ancestors of the Arabian horse of today.

Fantasy or fact, this engaging story illustrates the importance which the Badu of the Arabian Peninsula attach to the bloodlines of their mounts, to seek their origins some 4,000 years in the past. Even the alternative version of the story, that the al-khamsa ("The Five") were the favorite mares of the Prophet Muhammad, makes up in pious tradition what it lacks in antiquity. What sort of animal is this, that inspires such legends and those proverbs attributed to the Prophet himself, that "Noble and fierce breeds of horses are true riches," and "Honor dwells in the manes of horses"?

The Arabian horse is small, averaging 14 to 15 hands (a hand is four inches) in height and weighing from 800 to 1,000 pounds. The Arabian is beautiful, sure-footed and intelligent, combines docility with spirit and has tremendous endurance: in 1840 an Arabian was ridden 400 miles in India in four successive days; another made a 90-mile run across the desert to Cairo in 7 hours, 52 minutes. For sheer, all-out speed, however, the Arabian, contrary to common belief, does not approach certain other breeds. The quarter horse can beat him in the ⅛ and ¼-mile distances, the thoroughbred can beat him at seven furlongs and up (partly, it must be noted, because of a great advantage in size), and the trotting horse is superior in harness. The American saddle horse is better at five gaits, for the Arabian is accustomed to walk or to gallop at top speed. But for a combination of the best traits found in horses, the Arabian has no peer.

In the horse fancier, the Arabian excites an almost mystical admiration, evident in the description given by William Gifford Palgrave, a visitor to the Najd (Central Arabia) in 1863: "The stature of the horses was indeed somewhat low, but they were so exquisitely shaped that want of greater size seemed hardly a defect. Remarkably full in the haunches, with a shoulder of (an elegant) slope; a very little saddle-backed, just the curve which indicates springiness without any weakness, a head broad above, and tapering down to a (fine) nose; a most intelligent and yet a singularly gentle look, full eye, sharp thorn-like little ear, leg fore and hind that seemed as if made of hammered iron, a neat round hoof, the mane long but not overgrown or heavy..."

Overblown as this fond picture may appear, it is not far from the simple truth. Yet perhaps more significant to the owner of an Arabian than his physical beauty is a gentle, even disposition, cultivated from infancy by treating the horse as a family pet rather than a beast of burden. The Arabian of the desert wears a halter instead of a bit, responds to leg pressure and vocal signals, and has given abundant proof through the ages of an intelligent loyalty to his master. Arabians have been observed retrieving lost articles of apparel belonging to their owners, awakening them at the approach of strangers and beasts of prey, or standing motionless in the midday sun while their owners slept in their shade. In battle, some Arabians kicked or bit enemy horses and horsemen, and, if their riders fell, were known to stand guard over them until help came.

The noble qualities that distinguish the Arabian horses did not develop by accident. They were carefully cultivated by selective breeding of the 20 varieties or strains that emerged from the wild kuhaylan, or asil, which roamed the South Arabian desert at least 3,000 years ago. Twelve of these lines have been kept pure, while the other eight have been mixed with Turkoman, Turkish, Persian and other breeds. Ancient rock carvings in Arabia and Egypt depict horses of Arab kuhaylan type, and the Mitanni, a nomad people who settled in Northern Syria about 1500 B.C., were renowned horse breeders and charioteers. They left a recently-discovered treatise on the training and breeding of horses, at which they were so expert that with their chariots they were able to subjugate most of their neighbors. The learning was passed on, through the Hittites to the Egyptians, thence to the nomadic Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.

The true Arabian horse has no foreign blood, having been bred from time beyond memory in Najd and more recently in the Jazira area of Syria and Iraq. These semi-desertic plains of the upper Tigris and Euphrates provide better forage than Najd, for they are exceedingly fertile for a few months of the year after the winter rains fall. In a book published in 1829 the Swiss traveler Burckhardt estimated that there were about 50,000 Arabian horses in Arabia and the Jazira, a number that certainly decreased with the advent of the high-powered rifle, the automobile, the airplane and the pacification of the peninsular tribes, but is again on the rise as Arab interest in the breeding of horses revives.

