The Arab: the Horse of the Future (Part II)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Arab: the Horse of the Future

Articles of History:

FROM THE PAST: Excerpted from


by Hon. Sir James Penn Boucaut
The Khamsat Vol 10 Num 4 Nov 93

Circassian Warriors, 19th century engraving courtesy of Judith Forbes.

In the autobiography of General Sir Harry Smith, of Aliwal, a very great soldier of wonderful energy, reference is frequently made to his celebrated Arab horse Aliwal, which carried the veteran in all the battles of Gwalior and Sikh campaigns in 1847, accompanied him to the Cape, returned with him to England, afterwards served him faithfully in his commands at Davenport and Manchester, and was in his possession for eighteen years. It is related that on the anniversary of the Battle of Aliwal, when there was a full-dress dinner at the General’s house, someone would propose Aliwal’s health, and Sir Harry would order him to be sent for. The groom would lead him all round the dinner-table, glittering with plate, lights, uniforms, and brillent dresses, and he would be quite quiet, only giving a snort now and again, though when his health had been drunk, and the groom had led him out, you could hear him on the gravel outside prancing and capering.

Sir Harry writes:

‘I had one little Arab, not 14 hands, descended from Arabs; he never gave me a fall, and I never failed to bring the brush to his stable when I rode him; but with all the other horses I have had some awful falls, particularly after rain, when the sand is saturated with water and very heavy.’

It is further written of the General that he usually rode his little Arab Aliwal, and always when the troops were in line he would suddenly put his horse into a gallop and ride at the line, as if he were going to charge through them; that the men were, of course, well up to this trick, and stood perfectly steady, and the little Arab always suddenly halted within a foot of the line.

The following epitaph on his horse by Sir Harry, in his own handwriting, is still preserved:



‘Sir Harry rode him in the Battles of Moodkee, Ferozesshahur, Aliwal, and Sobraon. He was the only horse of the General Staff that was not killed or wounded. He came from Arabia to Calcutta, thence to Lahore; he was marched nearly over India, came by ship to England. He was twenty-two years old, never sick during the eighteen years in Sir Harry’s possession. As a charger he was incomparable, gallant, and docile; as a friend he was affectionate and faithful.’

Is this all a romantic dream? Can the opinion of a racing gentleman founded upon ‘sprinting,’ or of a stable youth founded upon ‘tips,’ or of a ‘dandy’ of Piccadilly, or of the ‘best boy’ of a Melbourne barmaid, be placed against the practical experience of all these great soldiers?

In the Franco-Prussian War the Arab again proved his sureriority. The Times of February 24, 1871, gave an account of the entry of General Bourbaki’s army into Berne, and the distress of both men and horses, but it qualified this as to the Arabs by adding that

undoubtedly the Arabs justify the established reputation of their breed for endurance by the very tolerable condition they presented and the comparative elasticity of their paces.’

Mr. W.G.Palgrave, in his ‘Central and Eastern Arabia.’ vol. II., says of some horses then before him, that never had he seen or imagined so lovely a collection. their stature was indeed somewhat low–he did not think that any came up to 15 hands; 14 appeared to be about their average — but they were so exquisitely well shaped that want of greater size seemed hardly, if at all, a defect. He says that they appeared a little, a very little, saddlebacked — just the curve which indicates springiness without weakness; every other part, too, had a perfection and a harmony unwitnessed, at least by his eye, anywhere else — an air and step that seemed to say, ‘Look at me: am I not pretty?’ Their appearance justified all reputation, all value, all poetry.

Captain Burnaby, in his Ride to Khiva, says of horses of the Kirghiz, that no horses that he has ever seen are so hardy as these little animals. He bought one with saddle and bridle, 14 hands, for 5 Lb. Of excessive leanness, and by his description only fit for the knackers, which in England would not have been considered able to carry his boots, yet, in spite of quite 20 stone on his back, he never showed the least sign of fatigue. There is Arab blood in these horses, or they are of a kindred breed. All over the steppes Arabic words are used, showing the influence of the Arabs in the past; indeed, they overran much of this country.

