Horse, thou art truly a creature without equal. All the treasures of the earth lie between thy eyes. Thou shalt carry my friends upon thy back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. Thou fliest without wings, and conquerest without sword.
— The Koran
Beloved of Mohammed and King Solomon, adored by Alexander the Great and Napoleon, coveted by the Orient, the Occident, and everyone1 in between, the Arabian horse holds a unique place in history. The oldest and purest of breeds of one of the first domesticated animals, the Arab predates the Bronze Age, arriving on the scene just as man was first beginning to discover farming – a cave painting in Turkey of a horse with strikingly Arabian conformation has been dated to about 8000 BC.
Most likely, this proto-Arab originated in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates, though dried-up river-beds in modern-day Yemen suggest that it too may have been covered with vast pasturelands long ago. The horses depicted drawing chariots in Egyptian tomb paintings and similar archaeological finds are of the Arabian type. The oldest go back as far as 4,500 years, with relief portraits of specific horses dated back to 1580 BC.
Exactly when the horse was introduced to the Arabian Peninsula is not known. While some horses were being domesticated at the same time as the Bedouins were just discovering 101 uses for a camel – about 4000 BC – they didn't really come into fashion among the nomadic tribesmen until after the rise of Islam in the 7th Century AD, when they were imported by newly-converted Persians.
The expression in her eyes is that of a woman in love; her gait is that of a beautiful woman; her breast is like that of a lion; her flanks are like those of a gazelle. [...] She trots like a wolf and gallops like a fox; her coat is like a mirror; her hair is as dense as the feathers on an eagle's wing [...] She is as gentle as a lamb, but like a panther in wrath if she is beaten [...] Her legs are strong like those of the wild ostrich and muscled like those of a camel. Her eyelashes are as long as ears of barley, and her ears like those of two jewels on a spearhead!
— description of an Arab mare, from a Bedouin to his blind father
The Arabian is arguably the world's most distinctive2 and elegant breed. Ranging from 13.8 to 15.4 hands (140cm – 156cm) with a short back, it is small and squarely built. The most distinctive feature is the head, which is wedge-shaped with a narrow muzzle, wide nostrils, large eyes and a concave, dished profile – in some more highly-bred show horses, this is so exaggerated that the horse's head resembles that of a sea horse. The slightly bulging forehead, between the eyes, is called jibbah in Arabic. It's not purely decorative, but increases the space for the sinuses, which helps the animal breathe in the dry climate of its native desert. The neck is elegantly arched with a high crest but little flesh around the jowls – this join, called the mitbah, is especially prominent in stallions. The tail is set very high and usually carried flagged, that is standing up and streaming behind, especially when running. Its gaits are high, elegant, and smooth.
Because the Arab has been bred in isolation for so long, even its skeleton is distinctive. The bones tend to be short but solid, with hard hooves suited to desert life. Truly remarkable, however, is the fact that a purebred Arabian horse usually has 17 ribs, five lumbar vertebrae, and 15 tail vertebrae. All other horses have an 18 – 6 – 15 arrangement, which explains the Arab's relatively short back.
Collectors will be happy to know that Arabian horses come in a wide variety of colours. Bays, greys, and chestnuts are common, black and roan less so. While the sabino gene is present, meaning some carry random white spots3 fairly high up on their bodies, true piebalds, skewbalds, duns and palominos4 are never purebred, because they don't have the required tobiano or dilution genes. Except where they have white markings, Arabian horses always have black skin, which helps prevent sunburn in the scorching deserts of its native home.
The Stuff of Legends
When Allah went to create the horse he spoke to the South Wind and said: 'I want to create an animal out of you. Make yourself dense.' And the South Wind did, and from this dust Allah created a kamayt-coloured5 animal.'
Then Allah spoke: 'I create thee, O Arabian. I give you the chestnut color of the ant; Men shall follow thee wherever thou goest; thou shalt be as good for flight as for pursuit. To thy forelock, I bind victory in battle. Thou shalt be for Man a source of happiness and wealth; thy back shall be a seat of honour, and thy belly of riches; every grain of barley given thee shall purchase indulgence for the sinner.
