The Bedouin of Arabia and His Horse: from Upton’s Gleanings from the Desert of Arabia


Excerpts from Upton’s Gleanings from the Desert of Arabia compiled by Jeanne Craver used by permission of Jeanne Craver

AL KHAMSA is an organization of people devoted to furthering the survival of the asil* horse of Bedouin Arabia by means of education and research in a social climate which draws the owners and admirers of such horses together in a friendly and cooperative way.”

The following list of migratory, horse-breeding tribes of Bedouins have provided the ancestors of AL KHAMSA ARABIANS: The Anazah confederation, consisting of the Amarat, the Fid’an, the Ruala, the Saba, the Wuld Ali, the Wuld Sulayman; the Shammar (northern and southern branches), the Ajman, the Atayban, the Banu Hajr, the Banu Khalid, the Dhafir, the Dawasir, the Muntifiq, the Muteyr, the Qahtan.


These two quotes from the reference book Al Khamsa Arabians, pages 8 and 16 respectively, bring up the questions: Just who were these migrating, horse-breeding tribes of Bedouins? and why, if there were “Arabian horses” all over the middle east, does Al Khamsa list these tribes as sources of their horses? To present some answers to these questions, we turn to Maj. R.D.Upton, who, in his Gleanings, gives us one of the best accounts, although certainly not the only one available, of these people and their horses. Written about Upton’s journey to Arabia in 1875, Gleanings was originally published in 1881. Upton had passed away earlier in the year, and perhaps for that reason, only a very small printing was made, and it has been very difficult to find a copy of this valuable book. Fortunately, Olms Presse, Hildesheim, West Germany, has reprinted this important work and it is available in paperback form at very reasonable cost.

Excerpts from Upton, Maj. R.D.: Gleanings from the Desert of Arabia, originally by C.Kegan Paul & Co., I, Paternoster Square, London, 1881, reprinted by Olms Presse, 1985, Hildesheim, Zurich, New York.

THE PEOPLE pp. 205-211:

“The Badaween of Arabia are neither savages nor barbarians…they are not poor, miserable outcasts…The tribes of Badaween are very numerous, some poorer, some very rich and powerful; collectively they are a great, free, rich, pastoral, and at the same time a warlike people, and have no exact parallel in history. The Badaween have laws of their own, a traditional code of morality strictly kept, a policy as between tribe and tribe, and a system of government in each tribe, and alliances, which are faithfully observed. Besides single tribes, small or great, each under the guidance and rule of its own Shaykh, there are confederations of tribes, over which the Shaykh of one particular tribe holds, to a considerable extent, great influence, if not actually supreme authority. Such a Shaykh can summon the others to councils for deliberation, or collect the tribes of the confederation for war.

“There are many families which have become so numerous or important that they constitute tribes within their own parent tribe; some of these have separated from the parent tribe and formed confederations; yet, after the lapse of generations, intercourse and alliances with their ancestral people are kept up. “… among some tribes and confederations there is perpetual and hereditary hostility; such, for instance, exists to only between the whole race of Anazah and the Shammar Arabs, but between every individual Anazah and Shammar Arab. Some tribes which are less powerful, especially those who are to some extent located in the northern parts of the desert, ally themselves with greater tribes…By this arrangement the weak tribes have the benefit and right of protection when attacked by tribes hostile to the protecting tribe …

“The Badawee, although free and independent in thought and action, and ill brooking restraint, has great respect for his laws. When the Shaykh enters his tent, where scores of his people may be collected (they look upon the Shaykh’s tent as a kind upon being told by him to do so. When he is once seated, he rarely rises to received any one. I heard that a singular exception to this custom exists, and that the mark of respect of rising is usually shown to the possessor of any celebrated mare, when such a one enters the tent of the Shaykh…The real armour of the Badaween horseman, offensive and defensive, is the speed of his mare.

