My Visit with the American Arabs –The Arab Horse in Legend & History

Dr. Amin Zaher, D.V.M., M.S.
From “This Issue and Next” (Western Horseman Mar/Apr’48)

Dr. Amin Zaher, D.V.M., M.S., has recently come to the United States from Egypt to obtain a Ph.D. in genetics and animal breeding. His thesis title is “The Genetic History of the Arab in America.” Prior to his arrival in the states he occupied the position of Arabian horse breeder in the stud of the Royal Agricultural Society of Egypt for twelve years. The Egyptian ministry of agriculture has requested that he visit the various Arabian Stud farms while he is in America. Already he has visited many of the most prominent, such as Kellog, (sic) Dickinson, Babson, Van Vleet, Raswan, Tormohlen, Draper, Bazy Miller and many others. Just so that he would have plenty to occupy his time he has been judging Arabian horse shows and has kindly consented to write three articles for The Western Horseman. The first, which appears in this issue, is on the background. This will be followed by articles on the Arab in Egypt and America today.

GamilAmir Abdelkader Algazairy, a nineteenth century Morroccan nobleman, tells us that some Arabs of the Azed tribe went to Jerusalem to congratulate Solomon on his marriage to the Queen of Sheba. Having completed their mission, they asked him to give them food to take on their long journey. He gave them a stallion descended from the Ismail stock and said to them:

“When you are hungry, place your best rider on this horse and arm him with a stout lance; by the time you have collected your wood and kindled a flame you will see him returning with the fruit of a successful chase.”

The Azed did this and never failed to obtain a gazelle or an ostrich. Therefore they called this horse “Zad Elrakeb,” meaning “provision for the rider.” Unfortunately Amir Abdelkader did not give any description of the stallion. Later when bred he produced some mighty sons and daughters.

The first Egyptian records of the horse are very ancient. A wall painting shows an Egyptian hunter, and it was drawn about 1400 B.C. The horse has a good many of the original, desirable characteristics of the Arabian such as the dished face, the large eye, the sensitive muzzle, the long swan neck, the well rounded rump, and the cocked tail, all of which are still highly esteemed in the Arabian horse. Whether this kind of horse existed in Egypt at that time, or whether the horse originated in the mind of the artist, nobody can tell, but the latter seems improbable.

Before the rise of Mohammedanism the famous Arabian poets, Imro-olkais, Amr Ibn Abi Rabeah, and Antara wrote their masterpieces of Arabic verse. In these they described many of the characteristics, colors, and habits of the Arabian horse. From their description one can tell that they were talking of the horse of the desert.

The Bedouins of Arabia had the Arabian horse, loved it, and in their life it played an extremely important role. The sayings of the prophet Mohammed reveal the significance of the Arabian to them. The following are good examples:

1. Bounty and happiness are ever on horseback; horses are gold that one may hold.

2. Every Moslem must have as many horses as he can afford.

3. The best of all is the bay, chestnut, or black with star and three stockings.

4. Abu Horairah recalled the prophet saying: “when a man races his mare with another horse unknown to him and the winner is a matter of chance, it is not gambling; but if he knows his mare will win, that is gambling.”

Gambling was forbidden. The prophet took gambling to be a form of cheating, such as betting on a sure thing.

5. The prophet said that nothing made a man happier than the following: (a) playing with his wife, (b) training his mare, (c) hunting with his bow and arrow.

6. When Arabian horses gather and run together, the chestnut will be the leader.

7. 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.

8. Every man who loves a horse is as good a man as he who is generous to the poor.

The Arabian horse has been a source of pleasure to men not only during the time of the prophet but at all other times. Al Asmai, the great Arabian poet who lived about 750 A.D., tells how Haroun al Rasheed rode out to see a race. He says,

“I was among those who came with the Califf Al Rasheed. The horses all belonged to Haroun Al Rasheed, his sons, and Soliman Ibn Gafar El Mansoor. A black mare named Zibd, which had been bred by Haroun Al Rasheed, won the race. The Califf was so delighted that he sent for me. He told me to write a poem about this mare Zibd, describing her from head to foot.”

The Bedouins certainly must have been masters in the science of breeding. In the development of their famous Arabian they used many modern breeding techniques. When they breed they never forgot the importance of color, endurance, thirst and hunger.

One trick they used was to measure their horses with a string, passing it just behind the animal’s ears and joining the two ends at the upper lip. The measurement thus gained served as a guide for the proper distance from hoof to withers. H. H. Mohammed Ali says “Find a well bred Arabian horse and it will surprise you to see what a true test this is.”

Color preference was, and still is, good material for argument among Arabian horse breeders, as it is with most other horsemen. Even the Arabs had a diversity of opinion with regard to color. In general they preferred the black first, then the dark bay with a star on the forehead, and then the dark chestnut. Dark colors were always favorites. The light chestnut and grey were last on the list.

Very light colors, such as palominos, were not popular. In fact, they used to call such a light colored animal “Ghagari,” which means “gypsy.” There was no reason for their disliking light colored horses; I believe it was just a matter of individual taste. Among the thousands of real Arabians that I have known and seen I have yet to find a single one that resembled the American Palomino. It is recorded, however, that such a color did exist among the Arabs, although it was very rare.

The Arabs were very superstitious about markings. White well up on the legs was considered unlucky. Two white socks on diagonal or lateral feet were also disliked. If the two fore or two hind feet were white, however, the horse was acceptable.

Modern scientific breeders question the belief that strains and families exist among the Arabian horses. An interesting story, however, is offered by Amir Abdelkader about the early foundation of the Arab.

At the beginning of the Christian era, about two thousand years ago, the Arem flood covered the Arabian lands, as is mentioned in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. All horses were turned loose for some little time and it became difficult to recapture them. After the flood subsided, five Bedouins were hunting in the desert. Here they saw five mares by a well. After several days they succeeded in capturing them. On their way back home they were unable to find anything to eat so they at last decided to kill one of the captured mares. Which one became a matter of heated discussion. It was finally decided to race them, the loser to be killed. This indicates that they had in mind the principle of selection. While the race was in progress, they killed a deer so that it was not necessary to kill one of the mares. These five mares were destined to become the ancestors of a new line of horses. They named one Saqlawieh, because she had glossy hair; another Om Arkoob, because she had a defective hock. Arkoob is the Arabian word for hock. Another they called Showaima, because she had many cow-licks; another Ibayyah, because the dress of her rider slipped down and she carried it all the way back on her tail; and lastly Kahilah, because she had dark eyes.

According to another story, which is believed by many authorities, the mares were originally named after their owners. When a man tied a mare in his stable, this was a sign that he owned it and the horse took his name. If the mare foaled, her offspring might be sold to another breeder, and then its name would be composed of two names, its dam’s name and the name of her dam’s owner, and so on.

The name, “Seglawi Jedran Ibn Sudan,” is found on some Arabian pedigrees. According to the above theory the female ancestors on the dam’s side were owned by three different men, Seglawi, Jedran, and Ibn Sudan. In a similar way, as time goes on, you may have separate families in this country. It has happened in every kind of livestock. Dickinson, Draper, Selby, Babson, Ben Hur, all may develop strains if they continue to breed Arabians, especially if they do not make many outcrosses. Then their names may have a meaning similar to Seglawi, Koheilan, Dahman, and so on.

The ability some claim to separate Arabians into certain types according to conformation, to relate those types to certain strains, and to know their family from their conformation is incredible to me. There is only one type that should be in the mind of Arabian horse breeders, “the typical Arabian,” even though individuals may vary.