Horse of the Desert Bedouin
“An Arabian will take care of its owner as no other horse will, for it has not only been raised to physical perfection, but has been instilled with a spirit of loyalty unparalleled by that of any other breed.” Somewhere in the inhospitable deserts of the Middle East, centuries ago, a breed of horse came into being that would influence the equine world beyond all imagination. In the sweet grass oasis along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the countries that are now known as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and in other parts of the Arabia peninsula, this hearty horse developed and would soon be known as the Arabian horse.
To the Islamic people, he was considered a gift from Allah, to be revered, cherished and almost worshipped. Long before Europeans were to become aware of his existence, the horse of the desert had established himself as a necessity for survival of the Bedouin people. The head men of the tribes could relate the verbal histories of each family of horse in his tribe as well as he could each family of Bedouin. The mythology and romance of the breed grew with each passing century as stories of courage, endurance and wealth intermingled with the genealogies.
The very nature of the breed, it’s shape as well as it’s color, was influenced by religious belief, superstition and tradition. It was believed that the bulging forehead held the blessings of Allah. Therefore the greater the “Jibbah” the greater the blessings carried by the horse. The great arching neck with a high crest, the “Mitbah” was a sign of courage, while a gaily carried tail showed pride. These traits were held in high esteem and selectively bred for.
Due in part to the religious significance attached to the Arabian horse, as well as the contribution it made to the wealth and security of the tribe, the breed flourished in near isolation. Traditions of breeding and purity were established to keep the breed “Asil” or pure, in the form intended by Allah. Any mixture of foreign blood from the mountains or the cities surrounding the desert was strictly forbidden. While other, desert type breeds developed in North Africa and the periphery of the Great Desert, they were definitely not of the same blood as Arabians and were disdained by the proud Bedouin.
The Arabian horse was primarily an instrument of war, as were horses in general in most societies of the time. A well mounted Bedouin could attack an enemy tribe and capture their herds of sheep, camels and goats, adding to the wealth of their own tribe. Such a raid was only successful if the aggressors could attack with surprise and speed and make good their escape. Mares were the best mounts for raiding parties, as they would not nicker to the enemy tribe’s horses, warning of their approach. The best war mares exhibited great courage in battle, taking the charges and the spear thrusts without giving ground. Speed and endurance were essential as well, for the raids were often carried out far from the home camp, family and children.
The Bedouin people could be as hospitable as they were war like. If a desert traveler touched their tent pole, they were obligated to provide for this “guest”, his entourage and animals for up to three days without request for payment. A welcome guest would find his mare’s bridle hung from the center pole of his hosts’ tent to indicate his status. In this way, tribes that were often at war would meet and, with great hospitality, break bread and share stories of their bravest and fastest horses.
Races were held with the winner taking the best of the losers herd as their prize. Breeding stock could be bought and sold, but as a rule, the war mares carried no price. If indeed they changed hands it would be as a most honored gift. Through the centuries the tribes who roamed the northern desert in what is now Syria became the most esteemed breeders of fine horses. No greater gift could be given than an Arabian mare.
The value placed upon the mare led inevitably to the tracing of any family of the Arabian horse through his dam. The only requirement of the sire was that he be “Asil”. If his dam was a “celebrated” mare of a great mare family, so much the better. Mare families, or strains, were named, often according to the tribe or sheik who bred them.
The Bedouin valued pure in strain horses above all others, and many tribes owned only one main strain of horse. The five basic families of the breed, known as “Al Khamsa”, include Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. Other, less “choice” strains include Maneghi, Jilfan, Shuwayman, and Dahman. Substrains developed in each main strain, named after a celebrated mare or Sheik that formed a substantial branch within the main strain.
