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Volume 49, Number 2March/April 1998

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History's Hooves

Written by Judy Erkanat
Photographed by Mustafa Sabankaya

On a hilltop pasture overlooking the Pacific shore, a herd of mares and foals races after a hay-filled pickup truck. Dappled gray, gleaming chestnut and deepest bay, the horses pulse with energy and life. Though their home is California, they are Polish Arabians, heirs to a prized but little-known line of the original Arabian breed, one that today carries on an illustrious and embattled legacy.

"Thoroughbreds, quarter horses and other popular breeds all trace their ancestry back to Arabians," explains Mustafa Sabankaya, a Turkish-American whose California farm is breeding one of the premier lines of Polish Arabians in the United States, called Sabankaya Select. "Whenever breeders want to infuse qualities like strength and intelligence into a line, they do it with Arabian blood, because the Arabian is the horse in its purest form." (See Aramco World, March/April 1986.)

The Polish kingdoms of the Middle Ages traded extensively not only with Russians to the east and other Europeans to the west, but also with Turks and Arabs. Most trade passed through Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Black Sea ports of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Poles traded in textiles, wheat and other goods, horses, too, were a prized commodity. Beginning in the late 16th century, Polish nobility and cavalrymen—the two groups largely overlapped—began to outfit themselves with Arabian steeds.

The superior military value of the Arabian horse had been apparent to Polish rulers as early as the 13th century, when the horse-borne Mongols wrested away control of several of Poland's semi-independent duchies. Later, border wars on the plains between the rivers Dniester and Dnieper brought many a light cavalry formation into the fray where the Tatar and Ottoman invaders, mounted on Arabians, demonstrated their advantage in both stamina and speed.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the unification of Poland with Lithuania set the stage for what would become the zenith of Poland's power. Early on, the state weathered attacks from both Russia and the Ottomans, who in those same years, led by Süleyman the Magnificent, conquered Hungary and almost took Vienna by siege. In 1533, a treaty brought 140 years of uneasy peace between the ascendant Polish-Lithuanian state and imperial Constantinople. Both Egypt and parts of Arabia, prime sources of fine horses, were part of the Ottoman Empire, so Arabian horses were one of the most valued—and, in war, the most carefully guarded—commodities that the empire had to sell. As a result, many Arabians came to Poland with envoys or traders returning from Constantinople, and they were an important, high-value component of the fitful trade between the states.

As Poles became aware of the superior maneuverability, intelligence and stamina of the desert breed, leading Polish families began to establish Arabian stud farms. In time, Poles organized horse-buying expeditions directly to Arabia, and through their farms brought an increasing number of Arabians to 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

The original Polish stud farms, among the first in Europe to start documented breeding, belonged to counts and princes who produced Poland's first native-born Arabian cavalry mounts. However, the wars, uprisings, partitions, and occupations that constitute the last 200 years of Polish history have destroyed all breeding records from before about 1800. Today, Polish pedigrees can be traced back to only three of the surviving stud farms, all in the less tumultuous southern and southeastern part of the country, and all still owned by the descendants of their founders: the Slawuta, Bialocerkiew and Jarczowce studs.

Although family stories say that the Slawuta stud farm existed as early as 1506—which would make it likely the country's oldest—documents date its foundation to 1791 by Prince Hieronim Sanguszko. From the beginning, the farm imported the best purebred horses from the Middle East, and it won top honors at international horse shows and exhibitions as far back as the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris.

The Bialocerkiew Stud was founded in 1778 by the commander-in-chief of the Polish army, Count Franciszek Ksawery Branicki. In 1803, he began keeping a studbook to record the number, origin and breeding of his horses, though those records were lost in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. (Poland was then under Russian rule.) This farm's reputation was so brilliant that in 1864 the westernizing Ottoman sultan Abdülaziz sent his ahirağasi, or stall master, there to choose horses to refresh and replenish the sultan's own stud.