Horse breeding is without doubt the oldest form of husbandry on the Arabian Peninsula, even predating that of the camel. Mares mature at five years, and stallions at six; their best reproductive years last from these ages until they are 15, although mares sometime foal up to the age of 25 (and Arabians as a breed frequently live and work well into their thirties).

According to some authorities, the best horses combine the features of endurance and strength from the kuhaylan strain, beauty from the saqlawi strain, and speed from the mu'niqi strain. Horses so bred are versatile enough to be used for polo, racing, show jumping, or hunting, and were the preferred breed in the bygone days of horse cavalry. The notable breeds of Poland, Germany and Hungary were developed with the strong admixture of Arabian blood, and the authority Charles du Huijs even attributes to the Arabian the best qualities of the immense Percheron draft horse.

One of the more unusual features of the Arabian horse is his Spartan ability to live on a frugal and uncertain supply of food. When available, barley and dry dates, locusts, straw, beans or seeds of wild herbs satisfy the horse's wants. Should these be lacking, as they usually are on long desert marches, the horse is fed camel's milk exclusively. A nursing camel, in fact, is made a foal's foster mother a few weeks after his birth, and treats him with all the tenderness she bestows on her own young. Camel's milk constitutes the bulk of the Arabians' fluid intake, however, for their owners water them sparingly, not only because the desert affords little water, but in the conviction that too much water adversely affects their mounts' wind.

Arab horses are remarkably friendly and docile, for after weaning they are reared by women and children who lavish truly maternal affection upon them, and gently teach them obedience. Even stallions respond so well to this loving kindness that in Saudi Arabia they are not gelded. They come when called and learn to carry a saddle and answer the rein at just over a year. Saddlery is sketchy—a pad of camel's hair, upholstered to form pommel and cantle, with a heavy saddlecloth and no stirrups. Arabians require little breaking, and lightweight riders may begin to mount them when they are barely two years old. Palgrave notes that in his day it was "common to ride them without bit or bridle, (as they responded) to the knee and thigh, to the slightest check of the halter and the voice of the rider. I often mounted them at the invitation of their owners, and without saddle, rein, or stirrup set them off at full gallop, wheeled them round, brought them up in mid-career at a dead halt, and that without the least difficulty. The rider on their back really feels himself the man-half of a centaur."

The horse-half of the centaur was often divided among several owners and the ownership of a noble mare has always been a complicated affair. Usually several warriors would possess shares in her, with the right to acquire the foals born to her in a determined order of precedence, with the original owner having rights to the first filly foal. Mares, it should be noted, have always been far more prized than stallions, and pedigrees are always traced through the female line. They were formerly always ridden in war and regarded as a fighter's most treasured possession. As a result, stallions became so rare that Doughty in his classic Travels in Arabia Deserta, recounts that mares sometimes had to travel hundreds of miles to a stallion, who was thus obliged to serve as many as 200 mares in a single season. Stallion owners, incidentally, have not customarily been accorded payment for the services of their horses.

In Arabia horses are sold, not on appearance or performance, but on their lineage, for bloodlines are rightly considered the best indication of a horse's potential. Times, nevertheless, have changed since Palgrave's day when, having asked how he might acquire a particularly fine specimen, was told, "By war, by legacy, or by free gift." Though it is still a time-consuming and expensive process to purchase the best horses from the desert, it can be done, and with perfect assurance that there will be no misrepresentation about the horse's pedigree, for a true Bedouin will never dissimulate about this most important of matters. His sworn word about the ancestry of the animal is enough; he scorns paper pedigrees as townsmen's documents designed to conceal a carefully-prepared swindle.

So fundamental and universal among the Badu was the desire to maintain the purity of kuhaylan, that it was a matter of honor among the tribes to receive an emissary of an enemy who had captured their horses and supply him with the complete pedigree of each before assuring his safe return. The names of men, incidentally, since they may have been borne by holy men, are never given to horses, for that would be sacrilege. Instead, foals are named according to some outstanding quality either demonstrated or hoped for: Ghazala, the gazelle; Mansour, the victorious; al-Aroussa, the bride; Sabbak, the front runner; or Sa'ad, good omen.