In July, 1270, a French expedition (the seventh Crusade), under Louis IX. attacked Tunis. Mr. Pellissier, writing in 1844 on this Crusade, says that the Arabs attacked the French Crusaders every day, and that

if one pursued them they fled; but when the French returned to their quarters, tired out by a bootless chase, the Arabs turned round and assailed their pursuers with arrows and javelins. This is exactly how they treat us today.’

In the latter sentence he referred to the Arabs under Abd-el-Kader in Algiers. It was as bootless a chase for the French cavalry to try to catch the Arab horses in Algiers in 1840 as it was for the same cavalry to try to catch the Arab horses in Tunis in 1270; 600 years had not lessened the difference in merit between the two breeds: the Arab was still facile princeps.

General De Wet could furnish instances yet sixty years later of other European cavalry having bootless chases after Arab horses. In 1535 the Emperor Charles V. attacked Tunis with success, and amongst the terms of the treaty of peace which was made it was provided that the suzerainty of Sprian was to be recognised by a yearly present of twelve horses. No such term would have been made unless the horses had been known to have been of unusual excellence. You don’t take coals to Newcastle nor Arab horses to Arabia. But you send them elsewhere. Another Bey of Tunis, Ahmed Bey, in 1842, sent, amongst other things, a present of an Arabian horse to Louis Philippe, King of the French. So that we have three Kings of France in three far-apart periods receiving presents of Arab horses from the Bey of Tunis, and there are scores of other instances where an Arab horse has been deemed worthy of being a present to be received by one Sovereign from another. Was I not justified in saying that it was childish of my unknown friend, above referred to, to say that there is neither speed, stamina, nor docility, in the Arab horse?

Napoleon Bonaparte, in his ‘Observations on Egypt.’ states that although discipline made 1.000 of the French cavalry superior to 1.500 Mamelukes, yet man for man the Mamelukes were the better — ‘two of them were able to make head against three Frenchmen,’ because they were better armed and better mounted; and Sir Edward Creasy says that Napoleon is the best writer on the subject of Egypt that a general or statesman can consult.

The Mamelukes were probably Arabs, but were certainly mounted on Arab horses, and Cook’s ‘Guide to Egypt‘ cites Warburton as stating that the Mamelukes were the most superb cavalry in the world. Major Upton says in effect the same with reqard to the present age:

The real armour of the Bedaween horsemen, offensive and defensive, is the speed of his mare.’

Polybius wrote that it was the superiority of Hannibal’s cavalry which gained him all his victories. That cavalry was Numidian — that is, Arab.

‘Thormanby,’ in a book on The Horse and his Rider, whom I should by no means take to be an Arab enthusiast, affirms that the Arab is in many respects entitled to take the lead among all breeds of horses; that his pace is rapid and graceful; that his is hardy, and can continue traveling at the rate of from fifty to sixty miles a day; that it is proved beyond doubt that for slow, continued work the Arab is immeasurably superior to his English brethren. that distance is the mileage that one of Mr. Quin’s Arabs at Tarella, New South Wales, bought of me, went day after day during the great drought about the end of the nineteenth century, with, I believe, only native grass, or what was left of it. Is that properly to be called ‘slow’?

“Thormanby’ can, clearly, have meant ‘slow’ only as opposed to short sprinting with light weights; in fact, he admits as much in almost the very words that I hears applied to Mr. Quin’s stallion, that an Arab seems at his own pace to be able to go for ever. But I deny that his pace is slow; it is very fast, as many a defeated army has discovered. ‘Thormanby’ describes two Arab horses sent to him from Bombay to Lucknow, which did not reach him for five months, having marched continuously, with many vicissitudes, continual forced marches, and irregularly and scantily fed, still arriving in perfect trim, and continuing to do fast work throughout the hot season. I note particularly the word ‘fast,’ which is the author’s. ‘Thormanby’ might therefore have said more in the previous passage than to say the Arab was immeasurably superior for ‘slow’ continual work! He fairly enough says that, all things considered, he sould prefer in the Indian or Egyptian climate an Arab to any other horse, habituated as he is from infancy to scanty food and water, and to enduring heat and rough usage, and above all with sounder legs and feet — a good tempered, willing and docile slave, and a rare agent to traverse a distance in an open country. Another passage from “Thormanby’ shows how ill adapted the ordinary horsey man, used to the ‘leggy, weedy creature who would fall over a straw,’ is to judge of the merits of the Arab. Says ‘Thormanby’ of five Arabs of the ordinary stamp — by ‘ordinary,’ I take it, he means Bombay Arabs of the old style, not pure-breds of the desert —

