The Ancient Arabian Horse


from The Arabian Horse News Sept. 1975

Editor’s Note: The following material was taken from The Horse by William Youatt, published in 1888. Often times today our perspective gets a bit distorted as to what the Arabian was like 100 years ago and as to what was known of its history at that time.


Although modern Europe owes so much to Arabia for the improvement in her breed of horses, it may be doubted whether these animals were found in that country as a matter of merchandise, or indeed existed there at all in large numbers in very early times. The author of the book of Job, in describing the wealth of that patriarch, who was a native of Arabia, and the richest man of his time, makes no mention of horses, although the writer shows himself very conversant with that animal. Five hundred years after that, Soloman imported spices, gold, and silver, from Arabia; but we are told in Chronicles, all the horses for his own cavalry and chariots, and those with which he supplied the Phoenician monarchs, he procured form Egypt.

There is a curious record of the commerce of different countries at the close of the second century. Among the articles exported from Egypt to Arabia, and particularly as presents to reigning monarchs, were horses.


In the fourth century, two hundred Cappadocian horses were sent by the Roman emperor as the most acceptable present he could offer a powerful prince of Arabia.


So late as the seventh century the Arabs had few horses, and those of little value; for when Mahomet attacked the Koreish near Mecca, he had but two horses in his whole army; and at the close of his murderous campaign, although he drove off twenty-four thousand camels and forty thousand sheep, and carried away twenty-four thousand ounces of silver, not one horse appears in the list of plunder.


These circumstances sufficiently prove that, however superior may be the present breed, it is comparatively lately that the horse was naturalised in Arabia. Indeed the Arabs do not deny this; for until within the last century, when their horses began to be so deservedly valued, they were content to limit their pedigree to one of the five on which Mahomet and his four immediate successors fled from Mecca to Medina on the night of the Hegira.

Although in the seventh century the Arabs had no horses of value, yet those which they had derived from their neighbours began then to be preserved with so much care, and propagated so uniformly and strictly from the finest of the breed, that in the thirteenth century the Arabian horse began to assume a just and unrivalled celebrity.            There are now said to be three breeds or varieties of Arabian horses: the Attechi, or inferior breed, on which the natives set little value, and which are found wild on some parts of the deserts; the Kadischi, literally horses of an unknown race, answering to our half-bred horses – a mixed breed; and the Kochlani, horses whose genealogy, according to the modern exaggerated accounts, has been cultivated during two thousand years. Many written and attested pedigrees extend, with true Eastern exaggeration, to the stud of Solomon. The Kochlani are principally reared by the Bedouin Arabs in the remote deserts. A stallion may be procured without much difficulty, although at a great price. The Arabs imagine that the female is more concerned than the male in the excellence and value of the produce, and the genealogies of their horses are always traced through the dam.

The Arab horse would not be acknowledged by every judge to possess a perfect form. The head, however (like that which is delineated in the title-page), is inimitable. The broadness and squareness of the forehead; the smallness of the ears; the prominence and brilliancy of the eye; the shortness and fineness of the muzzle; the width of the nostril; the thinness of the lower jaw, and the beautifully developed course of the veins, – will always characterise the head of the Arabian horse. The cut in the title-page is the portrait of the head of a black Arabian presented to William IV. by the Imaum of Muscat. It is a close and honest likeness. The muzzle, the nostrils, and the eye, are inimitable. In the sale of the Hampton Court stud, in 1837, this animal realised 580 guineas; it was bought for the King of Wurtemburg, and was highly prized in Germany.


The body of the Arab may, perhaps, be considered as too light, and his chest too narrow; but behind the arms the barrel generally swells out, and leaves sufficient room for the play of the lungs. This is well exhibited in the cut of the grey Arabian mare, whose portrait is here given. she is far inferior to the black one in the peculiar development of the head and neck, but in other respects affords a more faithful specimen of the true form of the Arabian horse. She is of the purest caste, and was a present from the same potentate by whom the black Arabian was given. The foal at her foot was by Acteon. She was sold for 100 guineas only. Perhaps her colour was against her. Her flea-bitten appearance would not please every one. The foal, which had more than the usual clumsiness, belonging to the youngster, sold for 58 guineas.

