Unique Desert Trip Made 1906 Importation A Success

copyright by Charles Craver
Used by permission of Charles Craver

Give or take a couple of years, Arabian breeding began in the United States in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. that was almost a hundred years ago.

People used horses on a daily basis in those days, and as a matter of necessity were very serious about them. It is of interest to consider why they were attracted to Arabian horses. They had plenty of horses of all kinds. So why Arabians?

Of course there were different reasons.

Horsemen sought Arab blood as a means of producing a better using horse of one sort or another. Some wanted to rejuvenate the Thoroughbred. Others wanted a better trotter. The production of sounder cavalry horses was a frequent goal.

From a less economic point of view, a family horse was desired which could be enjoyed by women, children and older people; or a stylish horse to ride in the park or a polo mount.

Not least was the desire to have a horse that carried with it a bit of the romance of the desert and which embodied the ideals of beauty which the painters of Arabian types of horses in Europe had articulated for many years.

These were all motivating factors for breeders at the turn of the century who were enthused with the idea of starting the Arabian breed in America. Probably none of the early breeders had all these goals in mind. No doubt all of them shared some of them.

Homer Davenport was one of the most influential of the early Arabian breeders of America. He was a national figure — a gifted political cartoonist with the knack of showing the political issues of the day in drawings that anyone could understand. He played a major role in bringing public attention to bear on political abuses as a part of the reform movement that culminated in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

He was a colorful public speaker, a person who enjoyed the rough and tumble of public debate, a major collector of exotic fowl, and a humorous and effective writer. He had an obvious taste for adventure.

Davenport’s interest in Arabian horses began as a child. In 1893 he saw his first ones. They were the Hamidie Society horses which had been imported for the Chicago World’s Fair. They were dispersed after the Fair, and eventually Davenport ended up owning several of them.

He was an enthusiastic Arabian breeder and can be assumed to have been well-informed on the subject of Arabian horses from first-hand experience as well as from the excellent literature on the subject available to him, which is still the basis of serious Arabian horse breeding today.

During the 1904 campaign for re-election to the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, Davenport was helpful to the president through his cartooning. After the election, he solicited the president’s support in a project for the improvement of horse breeding in America, the direct importation of horses to this country from the horse-breeding tribes of the Arabian desert.

Roosevelt was a man of enthusiasm and imagination. He appears to have recognized the project as worthwhile and as being in harmony with his own goal of developing a national remount program for the production of better cavalry horses.

At that time, the Arabian Peninsula was a part of the Turkish Empire, whose ruling Sultan was Abdul Hamid II. The exportation of Arabian mares from the Empire was officially restricted.

Through Roosevelt’s influence, special permission was granted by the Sultan for Davenport to obtain six or eight mares and accompanying stallions to bring to the United States.

With the backing of the president and special permission from the Turkish Sultan, Davenport personally went to the Arabian desert to get his horses. His trip was financed in major part by Peter Bradley, a New England industrialist. He was accompanied by two American friends, C.A. Moore and Jack Thompson.

In the history of horse-buying expeditions to Arabia, Davenport’s trip was probably the most unconventional. He went in the middle of the summer when the weather was the hottest and most uncomfortable.

Most other travelers had instead gone in the cooler times of the year when the weather ws easier to bear, and indeed, the Sultan himself warned against making the trip in the summer season.

Among items of Davenport’s typically American equipment were a Western cowboy saddle, clothing which looked a lot like a rumpled Americah business suit, a proper American camping tent, the inevitable camera equipment of the American tourist, and his pen and sketch pad.

Furthermore, like any American tourist today, he had a travel book (Baedeker, of course), and he even took at least one of his books on Arabian horse breeding. Most importantly, he had his own somewhat earthy sense of humor and rather typical American disinterest in social formality.

It is hard to imagine any European horse buying commission going with similar accouterments, but what he had suited Davenport well. He rode the cowboy saddle, and he even got the Supreme Sheikh of the Anazah confederation to try the same, an obvious subject of hilarity in one of the expedition photos.

He took pictures with the camera, and they are an invaluable record of Arab life and the expedition. With his sketching material, he drew lovely pictures of the trip. His Bedouin hosts were fascinated when he cartooned American cowboys using their horses with Western saddles as they roped and threw steers.

It is hard to know the exact usage of the books. The Baedeker was no doubt a useful guide because the issue of those days on the Middle East was full of worthwhile information on the area. Arabian horse books of that time may have been more useful guides yet for the enterprise.