To an eye accustomed to European horse-flesh they would have looked, perhaps, at the first glance like a lot of screws; but when you came to examine them closely, you found undeniable points about them, and a look of gameness that showed it was, at any rate, no plebeian animal that you had before you.’

A former Duke of Newcastle, one of the best judges of horse-flesh then in England, shows how few people can judge an Arab accurately. He thought very little of the Godolphin Arabian!

‘Thormanby’ points out that the wild-horses of America, both North and South, have descended from Andalusians imported by the first settled Spanish settlers, and that they are fine animals, very hardy, and when caught soon docile. He describes the common amusement of the Mexicans and South Americans in charging like lightning, and stopping so suddenly that the horses’ feet will exactly touch the wall, and even at times will tremble over a precipice, and yet wheel round in safety.

This is of a piece with the description given by Layard and many others of the Eastern Arabs, who would stop in full charge with their spears so close to his face that an accident would have caused his death. I have cited Major-General Tweedie’s references to this, and those of several others.

‘Thormanby’ relates a story of Sir R. Gillespie on the Calcutta racecourse, when a tiger had escaped. A Bengal tiger is no kitten to play with. Sir Robert called for his Arab, a small gray, and attacked the tiger with a boar-spear, which was in the hands of one of the crowd. Immediately the tiger saw Sir Robert, he crouched for a spring, at which Sir Robert instantly put his horse in a leap over the tiger’s back and thrust his spear through the animal’s spine.

This grand and fearless little fellow was afterwards given as a present to the Prince Regent. Though he was like all his race, a born war-horse, cool in the presence of the tiger under a rider that he knew, and not afraid of jumping over him, et, alas! he could probably not have won a half-mile race with 5 stone on his back! How sadly degenerate! Nevertheless, he was not quite ‘so extinct as the dodo‘ on that occasion!

Mr. W.K.Kelly, the traveller, in his book on ‘Syria,’ 1844, says that the Bedouin and his horse should be seen together. When the rider’s feet are on the ground, he creeps listlessly about, and the horse stands tamely, looking hungrily after the few blades of grass. but when the Bedouin springs into the saddle an electric energy seems breathed into the man and horse. The horse makes the air whistle with his speed, while his streaming tail often lashes his rider’s back.

This is exactly what Madam Ida Pfeiffer writes in her ‘Travels in the Holy Land,’ about fifty years ago. She said that at first sight they looked anything but handsome. They were thin, and generally walked at a slow pace, with their heads hanging down. But when skilful riders mounted them they appeared as if transformed. Lifting their small, graceful heads with fiery eyes, they threw out their slender feet with matchless swiftness, and bounded away over stock and stone, with a step so light, and yet so secure that accidents very rarely occurred. It was quite a treat to see them.

Madam Pfeiffer and Mr. Kelly both dwell on the arab’s powers of endurance. Mr. Kelly says they are most remarkable. His on more than one occasion carried him for sixteen or eighteen hours at a stretch without food, and once he cantered him from Hebron to Jaffa, nearly fifty miles, without pulling bit. At the end of such a journey, Arab horses, he says, get only a few handfuls of barley, no bedding or grooming, and generally the saddle is not removed. They are sure-footed and exceedingly sagacious, and exhibit a wonderful degree of activity and fleetness. then he cites Baron von Taubenheim, first equerry to the King of Wurtemberg, who, writing to a friend, reminded him what an anglomaniac he (the Baron) was, but said that nevertheless from henceforth he should set the Arab horse above every other, from experience of his extraordinary performances. The Baron describes the horrible roads of Lebanon — rocks over which the horse has often to mount or descend two or three at a step, loose rolling stones, a track running jaggedly and unevenly along the verge of a precipice. Yet along such roads as these the Arab goes on without flagging from six in the morning till eight at night, and he averred that he never discovered the least flagging, even in the last quarter of an hour, and for many days he literally never took hold of the reins.

