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Volume 37, Number 2March/April 1986

In This Issue

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The Arabian Horse

An Introduction

Written by The Aramco World Staff
Photographed by P. Ploquin
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale

For some reason, the Arabian horse keeps cropping up in the history of the West as much as in the Middle East. George Washington rode an Arabian throughout the American Revolution, Queen Victoria gave a medal to one and Napoleon reportedly rode 80,500 kilometers (50,000 miles) on Marengo, the Arabian immortalized in Delacroix's famous painting.

In the Middle Hast, of course, the Arabian helped reshape military history (See page 9). But it also showed up in several footnotes as well. Richard the Lion Heart was struck by the beauty of the Arabians he saw during the Crusades and for a few breathless moments, it is said, the Suez Canal hinged on the horsemanship of Ferdinand de Lesseps in the desert between Cairo and Alexandria. Knowing how highly Arabs rated the Arabian horse and great riding, de Lesseps, desperately needing Egypt's backing to build the canal, raced his Arabian toward a stone wall around the tent of the Khedive of Egypt, and in full view of the khedive and his officers, put the horse over the wall in a daring jump. Impressed by de Lesseps' dashing ride the khedive and his officers agreed to discuss the canal and that same day agreed to let de Lesseps proceed.

Curiously, given this worldwide fame, there are still gaps and conflicts in science's knowledge of the Arabian. Most scientists agree that the horse as a species (Equus cabattm) migrated to Central Asia from North America (where it then, mysteriously, died out) and that it was probably domesticated in Asia by about 2500 B.C. But few agree on where the Arabian as a distinct breed developed.

Some experts say the Central Asian horses migrated to the Arabian Peninsula where scrupulous breeding subsequently perfected the traits so admired today. Others say the Arabians aren't Arabian at all, but North African; according to that theory, the first Arabians would be what are called "Barbs" today from the Barbary States, where they flourished and from where they were brought to Spain.

There are other theories as well. The Encyclopaedia of Islam says the Arabian may have been developed from existing Syrian-Palestinian horses crossbred to horses from Najd and Yemen and then, as Islamic armies fanned out through the world, bred to other captured horses: Assyrians, Caspians or Barbs. In turn, these may have been sent back to the peninsula along with other booty where they and their descendants were added to the existing gene-pool and helped fix the Arabian as a distinct breed - especially during the later period of isolation in Arabia, when they were able to "breed true."

Some writers also say the special characteristics that identify the Arabians showed up early in history. As evidence, they point to 2,500-year-old rock carvings of horses on the Arabian Peninsula which they believe are characteristic Arabians. This school of thought also argues that there are identifiable Arabians painted on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, on a bas-relief at ancient Nineveh, one of the world's first cities, and on a fragment of the Parthenon's frieze brought back to England as part of the Elgin Marbles. But again there are disagreements.

It is known that the Hittites were breeding horses in Northern Syria by 1600 B.C. - they left a treatise on the subject - but no one is sure whether the horses they developed were in fact Arabians. Indeed, the first recorded mention of the Arabian is in 400 B.C., according to both the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, in fact, says historians have proven "irrefutably" that the Arabian is a recent breed.

On the other hand, that source also says that horses similar to the Arabians certainly existed in regions near the Black and Caspian Seas (the setting, interestingly, for the imaginative domestication of the horse in Jean M. Auel's best seller, The Valley of Horses).

However it happened, and whenever, there is little doubt that Arabians are different. Though small - 14 to 15½ hands (142 to 157 centimeters - 56 to 62 inches) at the withers, or lower neck, and seldom weighing more than 453 kilograms (1,000 pounds) - Arabians are disproportionately fast and tough. Thanks to strong, "dry" tendons and an exceptionally hard bone structure - like ivory, according to one source - and a difference in vertebrae that supposedly enhances both their strength and appearance, Arabians can carry bigger loads at faster speeds for longer distances than any horse known.

Endless stories bear this out. In Cairo, an Arabian once made a 145-kilometer gallop across the desert (90 miles) in seven hours and 52 minutes, and in the United States, as late as the 1920's, the U.S. Remount Service reported after a five-day, 483-kilometer endurance test (300 miles) that 90 per cent of the Thoroughbreds and other breeds developed soreness or lameness compared to only 15 percent of the Arabians.

In comparison with such other types of light horses - the Quarter horse, the Morgan and the Thoroughbred - the Arabian is, admittedly, not as fast in the short run, and such other breeds as the American saddle horse, may have a better range of gaits. Yet all those breeds are thought to have derived their better qualities from the Arabians. Every Thoroughbred in the world, for example, is reportedly descended from just three Arabians: the Darley Arabian, the Byerly Turk and the Godolphin Barb which were imported into Britain between 1687 and 1729 and bred to English horses. This belief, of course, would mean that Barbs and Turks are Arabians, and though Barbs are at least closely related breeds, the Turkish bloodline isn't at all certain.

What those "better qualities" are can be seen in one of the more remarkable stories told by Spencer Borden in his 1906 study, The Arab Horse. According to Borden, many of the greatest Arabians ever bred were those imported from the Arabian Peninsula by the British Cavalry in India for military campaigns during Britain'sconquest and pacification of the subcontinent. Though trained for battle, many of the Arabians were entered in horse races as well during lulls in the fighting and one, called Maidan, foaled in 1869 in the Najd in today's Saudi Arabia, won every race he was in during the next three years.