The three major books of the era are among the best ever written on the Arabian horse, and by having them Davenport was drawing on the solid experience of his precursors in Arabian travel. He writes that he had one of his books annotated by Hashem Bey Ibn Mhayd, Sheikh of the Fid’an-Anazah.

Even the timing of his expedition in the heat of the summer turned out to be an advantage, because at that time of year some of the best horse-breeding tribes of the Anazah were concentrated in an accessible area near Aleppo, which concentrated in an accessible area near Aleppo, which Davenport took as his point of departure to the desert. Inconvenience aside, the time of year suited Davenport’s purposes as a horse buyer perfectly.

Davenport’s sense of adventure and his gift of humor were among his greatest assets. Because he was willing to take some chances in making his trip work, he developed unique opportunities in horse buying.

Because of his sense of humor — and perhaps the rumpled clothes — he maintained an individual detachment and personal integrity that advanced the trip and no doubt endeared him to his Bedouin contacts.

The Bedouin knew all about horse buyers from abroad. They arrived in Arabia mostly from Europe, spent their time primarily in Syrian cities and traveled with as many European comforts as possible — in one recorded case with a supply of European wines — strictly contrary to Moslem custom and religion.

Most such buyers sought horses like the ones they had at home. To the Bedouin, buyers of this sort were at best adversaries and, at worst, incomprehensible “nasrani” fools to be charged as much as possible.

But Davenport came among the Bedouin as a guest and friend, sincerely sought their advice, valued the horses they valued, respected their manhood and customs, and placed them on sacred oath as to the purity of the horses they offered for sale. The Bedouin loved humor and he joked with them.

At the same time he smiled gently from an American point of view in the observation that the men could have up to four wives and thought themselves fortunate. So spoke a man who was having trouble at home.

Such a person the Bedouin remembered many years after his expedition, not as an easy buyer who had paid too much, but instead as a guest who had lived their lives as he could and become a sincere blood brother of one of their distinguished Sheikhs.

They had sold him the kind of horses they themselves used and prized; horses of the ghazu, horses which were spoils of war even among their own tribes, horses which, as poor people, they would give up their own gold and camels to try to buy back for themselves, and a stallion — *Haleb — to whom they brought mares to breed even as Davenport was taking him from the desert.

The outstanding feature of Davenport’s importation was that he personally selected his horses directly from the primary horse-breeding tribes of Arabia. This personal aspect of the selection of stock to be brought out of the desert is very unusual among importers of Arabian horses.

As a matter of history, most horses exported from the desert have come by means of dealers, agents, or other intermediaries. But Homer Davenport was right there in the desert, on the spot, buying horses for himself according to what he could learn about them from observation in their native environment. No doubt part of the character of his importation was that the selection of horses were his own.

As a matter of history, most horses imported from the desert have come by means of dealers, agents, or other intermediaries. But Homer Davenport was right there in the desert, on the spot, buying horses for himself according to what he could learn about them from observation in their native environment. No doubt part of the character of his importation was that the selection of horses were his own.

Everything worked for him so that he was able to buy horses — as Raswan has observed — from the same tribes and even from the same families of breeders who had sold to great importers before him such as Abbas Pasha, Upton, and the Blunts.

In all, Davenport’s desert importation included 27 horses, of which 24 were ultimately registered. They included eight mares, two fillies, and 17 stallions and colts.

He made a particular point of obtaining horses which were especially prized by the Bedouin for their own use. When some mares could not be purchased, he obtained their sons.

A number of the animals were of particular distinction among the Bedouin: *Abeyah #39 was noted by them for her beautiful head and her speed; *Wadduda #30 had been the personal war mare of Hashem Bey, the Supreme Sheikh of the Anazah; *Urfah #40 was considered by the Bedouin to be the finest Saqlawiyah-Jidraniah in the northern desert; *Haffia was sired by a Hamdani-Simri stallion the Anazah esteemed so much that they refused to sell him to the Italian government in May 1906 at any price; *Hamrah and *Euphrates were by “the great Hamdani-Simri chestnut horse that the Anazah are so proud of” — perhaps the same horse, *Reshan #38 had drawn an offer variously reported as 30 to 50 female camels by the Bedouin in an effort to buy her back; *Haleb #25 hd been a gift horse from the combined Arabian tribes to the Governor of Syria.