“The office of Shaykh is not hereditary … but is usually held for life. When a Shaykh dies, his heir may be set aside, and the most worthy or popular man in the tribe appointed his successor; it is generally some member of the late Shaykh’s family … A Shaykh is generally a wealthy man, so that he may be able to exercise hospitality to strangers, and help or maintain the poor of his tribe … In certain tribes there are persons of acknowledged penetration in legal matters, and such, by common consent, are allowed to act as judges…

“The Akeed is the military leader of a tribe; he is also elected for life by popular vote. The two chiefs, the Shaykh and Akeed, rule in turn, as their tribe amy be at peace or war. But there are instances of both offices being vested in the same person, as in the case of … Jadaan ibn Mahaid of the Fadan (Anazah)

“… The Badaween … are not naturally aggressive, but wonderfully tenacious, and, except under the influence of great excitement — such as was the case after the death of Mohammed… — the Badaween are more inclined to hold their own than to become a dominating race…Their intelligence is undeniable, their perception quick, their imagination lively, their wit keen…

“The Badaween, for the convenience of description only, may be divided into three classes: those who migrate but little, and are to be found in the desert bordering upon Yaman, Hijaz, Palestine and Syria, and along the right bank of the Euphrates; those who have crossed the Euphrates; and those who migrate or roam all over the deserts. To those who migrate but little must be added the Badaween of the Najd and central province of Arabia.”

pp. 246-249:

“All Badaween as a rule, are free from many of the maladies incident to settled populations, whether civilized or uncivilized; their habits, their mode of life, their exclusion from other nations and people, the absence of illicit connections, all tend to keep them sound and healthy, and marrying among their own people preserves not only the purity of their race, but by it their characteristics are retained. The customs observed among all Badaween are even more rigidly kept among the Anazah; they are more exclusive, more conservative. .. the Arabs, and especially the Badaween tribes of the desert, require to be understood (which at present they are not) before attempting to interfere with them… Faults they may have, both many and great — what people has not? — but they have many and great virtues, and are of a noble and generous character. Let it be remembered that for centuries their worst features have been called forth and noised abroad, their excellences have been hid among themselves in the desert. Not only this, but the crimes and faults of other nationalities have been heaped upon their heads; for in the ignorance which has existed in Europe among highly civilized communities, Arabs have been confusedly mixed up and classed with Turks and other races and peoples of the East in general, which are not well known, or may possess the religion, not of Islam, but what passes for it generally.”

THE ARABIAN BREED pp. 269-272:

“The term ‘Arabian horse’ expresses a breed or race in a restricted sense — the horse of the Arabs. Horses of other countries cannot be defined in the same manner… but among the tribes of the desert of Arabia, the Arabian is the only horse. He is one by himself…What general knowledge there may be of the Arabian horse has been, for the greater part, acquired from horses in India, Syria, and Egypt, or from horses occasionally sent to this country as presents from Constantinople or elsewhere – indeed, from horses, or accounts of them, from very many countries, districts, and peoples, rather than from actual acquaintance with the horses of Arabia, and more especially with those tribes of the interior desert, who have the best horses …

“Horses are not numerous in Arabia, certainly not in proportion to the size and extent of the country, and the supply, I consider, is not greater than to meet the demand of the country. There are many parts of Arabia in which the horse is rarely, and perhaps some in which he is never seen. Although of Arabia alone, the Arabian horse may be said to belong rather to certain families or tribes in the desert of Arabia, than to the country or people at large.”

pp 353-354:

“Allusion has been made by certain authors to ‘studs’ in Arabia. This may cause misapprehension, as it is inferred that there are different breeds of Arabians, and that these breeds have their several and separate localities. I never heard of any such existing, unless, indeed, the system of collecting and breeding horses in Erack by the people who supply the Indian market, can be considered in the light of a breeding stud. The Imam of Muscat, the family of Ibn Sawood at Riad, and the Sherif of Mekka have private establishments of horses, but these are more or less supplied or replenished by horses from the desert tribes. In the desert, and in certain portions of the Badaween race, lies the real home of the Arabian horse, and this is especially so in the case of particular tribes of the great Anazah family. In Arabia itself, among the Badaween, the horse is indigenous. A variety of different breeds are not to be found there; the Keheilan is the only horse. The Keheilan is to be found in such tribes as have horses. In some tribes there are very few, the Shaykhs and leading men being the only ones possessed of horses — a mule or two each, and perhaps a horse for the use of the camp or tribe. It is in certain particular tribes of the Anazah race that horses are chiefly reared and to be found; these are the property of private individuals, and a poor man, or a poor family, may often have the best. It by no means follows as a matter of course that the Shaykh of a tribe has the best mares…”

pp. 272-275:

“In certain towns…Arabian horses may be found in the possession of families or persons of good social standing, or of officials of high rank; but these, for the most part, are acquired from the neighboring deserts … That horses are to be found in a wild state in the deserts of Arabia is a fallacy. I never heard of such a thing hinted at in the desert.