Then Allah blessed the Horse and gave him the sign of glory and happiness - a white star on his forehead.
— from a Bedouin legend
This first horse, a mare, was given to Ishmael6 by the angel Jibril7 as a reward, and soon bore a foal, from which all other horses were then descended. Arabian horses often run with their heads raised high, breathing deeply through wide-open nostrils. Because of this, they are known as Drinkers of the Wind and are said to draw their speed, strength, and courage from the wind from which they were created.
The creation of the Arabian breed is attributed to Mohammed. He is said to have trained 100 war mares8 to come to him at the sound of his trumpet, then put them in a walled enclosure without food or water for three days9, under the desert sun. Finally, he flung open the gates facing the oasis, and as one hundred thirsty mares galloped for the water, blew his trumpet. The five mares that returned he kept, and they accompanied him on his flight to Medina. They are known as Al Khamsa, 'the five', and it is said that they are the grand-dams of all Arabian horses today.
Never be Rude to an Arab
Such tests of loyalty aside, Mohammed's kindness to horses is proverbial. The prophet - who is also said to have cut the sleeve off his robe rather than wake the cat sleeping on it – equated any money spent on a horse with alms given directly to God, and ruled that every Moslem must own10 as many horses as he can afford. Interestingly enough, he didn't see horse racing as a form of gambling, unless it was clear which horse would win! Perhaps this was because it happened under the protection of angels, who were said to have two specific tasks: 'presiding at the racing of horses and at the union of a man to a woman'.
Finely-bred horses were seen as one of the great pleasures of life, and are one of the possessions exempt from Zakat11, the tax or alms to be used for the poor. If a man's horses were treated well, and his children taught to ride, shoot, and swim, that would help him get into heaven – but abusing a horse was a deadly sin condemning the perpetrator to a nice, long visit with Malik12. The value of a horse was considered equal to that of a slave, and stealing one incurred the usual hefty fine of nine times its value plus one extra slave.
The Treasure of the Bedouin
Truly is that horse prized by them above all else in the world. You may hear the Bedouin remark: 'Children of mine may hunger and thirst, but never my mare.'
— Lady Anne Blunt, who travelled the Arabian peninsula in the 19th Century
The precise origin of the word 'Arab' has been lost to history, but it is most likely Semitic in origin. It was not a reference to a specific nationality, but rather denoted a desert or a desert-dweller, and was used to distinguish the nomadic tribes from those who had settled in cities. And it was these Bedouin tribesmen that really made the Arabian horse what it is today, through intense selective breeding.
The horse was fundamental to the Bedouin way of life, allowing them to hunt, to defend their territory, and to carry out raids on neighbouring tribes to capture sheep, goats and camels. The Arabian was well suited to these needs and constantly refined through breeding. The heads of families could recite the pedigrees of their horses from memory just as well as they could their own. Though many characteristics were thought to be passed on only by the sire, these were traced through the maternal line. Not only is it easier to trace, but unlike those of the Europeans, Arab war horses were almost always mares, which were considered hardier, and less likely to whinny a challenge to the enemy's horses and warn of their approach. The tribesmen went to great lengths to keep their horses Asil, pure, scorning the horses (such as Barbs) that were raised by others at the desert's edge. If a mare were once bred with a Kadish, a foreign stallion, she was considered contaminated, and could produce no more pure foals.
While rich families and princes owned stallions13 as status symbols, ordinary Arab families possessed only mares, and sold any colts. Often, the horses would share their masters' tents, where they were safe from raiders and would bond well with their owners - and keep them safe in turn, because, according to the Koran, 'no evil spirit will dare to enter a tent where there is a purebred horse'. Grass was scarce, and hay-making was first unknown and later seen as an activity for weaklings, so the horses were fed on dates, barley, and milk – sheep's milk when it was in season, camel's milk when it was not. A horse destined to be a war mare was fed almost exclusively on milk, to aid in muscle development.
Arabian horses naturally have little fear of people, but a filly would be handled from birth and cared for by the women of the tribe. Young horses cannot be ridden, because their spines are still too fragile to carry a rider's weight – but among Bedouins, it was common to place a child on the filly's back at 18 months, so that both the horse and the child would learn the art of riding together. The horse was then returned to pasture until it was two years old, when it was accustomed to the saddle and bridle, and at three years, it could carry an adult.