A great story of courage, endurance, or speed always accompanied the recitation of the genealogy of the sub-strain, such as the great Kehilet al Krush, the Kehilet Jellabiyat and the Seglawi of Ibn Jedran. Each of these mares carried with them stories of great battles and intrigue. Their daughters were sought after by the most powerful Kings but often remained unattainable. Daughters and granddaughters of these fabled mares changed hands through theft, bribery and deceit. If any of their descendants were sold, the prices were legendary.
Each strain, when bred pure, developed characteristics that could be recognized and identified. The Kehilan strain was noted for depth of chest, masculine power and size. The average pure in strain Kehilan stood up to 15 hands. Their heads were short with broad foreheads and great width in the jowls. Most common colors were gray and chestnut.
The Seglawi was known for refinement and almost feminine elegance. This strain was more likely to be fast rather than have great endurance. Seglawi horses have fine bone, longer faces and necks than the Kehilan. The average height for a Seglawi would be 14.2 hands, the most common color Bay.
The Abeyan strain is very similar to the Seglawi. They tended to be refined. The pure in strain Abeyan would often have a longer back than a typical Arabian. They were small horses, seldom above 14.2 hands, commonly gray and carried more white markings than other strains.
Hamdani horses were often considered plain, with an athletic if somewhat masculine, large boned build. Their heads were more often straight in profile, lacking an extreme Jibbah. The Hamdani strain was one of the largest, standing as much as 15.2 hands. The common colors were gray and bay.
The Hadban strain was a smaller version of the Hamdani. Sharing several traits including big bone and muscular build. They were also known for possessing an extremely gentle nature. The average height of a Hadban was 14.3 hands, the primary color brown or bay with few if any white markings.
While the Bedoiun bred their horses in great obscurity, the highly war like people of the East rode their Barbs and Turks into Europe, bringing havoc with them and leaving waste in their wake. Though few Arabian horses accompanied the Turks and Vandals on their forays into Europe, their hardy Barb and Turkish mountain horses were no less impressive to their victims.
Europe had developed horses through the Dark Ages to carry a knight and his armor. Their lighter horses were from the pony breeds. They had nothing to compare with the small, fast horses upon which the invaders were mounted. An interest in these “Eastern” horses grew, along with fantastical stories of prowess, speed, endurance and even jumping ability. To own such a horse would not only allow for the improvement of local stock, but would endow the fortunate man with incredible prestige. Such a horse in the stable would rival the value of the greatest art work hung on the wall. Europeans of means, primarily Royalty, went to great lengths to acquire these fabled horses.
As the world slowly shrank due to increasing travel abroad, the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire began to send gifts of Arabian horses to European heads of state. Such was the nature of The Godolphin Arabian (sometimes called “Barb”) imported to England in 1730 as well as The Byerley Turk (1683) and the Darley Arabian (1703). These three “Eastern” stallions formed the foundation upon which a new breed, the Thoroughbred, was to be built. Today 93% of all modern Thoroughbreds can be traced to these three sires. By direct infusion, and through the blood of the Thoroughbred, the Arabian has contributed, to some degree to all our light breeds of horses.
The Arabian horse also made inroads into other parts of Europe and even farther east. In France, the Arabian helped to make the famous Percheron. In Russia, the blood of the Arabian horse contributed to the development of the Orloff Trotter.
The Bedouins have generally been credited with the beginning of selective pure breeding of Arabian horses. These tribes, although their breeding records were kept by memory and passed down through the ages verbally, are also credited as the first to keep breeding records and maintaining the purity of the Arabian breed. To this date, many Arabian pedigrees can be traced to desert breeding meaning there is no written record but because of the importance of purity to the Bedouins, “desert bred” is accepted as an authentic verification of pure blood for those early imports.
Today the Arabian horse exists in far greater numbers outside of it’s land of origin than it ever did in the Great Desert. In the early part of the last century; greed, ambition, desire for prestige, as well as an honest interest in saving the breed from extinction was the driving force behind governments, royal families and adventuring private citizens alike in the acquisition and propagation of this great prize of the Bedouin people–the Arabian horse.