by W. Michael Briggs Jr.
Today, in spite of and perhaps in reaction to all the promotional noise about million dollar horses, there is a very real swell of concern for the preservation of the original qualities of the true horse of the desert.
In an industry that values image above substance and dollars above quality, the Arabian horse handed to us by the foundation breeders is in real danger of being lost forever.
One only needs to read one issue of the Express, cover to cover, to realize that many voices from all aspects of Arabian ownership are calling for a return to sanity.
Much of the problem, of course, is that the business-oriented section of the Arabian community has at its disposal enormous amounts of money for marketing, simply swamping the existence of alternative approaches to the breeding and use of Arabians.
And yet, in spite of a lack of coordinated effort, the idea of an old-fashioned Arabian horse, with all its traditional Bedouin values intact, refused to go away.
The Davenport Arabian, whose mere existence is a miracle, seems to have been given to us for just this time in our history when they may finally be appreciated for what they are, one of the truest sources of authentic desert qualities available in the world today, qualities that when lost are sorely missed by all those who are in true sympathy with real Arabian horses.
Understanding the authentic horse of Arabia is not difficult. A number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century visitors wrote of what they found. Palgrave, Doughty, Blunt, Tweedie, Davenport, Brown and Raswan were the best known and each made a contribution.
Doughty, however, was the only one to live with the Bedu for any length of time (1877-1878). His reputation for accuracy and thoroughness is unparalleled among scholars.
In Travels in Deserta Arabia, he noted that the Bedu cared not if his mare was blemished but only that she meet three criteria: that she be “of the blood,” that she be productive and that she be good as a raider.
The absence of any one of these three meant that she was disposed of since people living on the edge of starvation most of the year could accept no less.
Later, Doughty tells us of a mare “of the blood” who was denied water and allowed to die of thirst immediately after giving birth to a filly, leaving us to assume that she was no longer capable of protecting camel herds.
This is not the time to discuss the parameters concerning “of the blood.” T.E. Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, writes of a land of strong contrast in which subtle shadings of meaning were unknown, a land of black and white and little grey.
We must accept, however foreign to our way of thinking, that this phrase meant just what it says, that some horses were acceptable for breeding and some were not.
Reproductive capacity is easy enough for us if somewhat harsher then than now, although nineteenth-century Arab mares were destroyed when their reproductive days were thought to be over.
I wonder though how many modern Arabians would be capable on a raid in the wasteland of Arabia. Some certainly, perhaps a great number, but it is hard to tell.
We do know this: The terrain over which they roamed was not level, sandy dunes but very uneven, rocky conditions in which agility, stamina and courage were absolute necessities.
One need only attempt to picture a modern show horse in those circumstances to realize how far we have come in “improving” the Arabian horse out of existence.
We may have no need for a raiding horse in this modern age but genetics has taught us that when you change one aspect of an organism, you invariably change other factors without being aware of it.
By changing the overall structure of the ancient horse, we also change him internally, mainly in his ability to interact with man—perhaps his most vaunted and valued characteristic.
Davenport horses are not perfect; no single breeding group is. And, like all groups, there may be good, better and outstanding individuals.
The heads are not coarse, however, but exceedingly lovely, with delicate ears, magnificent eyes and almost perfect nostrils.
From the front, they are everything anyone could ever want. The necks, rarely short, exhibit both upright and more horizontal carriage, typical of the strain characteristics of their ancestors. Their apparent heaviness comes from an enormous windpipe which culminates in a normally very clean throatlatch.
Their toplines can be surprisingly good, with very long hips and croups, and high tail sets. Legs are exceptionally clean, possessing outstanding joints both front and rear. The horses are of generally good size with the smaller ones possessing compensating carriage.
But where the horses really excel is in their superb overall balance. Horsemen from outside the Arabian community have been uniformly impressed with the Davenports as horses, commenting on their harmony of proportions.
The agility so necessary for the Bedu mare comes first from balanced proportions. But real agility needs three other things as well: flexibility, a lower center of gravity and the love of the hunt, courage.
Flexibility seems to exist independently of other factors. A heavily muscled horse, even one appearing very solid all over, may be able to use his body every bit as well as one that is much finer.
Sometimes it is thought that movement involves only legs and shoulders but this is simply not true. A significant trait of Davenport horses is the way they use their whole body, especially their backs when they move freely and under saddle.
The overall impression is one of extreme freedom, sometimes almost catlike. When coupled with exceptional balance, the result is obvious.
Concerning center of gravity, the current trend toward “jack ‘em up and stretch ‘em out” changes the horses’ centers of gravity, making them more race type and causing the loss of quickness.
Horses with long heads and necks, especially those that set up dramatically high, have a center of gravity well to the front and above those that had to earn their way among the Bedu. Even Saqlawi mares with more upright carriages did not add extremely long necks that would have acted to destroy their ability to perform.
But horses with balance, flexibility and a lower center of gravity need courage to be the true Bedouin horse and here we must look to the eye for the answer.
Said Abdullah, the slave sent with Davenport to look after the horses, once commented that he did not understand why Americans evaluated horses by looking at their feet. If I were choosing a companion with whom I was going to trust my life crossing the desert, I would first start by looking into his eyes.