Bred for Battle
The horse's natural strength, endurance, and bravery helped it run for days across the desert, then stand steady against archers and spears, only to turn and carry its rider and his loot back to their far-off tent, but there was still plenty for it to learn before it could become one of...
[...] the steeds that run, with panting breath, and strike sparks of fire from their hooves, and push home the charge in the morning, and raise the dust in clouds the while, and penetrate forthwith into the midst of the foe [...]
— The Koran 100:1 – 100:5
A war horse must respond well to signals given purely through the rider's weight distribution and legs, because his hands were often occupied with weapons – and because his bridle had no throat-latch, so that it pulled off easily if an enemy grabbed it, preventing capture. Until the reins were picked up, they stood absolutely still, whether their rider was on or off – or even out of sight. Other exercises included galloping from a standstill and stopping in an instant from a full gallop, wheeling when the rider fired a gun, jumping, and sprinting. A behaviour perhaps more difficult to teach a mare than a stallion was rearing on the hind legs and kicking and biting at an opponent, but this was vital not only in battle, but to make stolen camels run back toward the raiding party's camp.
Many of these and a few added tricks were developed further for the mounted displays and tournaments known as the fantasia14, with many manoeuvres similar to those performed by the Lippizaners at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. A horse trained for fantasia could kneel, walk on its hind legs, and leap in the air with all four feet at once while its rider threw his weapon in the air and caught it again with seeming ease.
While stallions were bought and sold, and traded with neighbouring tribes, few mares changed hands unless they were captured in battle or given as exceedingly generous gifts. Unless, of course, they failed at their training, or worse yet, were the wrong colour...
Black and Bay, Chestnut and Grey, All the Pretty Little Horses
The swiftest, best horses were chestnuts; they were the winners of races. This was the colour of horse the Prophet loved, and when a chestnut horse flew under the sun, he was the wind incarnate.
— Horses of the Sahara, by General E Daumas (1850)
The cowboy saying may go 'a good horse is any colour', but among Arabs, a horse's colour and markings were important indicators of its later performance, influenced by superstition, tradition, and religion. Much like the large jibbah, which was said to benefit the horse not through mere increased sinus capacity but because it held the blessings of Allah, specific colours and markings were selectively bred for. Sometimes, horses were referred to not by the colour of their coats, but by the colours they ought to have based on their characteristics, which makes tracing family trees somewhat confusing!
The Arabs preferred their horses dark, and in one of the four main colours they distinguished: black, blue (grey), brown and red. Mohammed himself is quoted as saying that 'when Arabian horses gather and run together, the chestnut will be the leader', and advises that when choosing a new horse, 'the best is the attentive, black, five-year-old; the next best is the five-year-old with three stockings and no white on the off forefoot. If it is not black, dark brown will do.'
The horse colours not now found in purebreds were likely lost during the long centuries of selective breeding. A pied horse was merely considered laughable as he was 'the brother of the cow'. Light chestnuts or palominos, a colour called Zfar el Jehudi (the 'yellow of the Jew'15) were known as 'Ghagari', meaning 'Gypsies'. Duns were described as 'green' or 'wolf-coloured'. Both were said to bring ill luck to their riders. A grey roan was called a 'sea of blood', and it was said that his rider would never overtake another, but would inevitably be defeated in battle and taken prisoner.
Chestnuts were valued for their alleged speed, and, because they were the Prophet's favourite, were desirable to those wishing to prove themselves good Moslems. However, it was the bay that was considered 'the pearl of all horses', being the hardiest and calmest. In Remarks on Horsemanship, Emir Abd-el-Kader says that 'if a man tells you a horse jumped down a precipice without injury, then ask if he was a bay, and if they answer yes - believe him'.
Black horses, known to the Arabs as el Dum, were considered mounts worthy of a king or prince and excellent for show - except that they had a bad temper, especially if they were 'without moon and stars', that is, with no white hairs on them. The Bedouins claimed that black horses feared stony ground, and warned 'do not ride a black horse to war, for when the sun shines hot and water is short he will not be able to endure and will leave his rider in the power of the enemy'.