In 1840, Juliusz Count Dzieduszycki acquired a prize desert-bred stallion who became the foundation of Jarczowce stud. The seller was an Arab merchant in Kiev; the price was a bag of gold ducats, the Count's own coach and four and his silver-mounted whip. Between 1843 and 1845, Dzieduszycki acquired many more Arabians, among them the three famous mares Gazella, Mlecha and Sahara.

"Those three established lineages that exist to this day," says Sabankaya. "For breeders of Polish Arabian horses, these remain the most important dam lines."

The Janów Podlawski Stud, set only a few hundred meters from the Ukrainian border in southeastern Poland, was Poland's first state-run Arabian stud farm, established in 1816 by the decree of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Its first stables, which still stand, were designed and built by Henryk Marconi, a leading Warsaw architect.

According to Johnson, the Janów state stud brought together horses "from the old Polish lines ... [from] the studs of Jarczowce, Slawuta, Antoniny, Gumniska, and Bialocerkiew, as well as animals imported from Hungary and Czechoslovakia." Janow produced not only purebred Arabians, but its careful breeding program was also designed to "infuse Arabian qualities into the breeding of Polish utility and part-bred horses."

World War I brought catastrophe to both humans and horses in Poland. Many stud farms were ruined and never recovered. Of the 500 Arabian broodmares in Poland in 1914, only 25 still lived in 1918. Perhaps the most famous of the surviving Arabians was Skowronek, owned by Arabian horse authority Lady Wentworth, daughter of Lady Anne Blunt. (See Aramco World, May/June 1980.) Lady Wentworth had taken the stallion out of harm's way to her Crabbet Stud Farm in England in 1913. Skowronek's sire, however, fell into the hands of the revolution. Prince Sanguzsko himself, the owner of the Antoniny stud, was also assassinated. At farm after farm, irreplaceable stud-books, recording the pedigrees of more than 400 years, burned with the palaces and the stables.

Poland was barely recovering from the ravages of the World War I when it fell to the forces of the Third Reich in 1939. Cavalrymen of the first and second units of the Polish Uhlan Light Cavalry mounted their Arabian horses for a last, doomed battle against the tanks and artillery of the German war machine.

The country lost 89 percent of its broodmares in World War II and, as Jan Shuler wrote in Arabian Horse World Magazine, "nowhere on Planet Earth has the Arabians' survival been more severely challenged. The efforts of one small country, throughout the horrors of world war, as well as the intervening years of peace, have patiently, lovingly and courageously worked to produce and protect some of the finest Arabian horses of the world."

It is thanks to the dedication of a few Polish horsemen, and the fact that the horses were bred all over the country rather than in just one area, that the Polish Arabian exists at all today. Late in the war, the Nazis moved many Polish Arabians to Germany, notably to Dresden, which the Allies bombed barbarously. "In the records of Janów Podlawski, there is an account of that night of horror in which a groom, J. Ziniewicz, held the reins of Janow's two cherished stallions, Wielki Szlem and Witraz," relates Johnson. "As the bombs fell and the night was filled with the earsplitting sound of death and destruction, the stallions reared and fought in a frenzied panic to escape the terror. Undeterred, through the long, awful night, the groom held their bridles. In that single night, 21 of Janów's finest Arabians perished at Dresden, but Wielki Szlem and Witraz were not among them."

At the end of World War II, Andrej Krysztalowicz, the patron and director of the Janów Podlawski stud farm, brought back from Germany what remained of the Polish herd. He spent the next 40 years guiding its fortunes. With the old stud farms largely destroyed, breeding after 1945 was carried on at three state-owned farms—Michalów, Abligowa, and Nowy Dwor—using the original bloodlines of the private studs. In recent years, these and other farms have gradually reverted to private ownership.

