Long Live Al Khamsa

1991 copyright by Joyce Gregorian Hampshire
from Arabian Horse World July 1991

(Also included in this issue of the World was Joyce Gregorian Hampshire’s “extemporaneous” welcoming speech to the 1990 Al Khamsa convention. She died before she could edit it into written form. Charles and Jeanne Craver took on the project for her.)

SA ApogeeI want to give you, as best I can, some sense of what Al Khamsa is and what Al Khamsa isn’t. Because two directions of Al Khamsa horses have been published, there is sometimes a sense that we are a registry. This is not the case at all. Our group is primarily a fraternal and educational group. We like each other, and we like to talk about the horses which interest us.

Our work is to find out, through study, documentation and research, as much as we can about the Arabian horses of Bedouin origin as it exists today, or as its descendants exist today in the United States, and then to share this information with others.

I think it is important to understand that this is a very open group. You do not have to own an Al Khamsa horse to become an Al Khamsan. All you have to do is be interested in where the Arabian horse came from, what are its Bedouin roots, what was the Arabian horse before it reached the West, and how these concepts apply to the horses we have in North America today.

Like any special interest — an interest in a particular type of porcelain or china or painting or furniture – this is a little bit of a quixotic interest. To someone else, it may seem silly for a person who is only interested in the works of a particular 18th century cabinetmaker to go into raptures over a fragile table and ignore any number of nice, more modern pieces. In a way, that’s how most of us in Al Khamsa are. We will go into ecstasies over something which fit into what we are fascinated by, and be blind to many other beauties which surround us but which simply don’t happen to fit into our particular sphere of interest.

It’s important not to say that an Al Khamsa horse is better than another horse. Better for what? That’s not the point. The point is: which horses today still carry within them this antique lineage, this romantic connection with the horse of Arabia Deserta … the horse of the Bedouin?

There is a chapter in T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia) Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, first published in 1927 in a private edition, in which he tries to describe for Western readers how black and white everything is in the desert, that there are no shades of grey. That is how he phrased it. When you’re in the desert, it is just the sand and the sky and survival. “This is my well and if you drink from it you’re dead.” Everything is black and white.

Our culture’s closest connection with this attitude would be parts of the Old Testament, coming from the same type of Semitic background: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, this is right, this is wrong. The Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions.

Black and white is a very important part of how the desert-dwelling Bedouin saw life. A horse was pure or impure. I think to a Bedouin the concept of Egyptian-related or Al Khamsa-related would be a bit amusing. It makes good sense for us in our society, in the way we use horses. I use those terms all the time. I have my Al Khamsa horses, I have my Al Khamsa-related horses … that means something to me. It would mean nothing to a Bedouin except these are a bunch of impure horses whose mothers have been dishonored.

So when you get interested in the Al Khamsa horse, you begin to take on a bit of the black/white, yes/no, pure/impure attitude, and it’s quite a job to keep that attitude in its historical perspective: what you think or say or write about reflects the people and their practices which you are studying, not necessarily what you personally feel as a 20th century American, or how you use horses.

Fred Mimmack and Sergeant Major

Each Bedouin tribe had its own magic blend of bloodlines, it own strain, its own group of horses which, of course (in their view) were better than any other tribe’s group of horses. They were like secret weapons, faster than another tribe’s horses so that the tribe members could live to run away and raid another day.

When you read the commentary of travelers in the East regarding what can be learned from the Bedouins about horses, it’s often interesting to look between the lines. Basically, what these travelers learned was the whatever Bedouin tribe they were talking to bred the best, the fastest, the most enduring horses, and that was it. Because, after all, what were the Bedouins going to say: “We breed the sixth best horses in the desert?” Of course not.

The wonderful thing about studying Al Khamsa horses is that it gives you the vicarious pleasure of traveling through books, through other people’s words, through old photographs, through sketches and engravings, in a world which absolutely doesn’t exist anymore — a warrior-based society that had also a very gentle, very life-nurturing, very tender side — an oral culture full of epics and poetry, and a culture which raised, fortunately for us, the most exquisite horses the world has ever seen.

They didn’t look exquisite in their own setting and in raid condition, however. When you look at early photographs, those in the Raswan book, for instance, you see little racks of bones standing there with their heads down and their ears lopped to the side. How does national champion “so and so” possibly have any relationship with this poor little mare? But that poor little mare was probably pregnant, carrying a man into battle, galloping miles, getting water every third day if she was lucky, living, on a handful of dates. When she was taken out of that context, as travelers often found, and brushed more than twice in her lifetime, and given food and water, all of a sudden the beauty was there.

To the Bedouin eye, the beauty was always there. They knew. But they were seeing through a lens of practicality which we don’t have. We tend to want to see horses all plumped up and pretty and shiny … but it is the inner beauty of the desert horse that really shines through.

The reason that all Arabian horses are not Al Khamsa horses is that by definition, an Al Khamsa horse has to trace in every line of its pedigree back to the horse-raising Bedouin tribes of Arabia. For example, a vast proportion of our Al Khamsa horses are Egyptian, but it isn’t their being Egyptian that makes them Al Khamsa. It is the fact that the Egyptians got them from the Arabs. It is a quick and very useful piece of information to say that this is an Egyptian horse, but what makes it an Al Khamsa horse is that one step further back to the desert Arabs.