“In the whole of Arabia, the Anazah, a great race of Badaween, dating back to remote antiquity, composed of many tribes…the most powerful, the most important in the country, have the best horses. This is by the general consent of all Arabs, and of all conversant with the subject. Another general impression, urged by several writers, that there are many breeds of Arabian, has, I suspect, arisen from mistaking the various distinguishing names of strains of the same blood for separate or distinct breeds. Such are often only the names of owners, and some have been given or added from some feature or incident which caused an animal to be peculiar, or which had rendered him or herself famous, and which names are applied to the offspring generation after generation…

“I consider there was but one breed or race of horses in Arabia, i.e. the Arabian horse, so called from the country, or, with more truth, from being the horse of the Arabs, is of one origin, and was derived from several later varieties of the horse family.

‘The Arabian horse is of the Kuhl race. Keheilan is the generic name of the Kuhl or Arabian breed of horses. Thus a true Arabian horse is a Keheilan, and a mare a Keheilet — fem.”

THE HORSE pp. 330-343:

“In the Keheilan or genuine Arabian horse (speaking in general terms from seeing a number of horses and mares at one time), setting on one side what may be called their great personal beauty, you are at once struck by the general appearance of character, of blood or high breeding — which features are very conspicuous — and their great general >length. ‘What reach, what stride these horses must have! They are natural born racers,’ we both exclaimed at once. (Ed. Upton was joined on this trip to Saba Anazah by Mr. Skene, at that time HM Consul in Aleppo. Mr. Skene later helped the Blunts decide to begin their Crabbet stud.) One is equally struck by the perfectly natural appearance of the Keheilan: he presents in his form of undisturbed structure the evidence of his origin from an uncontaminated stock, in the same manner as do lions, tigers, and other animals which have been left undisturbed in a free and natural state and have not come under the destructive influence of man…

“The head is very beautiful — not only pleasing to the eye in its graceful outline, but beautiful from its grand development of the sensorial organ, and the delicacy of such parts as are more subservient. It is not particularly small or short in its whole length, in proportion to the size or height of the horse, but it is large above the eyes, small and short from the eyes to the muzzle. The centre of the eye more nearly divides the length of the head into equal parts than is observable in other horses…The head of the horse of the Anazah especially tapers very much from the eyes to the muzzle, and the lower jaw does so equally or even in a greater degree to the under lip, and if these lines were prolonged, they would meet or cut each other at a short distance only beyond the tips of the nose. The nostril, which is peculiarly long, not round, runs upwards towards the face, and is also set up outwards from the nose like the mouth of a pouch or sack which has been tied. This is very beautiful feature, and can hardly be appreciated except by sight; when it expands, it opens both upwards and outwards, and in profile is seen to extend beyond the outline of the nose, and when the animal is excited the head of this description appears to be made up of forehead, eyes, and nostrils…