Distinctive names go far toward simplifying an animal's pedigree, but centuries of inbreeding have produced snarls in bloodlines that only a genealogist could unravel. A student of the subject, for example, once pointed out to the bemused owner of the New Mexico-bred mare Razima, that the mare was a sister of her own father, a granddaughter of her mother, and had an uncle for a brother. To keep the respective strains untangled, Bedouin shaikhs maintained each pedigree with the meticulous care of a maiden aunt. The birth of foals was a signal for rejoicing, the death of dams an occasion for mourning, while the mating of a prized mare was as carefully arranged as a princely alliance. Among the archives of the Lebanese palace of Beiteddine are preserved several letters written to the ruling amir, congratulating him upon the birth of a filly to his favorite mare, or condoling him upon the death of another.

The preservation of such precious animals was naturally a matter of jealous concern to the desert chieftains who owned them. Camped among friendly neighbors, the owners of horses hobbled them with strips of wool, which allowed them to graze while keeping them from straying. When enemies were abroad, however, steel shackles were locked around the mares' pasterns so that they could not be led off at a run by a raiding party. The usual practice of raiders was to approach a likely target—generally a camp at sleep—on camelback, leading their horses. At the distance of a mile or two they could switch to their Arabians and charge at top speed, hoping to take off horses and other booty by surprise and with a minimum of bloodshed. Outdistancing pursuit and regaining their camels, they would remount them and ride for hours until the chase was abandoned. In most cases it was futile for the outraged victims to pursue beyond a few miles, where the endurance of the camel began to outstrip the speed of the horse (a good camel has been known, under test conditions, to keep pace with four fine Arabians, one after another, and run each of them to exhaustion.)

The high-powered rifle and the consolidation of British power in India were, strangely enough, important factors in the gradual decline of the Arabian horse in Arabia at the turn of this century. The modern rifle, with its long range, leveled the advantage of the saber-wielding horseman who formerly had descended upon a camp, cutting and slashing, then used his superior speed to get away. Raiders found it less easy to outrun a lead slug accurately aimed, and suddenly raiding lost much of its old appeal. In India, after the days of Clive, the dragoons and lancers of the British cavalry had provided a steady market for Arabian horses. But once they had pacified the subcontinent, their need for good mounts declined, and Arabia's largest overseas outlet disappeared. In Saudi Arabia itself the advent of motor vehicles and the ban on tribal raiding imposed by the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz also contributed to the decline of demands.

Fortunately, the situation was mitigated by a growing interest in the West in Arabian horses. As early as 1121 there is a record of the export of an Arabian to England, and by 1653 Arabians had so proliferated that Oliver Cromwell was able to mount his men on Arabian mares for today's equivalent of $30. Across the sea in America, Monkev, a part-bred Arabian-Barb-Turkish horse, was imported in 1747 by one Nathaniel Harrison and in seven years sired 300 foals that were soon scattered around the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1908, approved the first studbook of the Arabian Club of horse-owners as the only National Registry of Arabians in the United States, with a listing of 71 Arabians owned by 12 breeders. Interest quickened when both Rudolph Valentino (in "The Son of the Sheik") and Will Rogers rode Arabians in their movies. In 1930 there were 710 horses of Arabian blood owned by 86 Americans, and by mid-century there were more than 10,000 Arabians in the United States—more than there are in Arabia itself.

The passionate attachment of owners to their horses led, perhaps inevitably, to the establishment of the Arabian Horse Club of America, a monthly magazine (the Arabian Horse News, issued in Boulder, Colorado, with a circulation of 7,200) and a very respectable literature in hard covers. In the United States there are currently eight books in print about Arabians. In England there are easily double that number. The publication most precisely indicative of the devotion of masters to their mounts is probably a book by Ursula Gutmann printed in Switzerland: Liebesbriefe um Arabische Pferde (Love Letters about Arabian Horses).

Considering the profound emotions which Arabians arouse in those of the West who have discovered them, it is no wonder that the Arabs themselves can think of them only in superlatives or the headiest of proverbs, such as "The air of heaven is that which blows between the ears of a horse," and "Paradise is only to be found on the back of a horse or in the arms of one's beloved."

Rosalind Mazzawi, a former teacher in Lebanon, who has written for Middle East Forum and other English-language publications, has ridden horses since she was a child and owns a well-known Arabian stallion Suhab, bred in the Jazira.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the May/June 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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