The neck of the Arabian is long and arched, and beautifully joined to the chest. The black horse in the frontispiece afforded a perfect specimen of this. In the formation of the shoulder, next to that of the head, the Arab is superior to any other breed. The withers are high, and the shoulder-blade has its proper inclination backwards. It is also thickly clothed with muscle, but without the slighest appearance of heaviness.            The fineness of his legs and the oblique position of the pasterns might be supposed by the uninitiated to lessen his apparent strength, but the leg, although small is deep, and composed of bone of the densest character. The tendons are sufficiently distinct from the bone, and the starting muscles of the fore-arm and the thigh indicate that he is fully capable of accomplishing many of the feats that are recorded of him.

As a faithful specimen of the general form of these horses, with perhaps a little deficiency in the head and neck, we refer once more to the following portrait of a bay Arabian – an animal of the purest cast, presented also by the Imaum of Muscat. It was sold for 410 guineas. The higher price that was given for the black Arabian proves that he was the general favourite; but the bay one, although not so striking in his figure was a stronger, a speedier, and a better horse.


The Barb alone excels the Arabian in noble and spirited action; but if there is a defect about the latter, he is perfect for that which he was designed. He presents the true combination of speed and bottom: strength enough to carry more than a light weight, and courage that would cause him to die rather than yield.


Mr. Burckhardt, in a letter to Professor Sewell, says that


    the tribes richest in horses are those who dwell during the spring of the year at least, in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia; for, notwithstanding all that is said of the desert horse, plenty of nutritious food is absolutely requisite for its reaching its full vigour and growth. The numerous tribes on the Red Sea, between Akaba and Mecca, and especially those to the south of Mecca, and as far as Yemen, have very few horses; but the Curdes and Bedouins in the east, and especially in Mesopotamia, possess more horses, and more valuable ones, than all of the Arabian Bedouins, for the richness of their pastures easily nourishes the colts, and fills their studs.’


These observations are very important, and are evidently founded on truth. He adds, that


    the number of horses in Arabia is not more than 50,000; a number far inferior to that found in any part of Europe, or Asia, on an equal extant of ground.’


    ‘During the Wahabee government, horses became scarcer every year among the Arabs. They were sold by their masters to foreign purchasers, who carried them to Yemen, Syria, and Bassora; which latter place supplies India with Arabian horses, because they were afraid of having them seized upon by the chiefs — having become the custom, upon every slight pretext of disobedience or crime, to declare the most valuable Bedouin mare forefeit to the public treasury.’


Syria is the best place to purchase true Arabian bloodhorses; and no district is superior to the Naurau, where the horse may be purchased from the first hand, and chosen in the very encampments of the Arabs themselves, who fill these plains in the spring. The horses bought at Bassora for the Indian markets are purchased, second-hand from Bedouin dealers. These procure them from the Montifell Arabs, who are not careful in maintaining a pure breed. Damascus would be the best residence for a person constantly employed in this trade.


While the number of horses generally is much smaller than had been supposed, there are comparatively fewer of those of perfect quality and beauty, — perhaps not more than five or six in a whole tribe; probably not two hundred in the whole desert. Each of these in the desert itself may be worth from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds; but very few, if any, of these have ever found their way to Europe.


There has, however, been much exaggeration with regard to these pedigrees. Burckhardt says, that in the interior of the desert, the Bedouins never make use of any, because, among themselves, they know the genealogy of their horse almost as well as that of their own families; but if they carry their horses to any distance, as to Bassora, Bagdat, or Damascus, they take care to have a written pedigree made out, in order to present it to the purchaser. In that case only would a Bedouin be found possessed of his horse’s pedigree. He would laugh at it in the desert.


The Kochlani are principally reared by the Bedouin Arabs in the remoter deserts. One of them was sold at Acre for the sum of fifteen thousand piastres.


It is an error into which almost every writer on the history of the horse has fallen, that the Arabian is bred in the arid deserts, and owes the power of endurance which he possesses in his adult state to the hardships which he endured while he was a colt. The real fact is, that the Arabs select for their breeding-places some of those delightful spots, known only in countries like these, where, though all may be dry and barren around, there is pasture unrivalled for its succulence and its nutritious or aromatic properties. The powers of the young animal are afterwards developed, as they alone could be, by the mingled influence of plentiful and healthy food, and sufficient, but not, except in one day of trial, cruel exercise.


