Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates

Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates (part I)

by Lady Anne Blunt orig pub in 1879










A neighing quadruped, used in war, and draught and carriage.”

Arab horse-breeding — Obscurity respecting it — There is no Nejdean breed — Picture of the Anazeh horse–He is a bold jumper — Is a fast horse for his size — His nerve excellent, and his temper — Causes of deterioration — How the Bedouins judge a horse — Their system of breeding and training — Their horsemanship indifferent — Their prejudices — Pedigree of the thoroughbred Arabian horse.

Considering the obscurity in which the whole subject of Arab horse-breeding is hidden in England, I trust that I shall be excused for venturing to give a slight sketch of this interesting subject. It was one that engaged our attention more than any other on our late journey, and which we took especial pains to understand in principle as well as in detail.

It is singular that former travellers should not have attempted this. Niebuhr and Burckhardt, exhaustive as they generally are, are silent here, or tell us little that is correct, while later travellers, either from lack of interest or lack of knowledge, ignores the subject altogether. Mr. Palgrave, in his contempt of all things Bedouin, disposes of the Anazeh horses in a few sentences, which reveal his little acquaintance with his subject, and repeats a fantastic account of the Royal Stables at Riad and the tale of a distinct Nejdean breed existing there, a tale which so far as I could learn no Bedouin north of Jebel Shammar believes a word of: Mr. Palgrave must have been deceived on this point by the townsmen of Riad, for the northern Bedouins know Ibn Saoud perfectly by name and know of his mares. But they all assert that the Riad stud is quite a modern collection, got together by Feysul and acquired principally from themselves. Abdallah-ibn-Feysul-inb-Saoud still sends to the Anazeh for additions to it from time to time; and I know of one instance in which he sent four mares from Riad as far as Aleppo to a celebrated horse standing there.

General Daumans’s book on the horses of the Sahara does not do more than touch on those of Arabia; and, with the exception of an Italian work which I have heard of, but which is out of print, I know of nothing on the subject better than Captian Upton’s pamphlet called “Newmarket and Arabia.” This, with some really interesting facts and generally correct notions, is but a sketch taken from information gained at second hand. The pamphlet, as far as it relates to Arabia, consists mainly of a discussion as to what sort of horse it was Noah took with him into the ark, and where the horse went after he was let out of it. *

*Since writing the above I have been shown an article in Fraser’s Magazine of September, 1876, in which Captain Upton corrects his original impressions about Arabian horse-breeding, in consequence of a visit paid by him to the Sebaa, Moali and other tribes in the neighbourhood of Aleppo. The account thus corrected is exceedingly good, though it still contains not a few mistakes.

Not to go back so far as that, I think we may be content with accepting the usual belief that Arabia was one of the countries where the horse was originally found in his wild state, and where he was first caught and tamed. By Arabia, however, I would not imply the peninsula, which, according to every account we have of it, is not at all a country suited to the horse in his natural condition. there is no water above the ground in Nejd, nor any pasture fit for horses except during the winter months; and the mares kept by the Bedouins there are fed, during part of the year at least, on dates and camel’s milk. Every authority agrees on this point. The Nejd horses are of pure blood, because of the isolation of the peninsula, and the want of proper food has stunted the breed. Nejd bred horses are neither so tall nor so fast as those of the Hamad, although the blood is the same. Dr. Colvill, who went to Riad in 1854, assures me that he saw but one single mare during the whole of his journey there and back, and that that was a small insignificant animal. He has seen, however, ponies of thirteen hands in el Hasa which he describes as “little lions,” of great power and beauty; the “tattoes” of the Indian market.

It is not then in the peninsula of Arabia, where water is only to be had from wells, that the original stock can have been found, but rather in Mesopotamia and the great pastoral districts bordering the Euphrates, where water is abundant and pasture perennial. I was constantly struck, when crossing the plains of Mesopotamia, with its resemblance to Entrerios, and the other great horse-producing regions of the river Plate. Here the wild horse must have been originally captured, (just as in the present day the wahash or wild ass is captured,) and taken thence by man to people the peninsula.

Later on, invasions from the north seem to have brought other breeds of horses to these very plains, members perhaps of other original stocks, those of the Russian steppes or of Central Asia. These we find represented on the Chaldean bas-releifs, and still existing in the shape of stout ponies all along the northern edge of the desert — animals disowned by the Bedouins as being horses at all, yet serviceable for pack work, and useful in their way. This Chaldean type, from whatever source it springs, stands in direct contrast with that of the true Arabian. It is large-headed, heavy-necked, straight- shouldered, and high on the leg — a lumbering clumsy beast, fit rather for draught, if it were large enough, than for riding; and in this way the ancient Chaldeans seem to have chiefly employed it. The desert, however, has always preserved its own breed intact; and wherever the Bedouin is found, whether in Nejd or in the Hamad or Mesopotamia, the same animal, with the same traditions and the same prejudices concerning him, is to be found. It is of this animal only that I propose to speak.