The Rev. Dr. Porter, in his “Five Years in Damascus,’ refers to these dreadful roads of Leganon, which, he says,

are startling when your steed assumes a vertical attitude or passes along a precipice brink, where a false step would hurl him hundreds of feet below.’

After many other instances of endurance, cleverness, bottom, and docility, Baron Taubenheim says that he knows that vanity would make him in his own country again seek out a six-foot-high English horse, but that he also knows that the Arab is capable of doing much better service. For the day of battle he should, perhaps, make choice of an English hunter, but for a whole campaign, says he,

give me one Arab in preference to two English horses.’

He also says that a traveller feels amazement ot think that in such a country men can trust themselves upon horses where you would expect to see them mounted only on goats. Those horses don’t fall over a straw. The Baron’s vanity which he speaks of gives you a part of the key to the Anglomania vanity, the desire of being on a tall horse — the vanity of the horsey youth in top-boots and knee-breeches, whom the Times satirizes as a ‘tendollar amateur’; the vanity of the Piccadilly masher prancing before the dames in the Park; the arrogant vanity of the insular mind, which thinks that nothing can be good which is not English. The other part of the key to this absurd Anglomania is the gambling.

In another place Mr. Kelly says that it is only in the East that you can form a just idea of the Arab horse, and he devotes a full page to enlarging on his merits, his beauty, his gentleness, his picturesque form, his caressing manner to his groom, his playfulness, his inquisitive attention, evincing as much certainty, force of character, and varied play of feature, as the emotions of mind on the face of a child. Many of my guests have noticed and spoken of this caressing manner shown by my young horses, as also their inquisitive attention and wonderful appearance of intelligence. It has been stated that an Arab would prefer his horse to be stolen rather than injured in a long and heavy chase, and that he has been known to rejoice, by reason of his pride in her, when his favourite mare has carried the thief safely away from his pursuit. If he is to be kicked, he hopes that it will be by a horse of pure breed!

Dr. Porter writes of the arrival of a stranger who drew up after a very rapid pace, whose mare stood patient and gentle without symptom of weariness or quickness of breathing, but with expanded nostril and proud eye.

‘I could see,’ said Dr. Porter, ‘why the Arab loves his horse.’

Mr. Frederick Drew, in his book ‘The Northern Frontier of India,’ says that Baltistan is one of the homes of polo, which is so ancient a game that it was played in Constantinople in the middle of the twelfth century.

‘The ponies of the Baltis,’ he says, ‘may be taken fairly enough to embody the experience of generations of players as to the right kind of animal. They stand about 12.3 or 13 hands, rather large-boned for their size, of compact make, broad chest, deep shoulder, well-formed barrel, well ribbed-up, good hind-quarters, and a small, well shaped head.’

This well describes a small Arab; anyhow, the creature to which Mr. Drew refers is an Eastern horse, and certainly more or less crossed with the Arab.

Mr. W.P.Hogg, an American gentleman, in his book ‘The Land of the Arabian Nights,’ After several casual and cursory remarks as to ‘handsome Arab horses,’ ‘a mettled Arab.’ ‘a beautiful full-blood Arab horse,’ and their ‘wonderful endurance,’ and so on, describes his inspection of the stables of the Pasha at Babylon, where there were a score of the finest Arab horses, and naively says that, although he is not especially a horse-fancier, he would fully appreciate the present were the Pasha to give him one of those beautiful animals, so intelligent, docile, and graceful in every motion. Everybody seems to notice their beauty.

The Hon. F. Wallpole, in his book’The Ansayrii,‘ writes of an Arab mare he was shown of the Anazeh:

‘She was worthy of the pen of a Warburton or a Lamartine: clean gray, with black mane and tail, silvered at the end; her skin thin as a kid glove, and the long hairs fine as that which drops over the shoulders of beauty. The eye was bright, wild, and flashing; the nostrils full, almost bell-shaped; tall and strong, yet light and active, she well deserved her name — The Beautiful.”