And the eyes of the Davenports are their crowning glory. Always black and deep, they divide into huge and oriental, or slanted. It is in the eye of your Arabian that you find a hint of its courage—of its love of the hunt—and no high-born mare of the desert lacked it.
Put those four elements together—balance, flexibility, center of gravity and courage—and you have a horse good in the raid, a true desert horse of Doughty and the Bedouin with whom he lived.
The real question, however, may not be the authenticity of the Davenport horses but its applicability in modern society. What use have we of a horse fit for raiding?
The neighbors seem to take a dim view when we start rounding up their cattle or lead an attack on the commuter train.
Has the modern world lost all room for this companion of man, renowned for so many centuries? Is he now only fit for leading the confined life of a show horse?
No, the answer is emphatically no! He has two vital roles to play for us still.
The first is to provide a source of desert characteristics for those breeders who wish not to lose them. Most of our domestic-bred Arabians are perfect candidates for a reinfusion of blood already present in their pedigrees.
Similarly, recent literature is beginning to recognize the contribution of the direct desert elements in the pedigree, notably of the Blunt desert imports in today’s Egyptians.
The second role is to remain a companion for those horsemen and women for whom their horse is a partner in their life, not a servant.
Making generalizations about the mental sensitivities of whole groups of horses is extremely hard to defend and very subjective, but just because a criteria is subjective does not mean it doesn’t exist.
Horses often seem private and therefore somewhat uniform in their behavior if we do not create an atmosphere of trust in which individual peculiarities are encouraged.
When that climate exists, we are treated to a world previously closed to us, a world containing a vast range of personalities which reconfirms that we are dealing with a creature who may have as much to teach us as we do him.
Perhaps the greatest sadness of a large Arabian business farm is the diminished opportunity for the kinds of exchanges between horse and human that so enrich our lives and make us even more human.
A few years ago, lobbying for advancement of the National Show Horse concept, a leader of the Arabian industry stated that all Arabian mares fall into one of three categories: those mares capable of producing a national champion prospect when bred to a national champion stallion, those mares incapable of producing national quality stock under the same conditions, and those mares who were so bad that they should never be bred to anything, i.e., “gelding quality” mares.
His recommendation was to forget the last group and breed those in the middle to Saddlebred stallions to produce half-Arabian show horses.
This follows perfectly well if your definition of quality revolves around show ring wins alone. But, if you allow for the possibility that there exist Arabian horses outside that group of show winners who exhibit desirable characteristics not found elsewhere, then that definition of quality no longer holds.
What is often overlooked by breeders impatient to “breed up” is that animals reproduce themselves most consistently when bred within their own type. If you want to breed the stretchier type of national halter horse, begin with a mare of that type. Otherwise the results will be mixed.
Instead of abandoning the middle group of mares to Saddlebred stallions, consider reinserting some desert characteristics back into their produce. Most of these mares are built more along the compact lines of the desert horse anyway.
An examination of their pedigrees shows that most of them have a solid foundation of Davenport on the bottom. Most people assume that each successive breeding represents improvement and thus never want to return to the lines of the past.
But an examination of the Davenport herd reveals that many of the qualities that are valued by the owners came originally from the Davenport elements and can be reinforced by a return thereto. When this has been tried the result has been successful, the Davenport stallions never overwhelming the mare but rather reinforcing her good qualities while providing some of their own.
Other pedigrees contain direct desert lines as well, notable the Egyptian, but certainly not limited to them alone. When you trace the pedigree of an Egyptian Arabian, you discover four elements, Abbas Pasha, Ali Pasha Sherif, Blunt and desert, with Blunt horses containing their own desert lines as well.
Nazeer’s pedigree contains non-Abbas Pasha/Ali Pasha Sherif desert line to the extent of 22 percent, an extremely significant percentage. Moreover, recent articles have pointed out the contribution of the Blunt desertbreds to the development of the Egyptian horses.
When Davenport stallions have been crossed with Egyptian-bred mares, the result has been to confirm that direct desert breeding has played a larger role in their development than previously suspected. Thus the Davenports represent an opportunity to return to a major source of desert characteristics, characteristics essential to other lines maintaining their current quality.
And, finally, a glimpse into those secret personalities that seem to contain so many opportunities for sharing.
There are so many: the stallion who was reluctant to be led across the stream and, when he was, stepped in exactly the same spots as his rider; the stallion who had been out in training and who, at his first show, stopped in his routine when he caught a glimpse of his owner; the stallion who loved human attention so much that he would remain, unhaltered, with young girls petting him in spite of a mare in full heat at the other side of the paddock.
Perhaps our favorite concerns taking a mare and her foal to the vet clinic in the middle of the winter. They arrived in the back of a stock trailer to find that the parking lot was a sheet of ice and that there was absolutely nowhere else to unload.
There was no way to take the mare off first and the fear was that, once the foal was off, the mare might slip on the ice. Patiently her owner explained to her what was to happen: the foal would come off first and she was to step off very gently.
The vet assistant just shook her head, thinking that these Arabian owners were strange indeed.
It happened just the way it had to. Quietly the foal came off. Then the mare gently placed one foot onto the ice followed by the other, never slipping a bit. The whole clinic agreed that they had never had a horse like that before.
It would be a real humiliation if we let horses like these disappear because they didn’t lead to some pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.