The pure bred Bedouin horse stands from fourteen to fifteen hands in height, the difference depending mainly on the country in which he is bred, and the amount of good food he is given as a colt. In shape he is like our English thoroughbred, his bastard cousin, but with certain differences. The principal of these is, as might be expected, in the head, for where there is a mixture of blood the head almost always follows the least beautiful type of the ancestors. Thus, every horse with a cross of Spanish blood will retain the heavy head of that breed, though he have but one-sixteenth part of it to fifteen of a better strain. The head of the Arabian is larger in proportion than that of the English thoroughbred, the chief difference lying in the depth of jowl. This is very marked, as is also the width between the cheek-bones where the English horse is often defective to the cost of his windpipe. The ears are fine and beautifully shaped, but not very small. The eye is large and mild, the forehead prominent as in horses of the Touchstone blood with us, and the muzzle fine, sometimes almost pinched. Compared with the Arabian, the English thoroughbred is Roman nosed. The head, too, and this is perhaps the most distinguishing feature, is set on at a different angle. When I returned to England the thoroughbreds seemed to me to hold their heads as if tied in with a bearing rein, and to have no throat whatever, the cause perhaps of that tendency to roaring so common with them.

The neck of the Arabian horse is light, and I have never seen among them anything approaching to the crest given by his pictures, to the Godolphin Arabian. The shoulder is good, as good as in our own horses and the wither is often as high, although from the greater height of the hind-quarter this is not so apparent. The forearm in the best specimens is of great strength, the muscle standing out with extraordinary prominence. The back is shorter than it is in our thoroughbreds, and the barrel rounder. The Arabian is well ribbed up. He stands higher at the croup than at the wither. The tail is set on higher, but not, as I have heard some people say, on a level with the croup. Indeed, the jumping bone, to use an Irish phrase, is often very prominent. The tail is carried high, both walking and galloping; and this point is much looked to, as a sign of breeding. I have seen mares gallop with their tails as straight as a colt’s, and fit, as the Arabs say, to hang your cloak on.

The hind-quarter in the Arabian is much narrower than in our horses, another point of breeding, which indicates speed rather than strength. The line of the hind-quarter is finer, the action freer, and the upper limb longer in proportion than in the English racehorse. The hocks are larger, better let down, and not so straight. The cannon bone is shorter. The legs are strong, but with less bone in proportion than back sinew. This last is perhaps the finest point of the Arabian, in whom a “breakdown” seldom or never occurs. the bones of the pastern joints are fine, sometimes too fine for strength, and the pastern itself is long even to weakness. Its length is a point much regarded by the Arabs as a sign of speed. The hoofs are round and large, and very hard, though, from the barbarous method of shoeing and paring of the foot practiced by the desert blacksmiths, a stranger might doubt this. The toe is often cut ludicrously short, out of economy, to save frequent shoeing.

The only defect of the Arabian as a racehorse, compared with our own, is his small size. Inch for inch there can be no question which is the faster horses.

It is commonly said in England that the Arabian has but one pace, the gallop; and in a certain sense this is true. Trotting is discouraged by the Bedouin colt-breakers, who, riding on an almost impossible pad, and without stirrups, find that pace inconvenient. But with a little patience, the deficiency can easily be remedied, and good shoulder action given. No pure bred Arabian however is a high stepper. His style of galloping is long and low, the counterpart of our English thoroughbred’s. He is a careless but by no means a bad or dangerous walker. It is considered a great point of breeding that a horse should look about him to right and left as he walks; and this, combined with the great lengths of his pasterns, makes him liable to trip on even ground, if there are slight inequalities in his road. I have never however seen him even in danger of falling. The horse is too sure of his footing to be careful, except on rough ground, and then he never makes a false step. The broken knees one comes across are almost always the result of galloping colts before they are strong enough over rocky gbround, and, though a fearful disfigurement in our eyes, are thought nothing of by the Bedouins. The reputation, so often given to the Arabian, of being a slow walker, is the reverse of true. Though less fast than the Barb, he walks well beyond the average pace of our own horses. His gallop, as I have said, is long and low, and faster in proportion to his height than that of any other breed. If one could conceive an Arabian seventeen hands high, he could not fail to leave the best horse in England behind him. As it is, he is too small to keep stride with our race-horses.