Zachary CF

In the West, we don’t see thing nearly as black and white as people living in the desert do. Our view of horse breeds in Europe and America is entirely different from the purity obsession of the horse-breeding Bedouin. We create types. We need something heavy to pull cannons — okay, you breed different things together and eventually you come up with something you may call a Hanoverian. It can pull cannons very nicely through the mud for the army. Later you discover it makes a tremendous sport horse too, if you’ve got the strength to ride it. It is a breed, but it’s made up of different good horses selected for their qualities to create that breed.

Thoroughbreds, which come very close to being as pure as the Arabian as a breed, are nevertheless based on a mysterious foundation of royal mares in England. Nobody is really quite sure what the royal mares were, but they were top-crossed with oriental sires, some of whom were Arabian, and some were from other eastern horse-breeding countries. Eventually, they were selected for speed, and the modern Thoroughbred emerged with its tremendous variation both in size and appearance; its one constant was that it was bred for tremendous speed at short distances.

Even the breeds that come closest to being pure in the Bedouin sense of the word are not immune to our tampering. The indigenous ponies which grow up in pockets of Europe of in Britain are, as far as we can tell, indigenous native breeds. In many cases they are much like prototypical wild horses in that they will all be the same color, with no markings. Even so, we can’t resist tampering with them — throw in an Arabian stallion for a couple of years to get them a little higher up on the leg or a little more this or that.

This is a very roundabout way of saying that Westerners have tended to treat the Arabian in exactly the same way. They knew that the Arabian was a good horse in many ways, that it had exceptional powers of endurance, that it was a very easy keeper. The fact that it was beautiful was a plus — people have always known that the breed was beautiful. But in fact Arabians were selected for their endurance, their easy keeping…the things that made a great light cavalry horse.

At one time, the British army resisted riding Arabs because they were too small … until the Indian campaigns taught them that all the big horses dropped dead at a certain point. It is a lot nicer to be on a small horse that is alive and still carrying you, than standing next to your big, impressive, dead horse!

So Arabs enjoyed a certain amount of use as officers’ mounts toward the end of the 19th century during some of the Eastern campaigns of the British army – but along with all the good qualities of the Arab horse, the one thing the West could never get past was that the horse was just too darn small. What are you going to do with a 14, 14.1, 14.2 hand horse? So what if it can carry 280 pounds of officer and equipment for thousands of miles, it’s still too small. From the very beginning, tinkering with the Arab blood and trying to produce an improved, Europeanized Arab horse was just something that was done.

The people bringing Arab blood into Europe and the first people bringing Arab blood into America were not thinking in terms of preserving the Bedouin horse. Their thought was that “whenever we need a Bedouin we can just zip back to the desert and get one.” They were trying to create, for their own purposes, an Arab horse which would be more Westernized.

The very first American Arabian stud book has a big section for the Americo-Arab, which was a cross between Arabian horses and descendants of a horse named Henry Clay, who was Randolph Huntington’s most admired horse. It’s reported that Henry Clay trotted something like 75 miles with five people in the buggy, and was perfectly fine and fit the next day. Sort of a prototypical Morgan type of trotting horse. Henry Clay’s blood crossed with the Arab was considered to make the perfect horse for the Americas.

The same kind of thing was going on in most European countries, and most countries that were importing Arab horses — where various kinds of horses were considered to be Arabs. We see this to this day. Schreyer’s beautiful paintings of Berbers in North Africa riding horses that are wearing North African harness and blinders — and all horses that are “Eastern” but not Arab — are constantly described as “The Bedouin on Horseback.” The Bedouin of Arabia was not a North African in a turban riding a horse with blinkers. The Bedouin of Arabia was the guy in the kaffiyeh riding a little mare with a chain around its nose. It’s a very specific thing we’re talking about.

But to the Westerners, all those Eastern horses were Arabs, the same way all those Eastern people were Arabs: an Egyptian was an Arab, a Moroccan was an Arab, all those people were Arabs, and their horses were Arabs. So we have a vast number of Arabian horses today which are wonderful horses, beautiful horses, have many fine qualities, but whose pedigrees are an incredibly complex mix of blood: blood which came from here, blood which came from there. Some of its Eastern but not Arab, and these are accepted today as Arabian horses, as they should be, because they are far more a breed than almost any other breed that exists in the world today … and within this context of purity and consistency, the Al Khamsa Arab selects horses that are pure by Bedouin standards, not by Western standards, not by European standards. Even a Bedouin would say, “This is an Asil horse, this is a pure horse.”

Levantine CF, Tantris CF, Pageant CFThose are the animals that we have become obsessed with, finding out where they are, are they still alive, do they have any offspring by appropriate mates? Then the lure of the collector inevitably takes things to the point of ridiculousness. It’s not enough that two Al Khamsa horses be bred together, but they must come from the same strain, the same background, the same Arab tribe. We create breeding programs.

For the newcomer, especially, it’s nice to know that there is tremendous room within this definition of Al Khamsa for complete creativity in establishing a program. Fortunately, we have in this very small percentage of all living Arabs today, a very wide range of foundation stock coming at different times from different parts of the desert, which have been bred together over the years in different patterns. Some of these are fairly easy to describe, some you really have to study in more detail. Some have very obvious practical reasons for breeding together right away; some you are breeding for something down the line, four or five generations away…

Today, the Arabian horse is seen as boom and bust. Prices were driven up, up, up for a number of unpleasant and venal reasons, none of which had absolutely anything to do with the value of the horse or its well-being. When this artificial market broke, the poor commodity was blamed. In fact, the horse is the innocent bystander. It had nothing to do with the human factors that drove the prices up. Poor thing, it was just being a good horse.