The Arabian Horse — Its Present Place and Mission

Gentleness, Wiry Compactness and Speed: The Desert Inheritances — Why Arabs Are Needed in the Family Stable and on the Turf

by Homer Davenport
Photographs by Curtis Bell, A.G. Eldredge, A.L. Stanger and others
from Country Life in America, Vol. X, No. 4, August 1906

To name the Arabian horse is to recall instinctively the fountain-head of thoroughbreds, Darley’s Arabian. For was not the Darley the great-grandsire of that Eclipse who “won the race, with the rest nowhere”? It was certainly a lucky day for racing when, in 1703, Mr. Darley bought, in Aleppo, a bay four-year-old, who stood fifteen hands, had three white feet, also some white on the face, and was, moreover, a Kuhai-lan of the Ae-ni-za. His substrain, Ras el Fedawa, is one of the fleetest, if neither among the hardiest nor the handsomest. So prepotent was his blood, conjoined with that of the Byerly Turk, the Godolphin Arabian, and various and sundry Barbs, that it changed the English race-horse from a sluggish creature, cold-blooded, and something coarse, to an approximation of our present thoroughbred type.

ZachariaIndeed, the definition of thoroughbred, as meaning “of pure desert Arabian blood, on sire’s and dam’s side, imported into England and bred there,” sufficiently proves the turf’s debt to the Darley and his compeers. But this article is meant less to exploit the Arabian’s racing qualities than to emphasize his beauty, good sense and better disposition. Major Upton, who has seen him under all conditions — on the desert, and off — very well says: “He is the quintessence of all good qualities in a compact form.”

A Horse of a Single Gait

Yet he is, say his enemies, a horse of a single gait — the gallop. In a sense this is true, and naturally. His masters, the Bedouins, abhor the trot; moreover, the smooth sandy reaches of the desert invite to the gallop. But Arabs can be taught to trot, though not to be High-steppers. Either walking or galloping, they are models of grace.

A word now as to breeds. There is but one “noble” strain, the Ku-hai-lan, almost innumerable subdivided. There are, besides the Allerbi and Kadishi, ignoble drudges and hackneys, but they are never classed as Arabs. Though size varies individually, there are neither pony nor big breeds. Palgrave, Upton and Sir Wilfrid Blunt agree that the average height very nearly approaches fourteen hands and two inches, falling under it oftener than over it. Persian horses, nearly allied to the Arabs, are taller — witness Lylee, who cost his last owner, Runjeet Singh, in the three wars waged to obtain him, above twelve thousand lives and sixty lacs of rupees — that is, about $3,000,000. Lylee stood all of fifteen hands, wore gold bangles below his knees, and had housings of gold-fringed Cashmere shawls. But, for all that, he was not a Ku-hai-lan; so could not have held his head high in the desert.

The Legend of the Faithful Five

A legend lurks in the name. It is the corruption of Kohlani, and, like that, means “the blackened.” Unromantic persons derive it from the skin color, a dark slaty, grayish blue, whatever the coat. but there is another derivation, and one more befitting “the Daughters of the Stars.” Mahomet, says the legend, with ten thousand mounted men, had fought unceasingly through three days and nights, the men never leaving saddle, the mares under them neither eating nor drinking. Victorious at last, the army came to a river bank, halted there, unsaddled and loosed the mares, which rushed madly to the water. Before they could drink, the trumpets sounded the recall. In the ten thousand, five were found faithful — five who came back to the standards, heedless of thirst. Mahomet himself welcomed them, blessed them, and had them anointed with kohl — whence Kohlani — as though they had been princesses of the blood. Ever after they were ridden by the Prophet and his companions, Ali, Omar, Abubekr and Hassan, and from them descends all Arabia’s noble blood. Since there were five of them, the breed grand divisions are known as “Al Khamisa,” or “the five.”

But the romance of Arab pedigrees goes beyond the time of the Prophet’s mares. They themselves were descended from the mares of Soloman the great — mares given him by the Queen of Sheba along with gold, ivory, slaves and spices. Naturally, such strains are carefully guarded. Few of the Bedouins can read or write, yet they make a point of hanging inscribed pedigrees in little bags around the necks of their most famous mares. They ride only mares, and have a proverb: “three things are from God: a good wife, a good mare, a good sword.” A true son of the desert will almost as readily think of parting with his wife as with his mate. Thus there is a powerful reinforcement to the Sultan’s firman forbidding their exportation.