The Arabian is a bold jumper, indeed the boldest in the world. Though in their own country they had had absolutely no knowledge of fences, not one of the mares we brought home with us has made any difficulty about going at the fences we tried them at. One of them, the evening of her arrival in England, on being let loose in the park, cleared the fence which is five feet six inches high. We pulled down the lower rails after this, and walked her back under the top one, a thick oak rail which was several inches higher than her wither. Another, though only fourteen hands two inches, clears seven yards in her stride over a hurdle. The mare I rode on the journey, carried me over the raised watercourses by the Euphrates in the cleverest way in the world, off and on without the least hanging or hesitation, and always with a foot ready to bring down in case of need. As hunters, however, in England, they would all be too small for any but children to ride, and their want of comparative height at the wither would be a serious defect.

Of their galloping powers, as compared with those of English thoroughbreds, I cannot speak from experience. I do not, however, suppose that over three miles, the longest English race, and Arabian would have much chance against any but quite inferior animals. Over five miles it might be different, but over twenty I am convinced that none but very exceptional English horses, would be able to go with them.The Arabians seem capable of going on for surprising distances, under heavy weights, without tiring; and they have the advantage of being able to stand almost any amount of training without going “stale.” The thoroughbred Anazeh horse will train as fine as any English racehorse. Be this as it may, there is no doubt that the pure bred Arabian possesses extraordinary powers of endurance. On a journey he may be ridden day after day, and fed only upon grass. Yet he does not lose heart or condition, and is always ready to gallop at the end of the longest march, a thing we have never ventured to propose to our horses on any previous journey.

In disposition the Arabians are gentle and affectionate, familiar indeed almost to the extent of being troublesome. They have no fear of man whatsoever, and will allow anyone to come up to them when grazing, and take them by the head. If they happen to be lying down, they will not move though you come close to them. They are not to be intimidated by any lifting up of hands or sticks, for they do not understand that you can hurt them. It often amused us in the desert to see the mares come up to their masters and use them for a rubbing-post. this extreme gentleness and courage, though partly the effect of education, is also inherited, for a colt born and brought up in the stable is just as tame. It never thinks, as English colts do, of running round behind its dam for protection, but comes at once to anyone who enters the box.

I have never seen an Arabian vicious, shy, or showing signs of fear. They do not wince at firearms, though they are not at all accustomed to them; and in England no railway train or sudden noise gives them the least alarm. In this they are very diffferent from Barbs, Turks, and all other foreign horses I have had to do with.

There is among English people a general idea that grey, especially flea-bitten grey, is the commonest Arabian colour. But this is not so among the Anazeh. Bay is still more common, and white horses, though fashionable in the desert, are rare. Our white Hamdaniyeh mare, Sherifa, which came from Nejd, was immensely admired among the Gomussa for the sake of her colour almost as much as for her head, which is indeed of extraordinary beauty. The drawing at the beginning of this chapter is her very faithful portrait. Perhaps out of a hundred mares among the Anazeh one would see thirty-five bay, thirty grey, fifteen chestnut, and the rest brown or black. Roans, piebalds, duns, and yellows, are not found among the pure bred Arabians, though the last two occasionally are among Barbs. The bays often have black points and generally a white foot, or two or three white feet, and a snip or blaze down the face. The chestnuts vary from the brightest to the dullest shades, and I once saw a mottled brown. The tallest and perhaps handsomest horse we saw was a Samhan-el-Gomeaa, a three-year-old bay with black points, standing about fifteen hands one inch. He was a little clumsy, however, in his action, though that may have been the fault of his breaking. He had bone enough to satisfy all the requirements, even those of a Yorkshire man, but showed no sign of lacking quality. With very few exceptions, all the handsomest mares we saw were bay, which is without doubt by far the best colour in Arabia as it is in England. The chestnuts, as with us, are hot tempered, even violent. Black is a rare colour, and I never saw in the desert a black mare which I fancied. In choosing Arabians I should take none but bays, and if possible bays with black points.

It must not be supposed that there are many first-class mares among the Bedouins. During all our travels we saw but one which answered to the ideal we had formed, an Abeyeh Sherrak of the Gomussa. Nor were there many which approached her. Among the Shammar we saw only two first-class mares, among the Fedaan perhaps half a dozen, and among the Roala, once the leading tribe in horse-breeding, none. The Gomussa alone, of all the Anazeh, have any large number of really fine mares. We had an excellent oppportunity of judging, for we were with the Gomussa when fighting was going on, and when every man among them was mounted on his mare. I do not consider that we saw more than twenty “fok el aali,” or, to translate it literally, “tip-top” mares, nor more than fifty which we should have cared to possess. I doubt if there are two hundred really first-class mares in the whole of Northern Arabia. By this I of course do not mean first-class in quality and appearance as well as blood.