The most extraordinary care is taken to preserve the purity of the breed. Burckhardt states that the favourite mare of Savud the Wahabee, which he constantly rode in all his expeditions, and was known in every part of Arabia, produced a colt of very superior beauty and promise, and it grew to be the finest stallion of his day. Savud, however, would never permit him to be used for the purposes of breeding, because his mother was not of pure blood; and not knowing what to do with him, as the Bedouins never ride stallions, he sent him as a present to the scheriff.


The parentage and birth of the foal are carefully recorded by competent witnesses, whose certificate includes the marks of the colt, and the names of the sire and dam.


The colt is never allowed to fall on the ground at the period of birth, but is caught in the arms of those who stand by, and washed and caressed as though it was an infant. The mare and her foal inhabit the same tent with the Bedouin and his children. The neck of the mare is often the pillow of the rider, and more frequently, of the children, who are rolling about upon her and the foal. No accident ever occurs, and the animal acquires that friendship and love for man which occasional ill-treatment will not cause her a moment to forget.


At the end of a month the foal is weaned, and is fed on camel’s milk for one hundred days. At the expiration of that period, a little wheat is allowed; and by degrees that quantity is increased, the milk continuing to be the principal food. This mode of feeding continues another hundred days, when the foal is permitted to graze in the neighbourhood of the tent. Barley is also given; and to this some camel’s milk is added in the evening, if the Arab can afford it. By these means the Arab horse becomes as decidedly characterised for his docility and good temper, as for his speed and courage. The kindness with which he is treated from the time of his being foaled, gives him an affection for his master, a wish to please, a pride in exerting every energy in obedience to his commands, and, consequently, an apparent sagacity which is seldom found in other breeds. In that delightful book, Bishop Heber’s ‘Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India,’ the following interesting character is given of him: —


    ‘My morning rides are very pleasent. My horse is a nice, quiet, good-tempered little Arab, who is so fearless, that he goes without starting close to an elephant, adn so gentle and docile that he eats bread out of my hand, and has almost as much attachment and coaxing ways as a dog. This seems the general character of the Arab horses, to judge from what I have seen in this country. It is not the fiery dashing animal I had supposed, but with more rationality about him, and more apparent confidence in his rider than the majority of English horses.’


When the Arab falls from his mare, and is unable to rise, she will immediately stand still, and neigh until assistance arrives. If he lies down to sleep, as fatigue sometimes compels him in the midst of the desert, she stands watchful over him, and neighs and arouses him if either man or beast approaches. The Arab horses are taught to rest occasionally in a standing position; and a great many of them never lie down.


The Arab loves his horse as truly and as much as the horse loves him; and no little portion of his time is often spent in talking to him and caressing him.


An old Arab had a valuable mare that had carried him for fifteen years in many a rapid weary march, and many a hard-fought battle; at length, eighty years old, and unable longer to ride her, he gave her, and a scimitar that had been his father’s, to his eldest son, and told him to appreciate their value, and never lie down to rest until he had rubbed them both as bright as a mirror. In the first skirmish in which the young man was engaged, he was killed, and the mare fell into the hands of the enemy. When the news reached the old man, he exclaimed that ‘life was no longer worth preserving, for he had lost both his son and his mare, and he grieved for one as much as the other.’ He immediately sickened and soon afterwards died.


The following anecdote of the attachment of an Arab to his mare has often been told: —


    • “To whom is it, ” said he, “I am going to yield thee up? To Europeans, who will tie thee close, — who will beat thee, — who will render thee miserable. Return with me, my beauty, my jewel, and rejoice the hearts of my children.”


  • ‘The whole stock of an Arab of the desert consisted of a mare. The French consul offered to purchase her in order to send her to his sovereign, Louis XIV. The Arab would have rejected the proposal, but he was miserably poor; he had scarcely a rag to cover him, and his wife and children were starving. the sum offered was great, — it would provide him and his family with food for life. at length, and reluctantly, he yielded. He brought the mare to the dwelling of the consul, dismounted and stood leaning upon her; he looked now at the gold, and then at his favorite.


    As he pronounced the last words, he sprung upon her back, and was presently out of sight.’