The Arched Tail

Substrains are almost as numerous as the sands of the desert. The name nearly always means something– Arabs are above the vulgarity of giving horses the names of human beings. Thus the Abeyan strain may be translated as “of the cloak.” It began when a sheik, hard pressed in the night, threw away his cloak that his mare might outrun his enemies. At morning, safe, he found the cloak caught upon the mare’s arching tail. this arched tail is held to be a great mark of both blood and beauty. by way of help to it, as soon as a foal is dropped, the tail of it is bent upward, either over the finger or a small round stick.

Mares and horses are herded separately. so are foals from six months old. A perfect mare is so nearly priceless that she is rarely sold outright. Even in moneyless Arabia the price of a fairly good mare is often a thousand dollars. Superlative ones fetch twenty-five hundred, and Palgrave tells of one held even higher, a half interest in her selling for sixteen hundred. Indeed, a very fine mare may have owners enough to form a corporation. There are curious things connected with this partial selling. The man who buys half a mare takes her to his tent, feeds and cares for her until she drops a filly foal, then either gives her back, keeping the foal, or passes the foal over to the first owner. If he has bought but a third he keeps her until there are two fillies, when he may return the mare with one of them, or keep her and give back both. All subsequent foals and all colts thrown belong to the buyer.

The desert is only partly a desert; it has, in places and seasons, great stretches of rich pasture. But the mares and foals do not depend on grazing, though they get little grain. They eat whatever their masters do — dates, and a paste of butter and barley flour in particular. They have also each a she-camel told off as nurse, and get her milk even though the tent-folk may lack it. The foals, indeed, are as much at home in the tents as the children; thus they learn early not to fear human beings. There is no such thing as breaking; by the time they are steady on their legs they are haltered and taught to answer the word. No dog is so vigilant as a Bedouin’s mare; she stands guard over his tent or himself as he lies sleeping after a razzia. She loves him even as she is loved. How well that is, this story may witness:

Jabal’s Mare

Jabal had a mare, a pearl among her kind which caught the fancy of Hassad, governor of Damascus. Hassad tried to buy, but Jabal would not sell; then the governor offered a nose-bag full of gold pieces to whomever might bring him the mare. Since successful horsetheft is, among the Bedouins, regarded in the light of a desirable accomplishment, one Gafar made up his mind to steal the mare. Jabal, warned, kept the mare just outside his tent, sleeping upon the end of her picket chain. But somehow the wily Gafar managed to loose the chain without waking Jabal. Safe on the mare’s back, he caught up Jabal’s spear and shouted to him:

“Wake! I am Gafar. I have stolen your noble mare, and give you notice in time!”

Jabal awoke, leaped on his brother’s mare, only less speedy than his own, and, with his following, gave chase. He soon outstripped the rest, and found himself gaining on the thief. In a loud voice he cried to Gafar,

“Pinch her right ear and give her a touch of the heel.”

She obeyed them so gallantly that further pursuit was hopeless. Rated for his folly, Jabal said:

“I had rather lose her than sully her reputation. Would you have me suffer it to be said among the tribes that another mare is fleeter than mine? I have this comfort left me: I can at least say she never met with her match.”

Thus it appears that he who would take a mare away from the desert must contend with the great love, no less than with the law of the land. The Arab horse is as much a product of the desert as the roving Bedouin. It is the dry, pure air, the growing up in the open, the food, nourishing without bulk, that have stripped them both of superfluous weight, and left men and horses models of wiry compactness.

Though the Bedouins have a complete scale of points, they judge most particularly by the head. More than lean, clean jaws, and a muzzle to go into a quart pot, they value a jibba — forehead — broad, almost bulging, a mitbeh — the junction of head and neck — well turned and fine, and ears so set on that their tips nearly touch when they are pointed forward. A stallion’s ears should be smaller, more pointed, and held higher, than those of a mare. Though the mass of Arabian horses are either grey or chestnut, there is no absolute color test. There are white Arabs, black ones, bays, iron-grey and strawberry roans, but rarely one pied, or piebald, or skewbald or dun. Roan coats are not in favor with the Bedouin, since they are held to indicate much admixture of blood. But they are not nearly so detrimental as the “trouble hairs,” certain curious whirls and featherings in the coat, into which the desert folk read a mystic significance.

In this, the beginning of the horseless age, it seems idle to advocate horses of any sort; yet I must maintain that the Arabian horse has a distinct place awaiting him, a mission still more distinct. The place is the family stable, where, by virtue of his size, strength, speed, sweet temper, docility and thriving habit, he is especially qualified to be the friendly comrade and servant of women, little children and elderly people. His mission is to re-invigorate our thoroughbred stock. So it seems worth while to reckon up what there is to begin with.