In ‘Modern Persia.’ C.J.Wills, M.D., describes a fourteen-hand pure-bred Arab which he bought, with a huge scar of a spear-wound a foot long on his shoulder, otherwise perfect, of angelic temper, but small by the side of the Persian horses, as all pure Arabs are; his muzzle almost touched his chest as he arched his neck, and his action was very high yet easy; he seemed an aristocrat; his thin and fine mare and tail were like silk.

He says that he had that Arab ten years; he never was sick, and he never had to strike or spur him; a pressure of the knee and a shake of the rein would make him do his utmost. And he was a fast horse.

“Small as he was, he carried my 12 stone comfortably, and as a ladies’ horse he was perfect, having a beautiful mouth, while he followed like a dog, and nothing startled him or made him shy.’

He speaks, too, of the Arabs which come from Bagdad as all that the heart can desire, except as to size, being seldom more than 14.2. Which is the better — 14.2 that can carry one, or 16.2 that cannot?

The Australasian, April 2, 1904, in showing that the success of mule-breeding largely depends on the sire, says that the best mules in America are by Jacks descended from Catalonian sires imported from Spain — introduced to Spain centruies ago by the Moors, and always carefully bred. Who can doubt that this excellence is owning to the Arab stock owned by the Moors, which made the Andalusian jennet celebrated? Who can doubt after this the prepotency of the Arab sire, and his ability to benefit any breed he mates with, when even his hybrids became famous? Mr. Sydney Galvayne also testifies to this excellence of the American mule.

Captain R.V. Davidson, formerly of the Indian Staff Corps, writing of boar-hunting in India in the Wide World Magazine, says that

he and Bethune Temple were on Arabs, and could count on their turn if it came to jinking,’

and that when again and again

the active brute, scenting danger, jinked away to right or left, his stanch little Arab followed him like a cat.’

Mr. F.C. Webb, M.I.C.E., in his “Up the Tigris to Bagdad,’ relates that they took on board three splendid Arab horses, which he would not have written if the Arab is only what some of the racing gentlemen affirm. An observation like this — by the way, as it were — is almost better testimony than a designed panegyric.

Professor A.B. Davidson gives a very celebrated line by Imrulquars, an ancient Arabian poet, describing the skirmishing of the horse and the irresistible impetus of his charge:

Attacking, fleeing, advancing, backing at once,

Like a block of rock swept down by the torrent from a height.’

He gives part of another poem, in which is the line:

‘My heart is with the horsemen of Yemen.’

The reader asks why I cite this. Because I am not writing for the ‘knowing ones,’ and I desire to show beyond all cavil that, at all times, in all countries, amongst all peoples, the Arab horse was famous. Such fame could never have been achieved for a breed that did not deserve it.

M. Tisset, in relating his travels in ‘Unknown Hungary,’ says that all along the Turkish frontier, and especially in the upper military borderland, a small race of horses of Barbary origin is found well suited to those rugged and rocky countries, which corroborates the statements that the Hungarian horses are largely indebted for their excellence to Arab blood.

Count Henry Krasinski, a Polish soldier, in the ‘History of the Cossacks of the Ukraine,’ says that their horses are small in make, but extremely vigorous, and proof to all kinds of fatigue, clear all difficulties of the ground, carry their riders everywhere with facility, and are, like their masters, content with the most meagre fare; and he describes them as hovering round the enemy like a vapoury cloud, augmenting, fading away, or dissipating entirely again, to form into shape when required. This fortifies the accounts I have given of the Arabs of Tunis in the third Crusade, and of the Arabs of Algiers recently in the time of General Daumas.

These Ukraine horses are Eastern, and, if not pure Arabs, have been imporved by Arabs, and are of a kindred race. Count Krasinski states that at the great annual fair in the government of Volhynia 1000,000 horses often to be seen from all parts of Russia, Poland, Austria, and Turkey, and even Persia. The Kurdish mountains as well as Asia Minor were celebrated for their breed of horses in the time of the prophet Ezekiel (xxvii. 14).