One of our own countrymen, the enterprising traveller, Major Denham, affords us a pleasing instance of the attachment with which the docility and sagacity of this animal may inspire the owner. He thus relates the death of his favourite Arabian, in one of the most desert spots of Central Africa. His feelings needed no apology; we naturally honour the man in whom true sensibility and undaunted courage, exerted for useful purposes, were thus united: –


    ‘There are a few situations in a man’s life in which losses of this nature are felt most keenly; and this was one of them. It was not grief, but it was something very nearly approaching to it; and though I felt ashamed of the degrees of derangement I suffered from it, yet it was several days before I could get over the the loss. Let it, however, be remembered, that the poor animal had been my support and comfort, — nay, I may say, companion, through many a dreary day and night; — had endured both hunger and thirst in my service; and was so dicile, that he would stand still for hours in the desert while I slept between his legs, his body affording the only shelter that could be obtained from the powerful influence of the noonday sun; he was yet the fleetest of the fleet, and ever foremost in the chase.’


Man, however, is an inconsistent being. The Arab who thus lives with and loves his horses, regarding them as his most valuable treasure, sometimes treats them with a cruelty scarcely to be credited. The severest treatment which the English race-horse endures is gentleness compared with the trial of the young Arabian. Probably the filly has never before been mounted. Her owner springs on her back, and goads her over the sands and rocks of the desert for fifty or sixty miles without one moment’s respite. She is then forced, steaming and panting, into water deep enough for her to swim. If, immediately after this, she will eat as if nothing had occurred, her character is established, and she is acknowledged to be a genuine descendent of the Kochlani breed. The Arab does not think of the cruelty which he thus inflicts; he only follows an invariable custom.


We may not perhaps believe all that is told us of the speed and endurance of the Arabian. It has been remarked, that there are on the deserts which this horse traverses no mile-stones to mark the distance, or watches to calculate the time; and that the Bedouin is naturally given to exaggeration, and most of all, when relating the prowess of the animal that he loves as dearly as his children: yet it cannot be denied that, at the introduction of the Arabian into the European stables, there was no horse comparable to him. The mare in her native deserts, will travel fifty miles without stopping; she has been urged to the almost incredible distance of one hundred and twenty miles, and occasionally, neither she nor her rider has tasted food for three whole days.


Our horses would fare badly on the scanty nourishment afforded the Arabians. The mare usually has but two meals in twenty-four hours. During the day she is tied to the door of the tent, ready for the Bedouin to spring, at a moment’s warning, into the saddle; or she is turned out before the tent ready saddled, the bridle being merely taken off, and she is so trained that she immediately gallops up at her master’s call. At night she receives a little water; and with her scanty provender of five or six pounds of barley or beans, and sometimes a little straw, she lies down content, if she is accustomed to lie down at all, in the midst of her master’s family.


Burckhardt relates a story of the speed and endurance of one of them, and shows with what feelings an Arab regards his quadruped friend: —


    “A troop of Druses on horseback attacked, in the summer of 1815, a party of Bedouins, and pursued them to their encampment; the Bedouins were then assisted by a superior force, and becoming the assailants in their turn, killed all the Druses excepting one who fled. He was pursued by some of the best mounted Bedouins, but his mare, although fatigued, could not be overtaken. Before his pursuers gave up the chase, they called to him, and begged to be permitted to kiss his excellent mare, promising him safe conduct for her sake. He might have taken them at their word, for the pledge of an Arab, is such circumstances, might have been relied on: he however refused. They immediately left the pursuit, and blessing the noble beast, cried out to the fugitive. “Go and wash the feet of your mare and drink off the water.” This expression is often used by the Bedouins to show the regard they have for their mares.


A periodical writer in the ‘Sportsman,’ on what authority is not stated, but he is right in most of the particulars if not in all of them, says, that making the comparative excellence of the different races, Nejed, between the desert of Syria and Yemen, and now in the possession of the Wahabis, is generally reckoned to produce the grandest, noblest horses. Hejaz (extending along the Red Sea, from Mount Sinai to Yemen, and including in it Medina and Mecca) the handsomest; Yeman (on the coast of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the most fertile part of Arabia) the most durable; Syria the richest in colour; Mesopotamia the most quiet; Egypt the swiftest; Barbary the most prolific; and Persia in Koordistan the most warlike.