All extant knowledge of the bloodlines of the Polish Arabians can be found in The Polish Studbook, established in 1926 by Dr. Edward Skorkowski, a leading expert on breeding, and the first Arabian Horse Breeding Society's stud-book commission.

"The Poles have always been careful in their animal breeding practices, especially with the Arabian horse," explains Sabankaya. "It has long been the policy of the country to maintain a high level of culling and testing to ensure that only the best of a line is allowed to reproduce. Polish breeders have always paid attention to what might be considered hidden values, like longevity, fertility, ability to survive on little food—all of which go to make the Polish Arabian different, and special."

In 1952, the Polish Standards Committee published the breeding standards for Arabians in the country's first nationalized attempt to codify Arabian horse breeding. Today, a private club of breeders and owners, the Arabian Horse Club of Poland, part of the Arabian Horse Breeding Society, coordinates breeding establishments and issues the authoritative modern studbook that shows photographs and lineages of the animals registered for entry and showing.

Polish Arabians can be bred with Egyptian, Spanish or other phenotypes of the breed to produce offspring closer to the original Arabian type. "Polish Arabians are stronger in body, with a bigger central barrel, compared to the 'feminine' structure of the Egyptian variety," Sabankaya adds. "The Polish have more power because they were bred for athleticism and for qualities like courage and hardiness."

At the Michalów stud near the Czech border, director Ignacy Jaworowski has made the cornerstone of his breeding program the consolidation of the elegant saklavi bloodline, one of the three recognized bloodlines of Polish Arabians. (Kuhailanand muniqui are the others.) In doing so, he matches contemporary Polish taste, which has come to emphasize the mild saklavi beauty, with its finely chiseled head, curved swan neck and milk-white hair.

In his Arabian horse standards guide, W. Pruski, director of the Polish Breeding Committee, writes that "the saklavi represents all that generally stands for an Arabian horse.... They are horses whose superb looks and nobility dominate all the other visual impressions. Their conformation is characterized by lightness and harmony.... There is something docile, nimble and fine, almost feminine, in the silhouette of a saklavi."

Despite such loving attention to the improvement of the breed, the years after World War II were not easy for Poland's Arabians. With the devastation of the war and the vastly reduced need for horses in the armed forces, agriculture, and transportation, some studs had to make do by selling pedigreed Arabians to the circuses of Europe. It was not until the 1960"s that the worldwide market for the animals blossomed.

"The last few decades have seen a rediscovery of the Polish Arabian breed," says Sabankaya. "American breeders were impressed with the quality of the Polish Arabian, causing a burst of success for Polish Arabians in international horse shows, where they won award after award during the 1960's, 70's and '80's."

Denise Hearst, editor of Arabian Horse World Magazine, agrees. "At first, they were unique, as imports, as a novelty, but now Polish Arabian blood is pervasive because of the good qualities it brings," she explains.

"High levels of athleticism and performance ability dominate [in the breed] because of the importance of these traits to the Poles," she continues. "They give the horses the edge on the track and in the ring. Polish Arabians have won all the world's most prestigious awards at one time or another: They have been National Champions at halter and National Park Champions. Currently the number-one racehorse sire in the United States is Wiking, a Polish-bred import. Of the list of top racing sires in this country, at least half are pure or predominantly Polish Arabian."

The market, too, reflects the prestige of the breed, as Polish Arabians repeatedly command high—sometimes record—prices. Johnson's Naborr sold for $150,000 in 1961; another top Polish Arabian, Celladin, brought $880,000 in 1981, and today it is not uncommon for a leading horse to sell at or near $1 million—showing that Poland's Arabian horses are a valuable commodity as well as a living link with history.

Horse enthusiast, writer and editor Judy Erkanat, left, is a former president of the Turkish-American Association of California, where she lives south of San Jose.

Mustafa Sabankaya, right, breeds Sabankaya Select, a line of Polish Arabians, in northern California. An amateur photographer, he photographs only his own horses.

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the March/April 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1998 images.