The Ancestors Of All Fine Horses - The Magnificent Arabian
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Swiftly riding across the barren endless waste, a Bedouin astride his beautiful Arabian (Arab horse) is a magnificent picture as old as time. The desert Arab’s fortune and honour, this majestic creature was for untold centuries the most prized of his possessions. Of all the animals he might own, it was, in most cases, his only truly affectionate friend and warm companion.
Every desert Arab placed his steed among the top enjoyments of life, giving credence to the saying that Paradise is to be found in the pages of a book, in the arms of a woman and on the back of the horse. After his wife, camel and rifle, a Bedouin’s ambition was to possess his own steed.
Literally living with his master, man and horse became as one – inseparable companions. Before the Bedouin ate, the horse was fed and in the suffocating summer heat or cold winter nights, they shared a tent together. Never tethered, corralled or hitched the steed was treated like a pampered child.
No bridle or saddle was used except, at times, in battle. Only a slender cord tied around the head along with leg pressure were utilized to guide the cherished steed. It is said that the Bedouin’s offspring might cry for a drink, but unmoved he would pour the last drop of water for his horse. Through the centuries, this treatment has imbued the Arabian with a wonderful disposition and made it a true comrade and an admirable household pet. Children could play between its feet and, like an alert family dog it would sound the alarm at the approach of strangers.
It is believed that horses were found in the Arabian Peninsula when that part of the globe was a fertile land criss-crossed with streams. Historians have established that the desert Arabs have been breeding and improving the Arabian for over 3,000 years. This makes it the oldest purebred of all the world’s domesticated horses. A Bedouin will know by heart, back into the mist of history, his steed’s ancestry.
The most versatile and attractive horse in the world, Arabians are comparatively small, seldom weighing more than 1,000 lbs. and standing about 15 hands high. They have an exceptional head with wide expressive mild eyes, a large brain and a fine nuzzle. Their foreheads are broad and prominent, and their ears are large and beautifully shaped. From the head, almost always held high, flows a splendid slim arched neck which leads to a short and strong back – all Arabians have one fewer vertebra than other breeds – enabling them to carry great weights for their size. Long slender legs and a high-set tail, flourishing at full gallop, add to their gracefulness and give them a haughty air. A living work of art, they are glorious creatures of beauty – an aristocratic fashioning of flesh and bone.
The ultimate flower and ideal of a horse, the celebrated Arabian is an eternal type of animal that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Noted for its elegance, companionship, endurance, intelligence, fiery spirit, extreme docility and touching fidelity, it is the origin from which all western ideas about the good breeding of horses have been derived.
These extraordinary virtues are a hereditary result of the tender care the Arabians have received at the hands of their Bedouin masters – the most devoted and kindly owners of horses in the world. The Arabs treat their mounts as one of the family. They talk to them in low soft voices and hand-feed them on cereals, dates, milk and at times, fish or meat. No rough words are uttered to their steeds that they will never bring themselves to strike.
This has bred in the Arabian an acute sense of loyalty, gentleness and willingness when handled. These attributes, and being reared and nurtured in close proximity and association with humans, have made it a saddle horse par-excellence. For hundreds of years it has been the unchallenged monarch of the desert and, at the same time, an amenable animal – a friend of even toddlers.
Unlike in most other parts of the globe, the desert Arabs did not breed their steeds as pack or draft horses but for personal use. The less-temperamental mares were preferred. They were treasured for their breeding potential and it was through the female line that lineage, very important to the Arabs, was established. Male foals, if not to be raised for breeding, were usually sold in the neighbouring peasant villages. Only rarely did the Bedouins keep stallions as mounts.
Out of necessity the Arabs became the greatest horse breeders in the world. In the Arabia of the past ages, their mares were used for hunting, sport and provided speed that was a great need during the almost continuous tribal warfare. Hardy animals, they could withstand the extremes of heat or cold and the scarcity of food and water. Oases were long distances apart and man’s safety depended entirely on their mares.
During these wars and raids, the Bedouin ate, slept and fought on horseback. His mount, besides being an excellent sentry, was more important than his sword. It would gently awake its master at the break of day, arouse him at any inkling of danger, and run to his aid in an emergency. Unlike other breeds of horses which when wounded in battle would madly run away in terror, the Bedouin’s mare endured until death.
In the Arabian Peninsula, these attributes made it an immortal animal and gave it a rich literary history. The winged horse of Arab myth was taken over by the Greeks who made him into their god, Pegasus. In peoples’ folklore it provided the basis of fable, legend, stories and romance. Many believed that God created the Arabian from a handful of south wind. In the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying that after women comes the horse for the enjoyment of men.
In verse, the lavish praise of their steeds was only exceeded by the Arabs’ pride in themselves. Poets, the fountainhead of Arabic literature, never tired of praising the virtues of their mares. The 10th century poet al-Mutanabbi describing his mount wrote:
“Riding a noble mare whose back none other may climb,
Whose hind and forelegs in galloping seem as one,
She requireth nor hand nor foot to urge her on.”
On the Arab horse, the Muslim armies conquered the Byzantine and Persian Empires in their sweep eastward to the borders of China and westward to the heart of France. The manoeuvrability, speed and stamina of their mares, developed in the vast desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula, enabled the Arabs to quickly occupy, in less than a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, much of the civilized world of that time – from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to the middle of Asia in the East.
When the Muslims crossed into the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., they brought their steeds with them. In this land which they were to call al-Andalus, the Arabians were bred and Spain became the centre for their diffusion to the four corners of Europe. These Spanish-Arabians were the first horses to reach the Western Hemisphere in the early era of the Conquistadors.
According to B. Smith in The Horse and the West, the Moors must be credited with breeding the most important strain of racehorses in the world and that, today, in the western U.S.A. all steeds with the exception of some draft horses and ponies have some Arabian blood. It is said that the Arabian is to horse what the Biblical Adam was to man.
Around the mid-17th century, Arabians brought from the Fertile Crescent area in the Middle East provided Great Britain and the other countries of Europe with the founding sires of their thoroughbreds. All thoroughbreds in that continent can trace their lineage to these Bedouin steeds.
Noted for its genetic prepotency and famous for its longevity – living ten years longer than other breeds – the Arabian will improve any half-breed. A horse mated with an Arabian always produces offspring better than itself. G.H. Conn, in The Arabian Horse in America, states that the influence of the Arab horse on European breeds was so profound that it broke down, remoulded and recreated whatever alien elements with which it was mixed.
In his book, Arabian Horse Breeding, Reese quotes John Hervey, one of the foremost horse scholars in the 20th century, who wrote:
“…the incredible adaptability of the Arabian for domestication in all lands and climates, together with its still more incredible capacity to improve all other breeds, strains, races and types of equine with whose blood his own is mingled is without parallel in zoological history”.
In our times, the pure Arabian is somewhat of a rarity. The discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula has almost eliminated the Bedouin way of life and with it the noble Arabian has to a great extent disappeared. It has become an animal of luxury whose possession is a presumption of opulence. Conn in his other study, How to Get a Horse and Live with It, indicates that in 1968, there were probably no more than 70,000 pure-bred Arab horses in the world – 55,000 of these in the U.S.A.
However, even if it disappears – which is highly unlikely – the pure-bred Arabian has left a rich heritage.
Hervey concludes that wherever, as the horseman looks about him and observes beauty speed, grace, activity, docility and fineness, yet toughness of fibre; he sees that (Arabian) immortality incarnated. The Arabian has triumphed over everything mundane for thousands of years.
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