A white16 horse was also considered fit for a prince, and should be 'like a silk flag without bare patches, and with a black ring about his eye'. However, it, too, suffers from the heat, and must not be ridden into battle, because it could be seen from afar and would warn the enemy of your approach. Grey horses were popular especially if they were 'dappled dark grey like the shade of the wild pigeon - like the stones of the river', with a lighter grey head.
Most valued as a battle mare, however, was the 'bloody-shouldered' horse. This was a special kind of flea-bitten17 grey with lots of colour on the shoulders, so it looked like it had been sprayed with blood. According to Bedouin legend, a warrior once rode his grey mare into battle, and was mortally wounded. She carried him back on a three-day journey to his family's tent, and when his body was lifted from her saddle, her withers were found to be stained red with his blood. The stain did not fade, and her next foal was also born with red-sprinkled shoulders. Horses bearing this mark were considered especially loyal to their masters.
Stockings and Blazes and Whorls, Oh My!
Once an Arab had a fine mare which he had bred for the very first time, and many gathered round to watch the birth. All were already vying to buy her offspring. The foal's head came out first, and it had a star in the middle of its forehead. Its master rejoiced; his horse would surpass the dam. Out came the near-fore, with a white cornet, and the cheering owner asked a hundred duros for his foal. Next came the off-fore, with a white sock; down went the price to fifty duros. Then came the near-hind; it was white-stockinged, and the Arab, delirious with joy, vowed he would not sell his foal for anything in the world. But then out came the fourth foot, pure white! And the owner ordered the foal to be thrown on the nearest dungheap, for that was the sum of its worth.
— Horses of the Sahara, by General E Daumas (1850)
As the above story illustrates, it wasn't just the overall colour of the horse that determined its value – as so often, the devil is in the detail, and every little speck and mark was closely scrutinised before a horse was chosen.
Whether white stockings on the legs were a good or a bad omen depended on their number and location. Two in the back were considered lucky, especially if accompanied by one white foreleg, as were one hind and one fore on opposite sides. Two stockings only on the forelegs were very bad, while four stockings were worst of all.
Of the markings on a horse's face, a star was considered the most lucky, followed by a stripe or blaze that reached down to the lip, which meant his master would always have milk. A bald-faced horse – one with a wide white mark on its forehead, extending over the eyes – was bad luck; if the horse also had four white feet, it was said to carry its own shroud with it. Riding a horse with a white mark on its body before the saddle was considered a foolish thing to do, for it would invariably lead to death in battle. The very worst omen, however, was 'a horse with a white stripe that did not reach his lip, along with a white off-fore. Whoever saw him prayed to Allah to be spared from the evil that accompanied such a horse. He was like an hour's poison, that slew in sixty minutes.'
But even the way the hair grew on the horse's body was significant. As anyone who's ever groomed a horse knows, the hair doesn't always lie flat. In some spots, like the point where the hips join the flanks, it's a geometrical impossibility, at others, it grows in a little whorl (circular pattern) for no apparent reason. Traditionally, Arabian horses have 40 different points where they might have whorls, of which twelve are significant.
For example, a whorl under the mane, on the side of the neck is called 'the finger of the Prophet' and means that the master will die safe in his own bed, and as a good Moslem. Others had a negative impact on the perceived value of the horse; while a whorl on the rump beside the tail brought 'trouble, misery and famine', the 'whorl of theft', found on the fetlocks18, meant that 'day and night the horse says: "Oh, my God! Grant that I may be stolen or my master die".' No wonder, then, that buying an Arabian required a very thorough inspection, and that the gift of the wrong horse might almost be considered a veiled threat!
The Arabian Claims its Place in History
But throughout history, Arabian horses were usually gifts fit for a king. In the 10th Century BC, King Solomon is said to have received a purebred mare of the Arabian type from the Queen of Sheeba, and gifted another, the stallion Zad el-Raheb, 'Gift to the Rider', to a Bedouin tribe – an extraordinary stallion that could outrun any zebra, gazelle, or ostrich, so his rider would never return from the hunt hungry.