Pal-Ara SensationArabs in America

President Thomas Jefferson imported Arabs — mares and stallions. So did several old-time Southern turfmen. But the most notable Arabs to reach us since the Civil War were the two grey stallions which were presented by the Sultan to General Grant in the course of his tour around the world. They were very fine animals of unknown pedigree, standing each fourteen hands and three inches. Both lived to great age, leaving behind them, in the West and in the East, a worthy progeny. Thus, there is one blood source ready to hand. Another comes through the mares and stallions sent by the Sultan to the Columbian Exposition. He understood that they were to be sent back, but they have stayed with us – in virtue of a foreclosure sale. Mr. Peter B. Bradley, of Hingham, Massachusetts, got the most of them, and from them has bred pure Arabs, besides crossbreds, with trotters, hackneys, thoroughbreds and mustangs. The only pure Arab to win a prize at the New York Horse Show is of his breeding. A colt by Abeyan out of a trotting mare also won first prize in the yearling class, at the New York State Fair in 1904. It is Mr. Bradley’s opinion that his half-breeds are better for general purposes than the full-bloods, also that the trotting cross gives the best results in spite of the failures elsewhere of the Arab cross to increase the speed of the trotter.

Some Famous Arabs

In the grey mare Nedjme, Mr. J.A.P. Ramsdell, of Newburgh, got the best animal that came to Chicago – possible the best ever bought to America. Her pedigree, afterward stolen by a Syrian in hope of reward, showed her breeding to be flawless. In addition , Mr. Ramsdell has imported from England the white stallion Shahwan, bred by Ali Pacha in Cairo, and pronounced by Sir Wilfrid Blunt to be as fine a horse as ever came out of the desert, and Garaveen, an English Arab, by the unbeaten racer Kismet, out of a fine Arab mare. From such stock it is not surprising that Mr. Ramsdell had bred horses worthy of their pedigree.

Mr. Randolph Huntingdon, of Oyster Bay, has been less fortunate — possibly through too great effort to follow Arab methods, or rather a misunderstanding of Arab methods. Competent observers say that while the Arabs are careful to keep in the blood, they do not in-breed so closely as to put mothers to sons, or full sisters to brothers, although they approve of breeding up half-sisters, the foals of another dam. Mr. Huntington’s foundation stock came from Arabia by way of England, and was supplemented by the blood of the Grant stallions, yet by breeding too close he has lost the Arab type. By crossing his Arabs with the trotting Henry Clays, Mr. Huntington has produced very beautiful horses, even though they are not Arabs.

Arab Blood Needed

Our thoroughbreds, as tender as hothouse plants, are, moreover, so nervous and ill-tempered that half of them kill their own chances thrashing about at the post. In the headlong dash to the finish — six or seven furlongs — a jockey or so may be killed, and the winner, all in, comes home a furlong ahead of the last horse. That may be racing, with modern improvements, but from a breeder’s point of view it does not stamp our running stock with the hall-mark of success.

Compare with the average plater, leggy or weedy, or tucked up in the flank, or crook-legged, or cat-hammed, with but here and there a saving good point, the Arab, compact yet generous of mold, formed equally for speed and strength, with deep swelling chest, length everywhere that length counts — in shoulders, quarters, arms — with, above all, the impression of power — power to work all this exquisite mechanism to the very limit of endurance. He is the best and biggest horse of his inches inthe world. His heart is in the right place, and is like his constitution, so stout that he can not only stay to the end, but come out to race day after day.

As I read it, the weediness, the ill temper, the lack of constitution, and conformation in our thoroughbreds mean just one thing — namely, that the old blood has run out. It needs renewing from the fountain-head — the strain that holds still all the vital vigor of sun and sand. Renewal will be a work of time and patience. Arab stallions will not get Futurity winners, nor Derby horses, hardly even four-milers, from thoroughbred dams, neither will Arab mares throw them to the most distinguished cover. But who can say what may not come from the sons and daughters of half blood? They who seek it may still find in the desert the blood of Darley’s Arabian; other horses, Ku-hai-lan, of the Ras el Redawa, may be bought for a price from the tribe of Ae-ni-za. If they shall be brought out, and their blood liberally infused through the thoroughbreds, it is my judgment that we shall see a big percentage of each year’s colts credits to the turf and their breeders, instead of, as now, discredits to both.