“The frontal and parietal bones, or walls of the skull above, are large, bold, well developed, and often prominent. The brain cavity is capacious, giving an appearance and power almost human. The nasal bones, on the other hand, are fine and subservient to the frontal, and of a delicate and graceful outline. The orbits of the eye are large and prominent; the eye is full, large, and lustrous. It is very beautiful; the beauty is not so much dependent upon the size of the eye visible through the eyelids, as it is derived from its depth and expression. The part of the eyeball seen between the eyelids may not be so large as is often to be seen in other horses, but it is very full; standing on one side of the animal, and a little behind, the fulness of the ball and its prominence are very observable, and when the animal is excited the eye displays much fire, but it is seldom that any of the white is seen. The lids are particularly fine, the eyelashes long and silky. The face is lean and full of fine drawing. The muzzle is particularly fine; the lips long and thin (not fleshy); the upper lip well cut or chiselled; the lower lip small, well formed, compressed, and terse. The nostril in a state of repose is very long, beautifully curled, delicate, and thin: when the horse is in action or excited, the nostril opens very wide, and gives a bold, square, sharp and vigorous expression; the lower jaws are fine, clean, and set wide apart; the cheek-bones are sharply cut; the ears are beautifully shaped, pointed, and well placed, and point inwards in a marked and peculiar manner, which is considered a point of great beauty, and a great sign of high or pure breeding. The neck is of moderate length, and of a graceful curve or gently arch from the poll to the withers; it is neither a light, weak neck, nor a heavy neck, but it is a strong, light, and muscular neck, with the splenius muscle well developed. The junction of the head and neck is very graceful; the head is well set on. The withers are high and run well back, are well developed and not too narrow or thin. The back is short; the loins are powerful, the croup high, the haunch very fine, the tail well set on, and the dock short. The quarters are both long and deep; the gaskins sufficiently full and muscular without being heavy, ponderous, or vulgar; the thighs are well let down; the hocks are clean, large, well formed, well placed, and near the ground. The shoulders are long and powerful, well developed, but light at the points; the scapulae are long and of a good slope, and broad at the base. The arms are long, lean, and muscular; deep square and deep; the trapezium, or bone at the back of the knee, is very prominent. The legs are short, deep, and of fair-sized bone; the tendons and ligaments large and well strung. The fetlock-joint is large and bold; the pasterns are long, large, sloping, very elastic, and strong; the feet wide and open at the heels, and not very high in the desert. The chest is both deep and capacious…His body, or trunk, behind the chest is small, but formed like a barrel. He is essentially short above, but long below…The skin is fine; the hair is short, soft, and silky: the skin is seen through the hairs to a greater degree than in other horses. The mane and tail are long, and hair often very fine. The whole of the hinder parts, from the haunch to the heels, taken collectively or in detail, show great length. there is also a width of haunch noticeable indeed not only in the horses of the Anazah, but in most desert-bred Arabians in so marked a degree as to be almost a distinguishing feature…

“The Arabs are very particular with regard to three points in connection with the head of their horse: the Jibbah, or forehead; the Mitbeh, or form of the throat at its junction with the head; and the shape, size, direction, and attitude of the ears.

“The Jibbah, or forehead, can scarcely be too large or too prominent to please an Arab… The shape of the Jibbah in which the Arab delights, gives a large brain cavity, adds greatly to the beauty of the head, and gives an expression of great nobility…The Mitbeh is a term used to express the manner in which the head is set on to the neck, and especially refers to the form of the windpipe, and to the manner in which the throat enters or runs in between the jaws, where it should have a slight and graceful curve…This, of course, gives great freedom to the air passages: and the Keheilan is essentially a deep-breathed and a good and longwinded horse.

“The ears to be perfect should be so placed that they point inwards, so that the tips may almost touch; the outline of the inner side of the ear should be much curved, and, as it were, notched about halfway down. In the horse the ears are generally smaller and more pricked; in the mare they are usually rather longer and more open…

“It is not uncommon for Arab horses to stand back, more or less, at the knees. Many are stag-legged, in fact. There is no prejudice among the Arabs against such a formation; many do not like it in England…All desert-bred Arabs, at least, have a long, striding, free walk. When trotting…the hind legs of the Arabian appear to be, and often may be, too long, and there is too much reach for a pleasant trotting pace; yet with good riding, some will trot grandly: but it is far more labor to the Arabian than galloping, who from the present length of the hind extremities, and his reach, is essentially a galloper by nature…

“In height…the Anazah horse ranges from about fourteen hands one inch and a half to fifteen hands, but generally just under the latter height. We remarked that we did not see any that we thought as low as fourteen hands, or even, perhaps, fourteen hands one inch; some we measured proved to be fourteen hands three inches, which is a very general height; and several would be found, I have no doubt, quite fifteen hands. The height hardly varies a hand.”