But it was not until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, and the newly-minted Moslems' use of the horse as a tool of conquest and war that the Arabian really came into its own. Mounted on these fast, agile, and hardy animals, the Arab warriors exploded out of the desert and had soon conquered much of the known world, including the Middle East and North Africa, sweeping through the Mediterranean countries to Spain and going east as far as China. In 868 AD, the Mameluke ruler Ahmad Ibn Tulun conquered Egypt, and erected luxurious stables and a hippodrome surrounded by gardens: a fitting place to breed his Arabian horses.
When the European Crusaders started their own invasion of the Orient late in the 11th Century, they returned not only with such exciting things as knowledge of medicine and astronomy, the concept of the zero, and pockets, but also brought with them the fine horses of their enemy, so different from their own heavy chargers. Poland began building its Arabian breeding stocks through more peaceful means, acquiring them on the Amber Road, a trade route that lead from the Baltic through Europe and the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and Northern Africa – though some the Polish and Hungarian stock was also captured in war, when their combined armies defeated the invading Ottomans at Vienna in 1529. At first, these small, light horses were likely only used as coursers, but with the invention of gunpowder and firearms in the 16th Century, the nature and purpose of cavalry changed fundamentally. The large, stocky horses of Europe were relegated to the cart and the plough, and smaller, faster horses were sought for use as military mounts.
Arab Mania Sweeps Europe
Of course, there weren't enough of the coveted Arabians to go around, but what better way to improve your native horses than to cross them with an Arab stallion? Exceptionally fine horses were sent from the Ottoman Empire to European rulers as part of the exchange of gifts that helped to cement diplomatic ties. Three of these – the Byerley Turk (imported 1683), the Darley Arabian (1703), and the Godolphin Arabian (1730) – formed the foundation of a new breed when they were crossed with English horses to create the Thoroughbred. 93% of Thoroughbred horses today are descended from these three stallions. But it wasn't only English breeds that were refined through use of the Arabian; their influence can be in all modern warmbloods, including the Russian Orlov Trotter, the Welsh Cob, the Australian Stock Horse, the German Trakehner, and the American Morgan, and even some draught horses like the French Percheron.
Napoleon Bonaparte had always been fascinated by highly-bred horses, and favoured Arabians for his own use. He was awed by those he encountered in Egypt in 1798 (where he was busy overthrowing their Mameluke breeders), describing 'the beautiful Arabian horses, richly harnessed, snorting, neighing, prancing gracefully and lightly under their martial riders, who are covered with dazzling arms inlaid with gold and precious stones. Their costumes are brilliantly colourful; their turbans are surmounted with egret feathers and some wear gilded helmets'. He soon began importing and breeding them in earnest for his own use. Of the 187,700 horses involved in his disastrous Russian Campaign in the winter of 1812, the 1,600 that survived were, nearly without exception, the Arabians. This so impressed his contemporaries that Arabian stud farms began springing up all over Europe.
But it wasn't just the military that wanted fast, elegant horses – they were also much in demand for travel and hunting. And to the Victorian mindset, the Arabian horse perfectly encapsulated the romance of the desert they saw in their travels to the Middle East and Northern Africa. They began importing horses as souvenirs, and breeding them back home. The most famous of these is perhaps the Crabbet Arabian Stud, founded in Sussex, England in 1878, because Lady Anne Blunt thought that 'it would be an interesting and useful thing to do and I should like much to try it'. Their stud was ill-fated at first, perhaps because their foundation stallion, Mesaoud, had four white stockings – or perhaps because Wilfrid Blunt believed that the horses required 'desert conditions' with little food, water, or shelter. Their daughter, Judith, better known as Lady Wentworth, reformed these harsh practices when she took over the running of the farm, and it flourished under her care, eventually supplying the sires of studs in Russia, Poland, Australia, North and South America, and even Egypt. Today, 90% of purebred Arabian horses' pedigrees list at least one horse from Crabbet farm.