In Mr. E.H.Parker’s ‘Thousand Years of the Tartars‘ it is stated that Tukuhum of Koko-nor, one of their rulers, who reigned in the sixth century, obtained a number of splendid Persian mares for breeding purposes, and their young obtained great repute for swiftness. Of course, these were ‘Eastern horses,’ and yet not up to the level of the pure desert-bred Arab.

Mr.W.B.Harris, in his ‘Journey through Yemen,’ states that the Arabian King Tubba-el-Akran took an expedition to Samarcand, and afterwards, in A.D. 206, Abou Kariba, another Arabian King, invaded Chaldea, and defeated the Tatars of Adubijan, so that all this country from Arabia to China was saturated with the blood of Arabian horses.

I see by the London Daily Telegraph, February 6, 1904, that the Sultan of Morocco sent a present of six pure Arabs to President Roosevelt from Fez, one for the President himself, the others for his wife and children, the one for himself being a pure white thoroughbred. In ancient times white horses were most esteemed; e.g., Herodotus says that the Sicilians paid an annual tribute of 360 white horses, Arabs or Arab crosses, to Darius, King of Persia. Sicilian horses, of course, came from Africa (Barbary, etc), just opposite. Other instances are given of the preference for white horses; Arab horses have always been deemed worthy of being gifts from royalty to royalty. Incidentally several instances appear in this little work. I may summarize a few more which I have come across in casual reading:

In the year 800 Haroun al Raschid sent a present of five Arabs to Charlemagne. In the tenth century the Grand Vizier presented to the Caliph fifteen Arab horses of the best breed.

In 1131 Alexander I. presented an Arabian horse to the Church of St. Andrews. Mehemmed Khan, governor of Balk, presented Shah Abbas, amongst other presents, with fifty horses of Turkestan. The Imaum of Muscat sent a present to King William Iv. of some horses of the purest breed of Arabia.

Megder, a Tartar Prince, one of the great conquerors of history, sent a present of Tartar horses to the Chinese Emperor about 200 B.C. In A.D. 635 the Turkish Khan sent a present of horses to the founder of the Tang Dynasty in China.

When Ibn Batula visited Sarunda in Asiatic Turkey in 1332, the Sultan presented him with a dress of honour and riding-horses. They never thought of sending pigs or oxen or Suffolk punches, admirable in their way as these creatures may be, and all these horses from Cyprus, and Edward III. purchased fifty Spanish steeds (of course Barbs), and got special permission for their safe transport through France and Spain.

Edward III. was a great warrior. Did he not know the value of the creature he purchased?

Major Butler in his Great Lone Land, describes a wonderful little horse of the prairies whose endurance could not be excelled day by day. He feared that he must give out; but not a bit of it! he still held gamely on, seldom traveling less than fifty miles a day, nothing to eat but the grass, and no time to eat but the frosty night. these prairie horses were descended from Spanish importations — Andalusians, i.e., Arabs or Barbs.

Count Rziewuski (Russian ) says that Asiatic horses are of one family, different from the European horses, except the English, which have much Arab blood, and that Napoleon did his best to improve the horses in France, but they were far inferior to English horses. This was in the middle of last century. The Count could not say that now. The Count also stated that the Poles had spared no expense in introducing Arab stallions, and gives many instances. Why were the English horses of that day superior to the French? Plainly, because up to that time the English had used the Arab very much more than the French, as the Stud-Book shows and as Count Rziewuski states. Why are thy inferior now? Because they have fallen off from the use of the Arab.

M. Chateaubriand, in his Travels in Greece, testifies to the hardihood of the Arab horse, and enters at length into what hardships he can stand, and says that a horse of well-known noble blood ‘will fetch any price,’ while you can get an ordinary horse for 80 or 100 piastres.

Major Denham, on losing a fine Arabian, describes how keenly he felt the loss, and says that although he was ashamed of it, yet he was some days before he could get over it; the animal had been his support and comfort through many a dreary day and night. Almost all riders of Arabs have felt the same sort of affection. As several authorities have observed, ‘the Arab is always a gentleman.’

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