Later, Borden goes on, Maidan was sold for use as a charger and for the next 12 years his owner, Lieutenant Colonel Brownlow - who weighed 121 kilos (266 pounds) with his gear - rode Maidan in campaigns throughout the mountains of India and Afghanistan - including a famous 480-kilometer forced march (300 miles) from Kabul to Khandahar during the Second Afghan War. (Interestingly, another Arabian horse also won fame during that march. Volonel, an Arabian owned and ridden by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, so impressed the British that Queen Victoria awarded the horse a campaign medal.)

It is the end of the Maidan story, however, that shows what an Arabian can do. When his master was killed, Maidan was to have been shipped back to England via Marseilles in France, but en route was unloaded at Suez and pressed into service with an expedition marching to the southern end of the Red Sea. As a result, the horse was on its feet for 100 days "without once lying down," but on finally reaching France still won a race at Pau. Maidan, furthermore, at the age of 22 years won a challenging steeplechase and was still absolutely sound when he broke a leg and had to be killed.

The beauty of the Arabian is another element in its fame. A purebred's qualities, writes Rosalind Mazzawi, (See page 23), always show up in the head, "which has a gazelle shape, broad forehead and undulating profile tapering to a small muzzle with large nostrils; the extremely large eyes are placed low in the head, and the ears are small, flame shaped, and curve towards each other. The neck is arched, and the crest and arched throat are set into wide jaws. The tail is high set and carried high and flowing: the back is level, the action free and sprightly, and there is great pride of carriage, manifested by a floating gait and an expression of intelligent interest."

Every rider and owner, it seems, is moved by the beauty of Arabian. Emir Abdel Kader, the Algerian leader who resisted the French conquest of his country between 1831 and 1847 described the Arab horse this way: "The horse of pure descent is distinguished by the thinness of his lips and of the interior cartilage of the nose; by the size of the nostrils; by the leanness of the flesh encircling the veins of the head; by the graceful manner that the neck is attached, by the softness of his coat, his mane, and the hairs of his tail; by his breadth of chest; the size of his joints, and the leanness of his extremities."

This beauty, he goes on, is actually art. "... the noble appearance of the horse is a natural example of the alliance of form and function, so often manifest in Islamic art."

The emir also wrote in glowing terms of the third characterised the Arabian to man for centuries; its courage. "According ... to the tradition of our ancestors, the Arabian horse is still better known by his moral characteristics than his physical peculiarities. The purebred horses have no vice. If a horse or a mare has given indisputable proof of extraordinary speed, or remarkable endurance of hunger and thirst; of rare intelligence, or of grateful affection for the hand that feeds them, the Arabs will make every sacrifice to obtain his or her progeny. Let a man be enriched with possession of all that sweetens life, his horse alone is his protector."

For horse lovers, of course, the trick is to find bloodlines that guarantee such irresistible qualities - and over the ages that hasn't always been easy. Even now with scrupulous stud books, experts can't fully agree on what constitutes a "purebred" Arabian. As Carol M. Schultz and Carol D. Neubauer say in The Desert Arabian Horse, a 1985 study of this problem, there are at least four different - and valid - concepts of what constitutes a purebred Arabian horse: (1) "Registered Arabians," horses registered as, or eligible to be registered as, Arabians by any of the world's approximately 40 horse registries accepted by the World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO); (2) "Desert Arabians," horses descended in all lines from desert-bred ancestors; (3) "Bedouin Arabians," horses descended in all lines from horses acquired from the Bedouins; (4) "Asil Arabians," horses descended in all lines from horses bred by the Bedouin and accepted by the Bedouin as purebreds.

And even these definitions can be challenged; as the authors themselves say, different organizations use different definitions for the same horse. Though experts agree on definitions, they still may disagree on which horses should be accepted in one or another of the classifications. Some horses, for example, are accepted by all of the organizations dedicated to the preservation of the purebred Arabian, but not all of the horses are accepted by all of the organizations. As the authors put it.

"The nature of the documentation available on certain Desert Arabian Foundation Horses (Desert, Bedouin and Asil Arabians] is such that various individuals and organizations can and do disagree as to whether those horses were considered purebred by the Bedouin, or even whether they can be traced to the Bedouin at all. Thus, whether certain Desert Arabian horses are considered to be Asil Arabians and/or Desert Arabians is a matter of opinion and interpretation. These disputes will never be completely resolved."

Despite those disputes, however, Arabians in 1985 were flourishing throughout the world - as this issue of Aramco World suggests. Ironically, though, this could prove to be more blight than blessing.

As Mrs. Mazzawi says in " The Arabian Horse - In Europe"(See Page 23), breeders and owners have begun to coddle their Arabians to protect their investments and the results could be bad. In Jordan, for example, correspondent Rami Khouri (See page 27) found that loving care and rich food seem to have increased the size of Jordan's Arabians in just a few decades.

Other experts agree. Some, in fact, issued warnings years ago. Dr. Ahmad Mabrouk, head of the Animal Breeding Section of the Royal Agricultural Society of Egypt said in a 1939 paper that Arabians need the challenge of a demanding environment and the care of loving masters. "If the Arab horse is bred under any other circumstances, he will in time lose all the characteristics of the purebred ..."

The solution, of course - when one is really needed - will probably be found in the same popularity that is creating the problem. Having come to recognize and treasure the beauty, the endurance and the courage of the Arabians, owners, breeders and horse lovers throughout the world are unlikely to let those qualities vanish. Like the Bedouins, today's owners know too well that the "drinker of the wind" is.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the March/April 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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