Ancient Horses in the New World
Individual Arabian horses had been brought to the Americas by the early 18th Century, where they were crossed with local grade19 horses to form new breeds, and were used by both George Washington and Ulysses S Grant. But it was not until the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 that Arabian horses really gained popularity in the USA. Among other attractions, the Ottoman Empire exhibited a Bedouin camp on the Midway Plaisance, complete with 45 purebred Arabs. Their displays of horsemanship and mock battles, commonly known as 'The Wild East Show', were well received. The elegant animal found many new fans – certainly more than the Turkish band, of which the Chicago Tribune reports '...the man who occupies the proud position of drum major swung his little short baton, and there was the wildest and most confusing escape of unmelodious sounds that have greeted the President's ear since he left Washington.' The horses were almost as well received as the exhibit billed as 'an educational demonstration of athletic muscle control', but described more poetically elsewhere as 'a dance of young women, wherein Western people might see how the head of St John Baptist was lost to Herodias'.
Homer Davenport, a reporter for the Chicago Herald, saw them arrive, and wrote in his account that 'the Arab germs in my system got a fresh start'. In 1906, the incumbent president, Theodore Roosevelt, backed his project to found a new Arabian stud. With the permission of the Sultan, Davenport imported 27 animals. The Davenport Arabians, sourced straight from the desert, made quite a splash among horse breeders, and in 1908, the Arabian Horse Club of America was founded, registering at first 71 purebred animals. In 1919, its president arranged a Cavalry Endurance Ride, in part to help the newly-formed US Remount Service that it needed Arabian horses. Though there were only 362 registered Arabians in the country, those taking part claimed most of the prizes, including first place.
Arabian studs with horses sourced from Poland, England, Egypt and Spain were soon springing up all over the USA. In the 1920s, breakfast cereal magnate WK Kellogg imported 17 horses from the Crabbet stud. Their offspring formed the core of those later donated to the Fort Robinson Remount Depot in Nebraska. By 1943, the US Army owned thousands of Arabians, more than any other breed than the dirt-common Thoroughbreds, despite the fact that they were still very rare. By 1943, Kellogg's entire stud had been turned over to the Remount Service, to aid the war effort.
However, it wasn't long after the war that the military began to consider horses an anachronism, and started selling off its entire stocks to the highest bidder. Through his influence, Kellogg's ranch was passed on to the California Polytechnic College, which has continued to breed from his stock to this day. As horses evolved from beasts of burden to leisure companions, the Arabian's elegance and tractable disposition saw it gaining popularity among the new generation of horse owners. The home-grown studs flourished, with many infusions of new blood from Europe, as the US began to rediscover post-war Europe and its horses. On Lady Wentworth's death in 1957, the Crabbet stud was dissolved, with many of its excellent horses exported to found new lines elsewhere. Today, more purebred Arabians are registered in the USA than in the rest of the world's countries20 combined. The second-largest registry can be found in Australia.
Still in Fashion
The Wasil Arab still found in the desert has been superseded in the West by purebred Arabians from Egypt, Russia, Poland, France and Spain, with fanciers of these strains continuing to breed them worldwide. Today's breeds include Anglo-Arabians (an Arabian crossed with a thoroughbred), Shagya Arabs, developed in the 19th Century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Quarabs (an Arabian crossed with a Quarter Horse), and Pintabians, which have over 90% Arabian blood, but have had the dominant pied gene reintroduced through crossing in select Pintos.
Though they lack the speed of the Thoroughbred and the jumping ability of their longer-legged cousins, Arabians excel in many fields, from hunting to dressage to cow-herding - Anglo-Arabians have even brought home Olympic victories in both dressage and showjumping. Where they really come into their own, however, is in long-distance endurance riding. The leader boards in these competitions, from amateur to international, are almost without exception dominated by Arabians, whose hardiness and sustained speed over long journeys were passed down from their desert ancestors.
Arabian horses are generally friendly and intelligent. They tend to be very loyal and bond well with their humans, can carry much larger riders than their small frame suggests, and are perfectly content with an open shed and a bit of hay, making them an excellent family horse21. Equally at home on the bridle path or in the show ring, the popularity of the Arabian continues unabated to this day. So if you're looking for a friend for life, just remember:
The wind of Heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears.
— The Koran