The horse was so highly thought of by the Bedouin that at the time of Davenport’s importation over 200 mares were said to be in foal to him, and he was supposed to eventually be returned to Arabia.

Furthermore, the horses obtained by Davenport in Arabia were of authenticated pedigrees. Almost all of them were obtained directly from their Bedouin owners who were required to give particulars as to pedigree and asil status under religious oath.

In America, the Davenport horses were a major new force in Arabian breeding. Numerous horsemen recognized that they were unique and precious horses.

Naturally, some Arabian breeders having other bloodlines resented them, and from this discontent a bitter chapter in Arabian breeding started, which finally resulted in the establishment of the Arabian Horse Club of America, under whose aegis the Davenport bloodlines, along with the other fine lines of American breeding, have prospered.

Homer Davenport did not live to enjoy the full fruits of his desert importation. In 1912 — only six years after his desert importation — he died of pneumonia.

Arabian breeding in America had lost one of its primary leaders, but the bloodlines of the Davenport importation continued to be bred by Peter B. Bradley, Davenport’s partner in the desert importation and its subsequent development. By the time this foundation breeder had produced his last horse in 1925, he had established the bloodlines of the Davenport importation as a breeding group in their own right.

Since then other breeders have followed his example, and Davenport horses continue as a well-defined breeding group to the present day, numbering something over 500 head and being maintained by about a hundred active, enthusiastic breeders. It is the oldest existing closed breeding group of American origin in our studbooks, and one of the two oldest in the world.

These present-day Davenport horses are registered as entirely descended from the animals of the 1906 importation. Generally speaking, they are very much like the horses of the original imporation: about the same size — 14.1 to 15 hands — the same shades of colors and even, is some cases, obviously similar markings.

They are noted for big eyes, well-shaped ears, fine skin, width between the jaws, large cranial boxes, proportional bodies, athletic inclination, and amenable dispositions. People visiting a herd of them for the first time will often comment that they look like they really came from Arabia.

It turns out that this kind of horse still fits extremely well into American life. It is excellent for a wide variety of riding purposes from pleasure hacking to nearly the whole gamut of show activities.

Davenports have special merit as companion animals. They have the easily recognized beauty of the authentic thing, and the romance of the desert is as much a part of them as it ever was.

As far as concerns how they resemble 19th-century artists’ portrayals of the Arabian hore, if they are not quite the same, at least the Davenports have furnished their share of individuals which could have served as models for such idealized portraiture.

The major use of Davenport blood in American Arabian breeding has been in conjunction with other bloodlines. The Davenports are one of the most reliable breeding groups for outcrossing, and frequently the results have been very good.

This especially has been the case where the non-Davenport side of the pedigree has been of the intensely bred, classic sort. Usually the resulting foal from such breedings strongly resembles the non-Davenport parent with a touch of the desert quality from the Davenport lines. Often the major source of the best non-Davenport bloodlines in past American breeding is when they have been crossed with Davenport stock.

One of the oldest and most universal patterns in American breeding is that popular new bloodlines are imported from other countries, and once here, are bred to typically American domestic Arabians, which nearly always have a significant Davenport element.

The resulting foals are usualy more to American tastes than the newly imported ancestor, although popular credit for them usually goes to that ancestor.

The last part of September of this year will be the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Davenport desert importation in the United States. When the horses arived they were an embodiment of the ideals of foundation Arabian breeders for the Arabian horses.

The new horses could do — and in fact accomplished — almost all of the things those first breeders wanted in an Arabian horse.

As the Davenport bloodlines have continued in this country, they have remained remarkably true to the ideals of Homer Davenport and other founding Arabian breeders.

They have rejuvenated other breeds and other bloodlines in the Arabian breed. They have been useful, athletic animals for the broad range of Arabian activity. They have been wonderful companion animals. In addition, they have had the gifts of style and beauty, and have retained the romance of the desert.

The amazing fact is that these are all still attributes and achievements which are of imporance to American horsemen. Some of us go off the deep end in search of strange, new show horses from time to time, but the ideal we come back to is still much like what Homer Davenport and others found in the original horse of the desert. We are fortunate that after 80 years, this ideal is still embodied in living Davenport horses.

This ideal is also embodied in a multitude of horses of part-Davenport breeding. Surely their Davenport ancestors added to the features that make these, too, horses of the desert.