I cannot help suspecting that a certain amount of deterioration has taken place within the last fifty, perhaps the last twenty years. There is no doubt that in the early years of the present century, the Roala were possesssed of immense numbers of mares, and had the reputation of having the monopoly of some of the best strains of blood. It was to their sheykh, Ibn Shallan, whom he called the “Prince of the Desert,” that Abbas Pasha sent his son to be educated, and from them that he bought most of the mares, of which he made such a wonderful collection. Yet from one cause and another the Roala, though still rich and powerful, have now no mares to speak of. They have within the last few years abandoned the old Bedouin warfare with the lance, and taken to firearms. Horses are no longer indispensable to them, and have been recklessly sold. The Shammar of Mesopotamia have suffered for the last two generations by the semi-Turkism of their Sheykhs, Sfuk and Ferhan, and have been divided by internal dissensions to such an extent, that their enemies, the Anazeh, have greatly reduced them. Abbas Pasha also bought up many fine mares from among them at extravagant prices; and they now have not a single specimen among them of the Seglawi Jedran breed, for which they were formerly famous. The Montefik in the south, once also celebrated for their horses, have allowed the purity of their breed to be tampered with , for the sake of increased size, so necessary for the Indian market which they supplied. It was found that a cross-bred animal of mixed Persian and Arabian blood, would pass muster among the English in India as pure Arabian, and would command a better price from his extra height. The Persian or Turcoman horse stands fifteen hands two inches, or even, I am told, sixteen hands; and these the Montifik have used to cross their mares with. The produce is known in India as the Gulf Arab, but his inferior quality is now recognised. Lastly, among the Sebaa themselves, who have maintained the ancient breeds in all their integrity, various accidents have concurred in diminishing the number of their mares. Several seasons of drought and famine, within the last fifteen years, have reduced the prosperity of the tribes, and forced them to part with some of their best breeding stock. Many a valuable mare was thus sold, because her owner had no choice but to do so or to let her starve, while others, left “on halves” with inhabitants of the small towns, never returned to the desert. Mijuel, of the Misrab, told me of a mare of his, which he had been obliged to leave in this way with a townsman, and which, from having been left standing a whole year in a filthy stable, had become foundered in all four feet and could not be removed. Finally the continual wars, which for years past have devastated the tribes, have caused an immense consumption of horses. When a mare is taken in war she is usually galloped into the nearest town, and sold hurriedly by her captor, for what she will fetch, for fear of her being reclaimed when peace is made. While we were at Aleppo, mares were thus every day brought for us to look at, terribly knocked about, and often with fresh spear-wounds gaping on flank or shoulder.

Besides all these reasons, the Bedouin system of breeding, as at present practised among the Anazeh and Shammar, must have had a degenerating effect upon their blood stock, which is only now beginning to show its results. That this system has in most of its features been the same from time immemorial in Arabia, is no doubt true, but there is one point on which it is more likely the practice has been modified by recent circumstances. In former times when the tribes were rich and prosperous, it cannot be doubted, but they kept a larger proportion of horses as compared with mares than is now seen. At present time there can hardly be more than one full-grown horse kept for stud purposes to every two hundred mares. Indeed, the proportion is probably far smaller, and this fact alone is sufficient to account for much of the barrenness and much of the inferiority of the produce, complained of in the desert. In England such a proportion would not be tolerated. Then, if there be any truth in the doctrine that in-and-in breeding is wrong, this too may be looked upon as an increasing evil in the desert. The Shammar have long been separated from the rest of Arabia, and, though occasionally recruiting their breeding stock by capture from the Anazeh, they have been for a couple of hundred years practically cut off from all communication with other horse-breeders. They have despised the horses of their Kurdish and Persian neighbours too thoroughly to allow any infusion of blood from them, and thus have been forced to breed in-and-in during all these generations. The Anazeh, too, though not so absolutely severed from Central Arabia, have, since the reduction of Jebel Shammar by the Wahabis, been precluded from free communication with the peninsula, and have become more and more isolated; and the evil has been exaggerated by the extraordinary fanaticism shown by both Anazeh and Shammar in favour of certain special strains of blood which monopolise their attention. At the present moment all the blood stock of the Anazeh tribes must be related in the closest degrees of consanguinity. That this fanaticism operates most injuriously there can hardly be a doubt. The horses bred from are not chosen for their size or their shape, or for any quality of speed or stoutness, only for their blood. We saw a horse with a considerable reputation as a sire, among the Aghedaat, for no other reason than that he was a Maneghi Hedruj of Ibn Sbeyel’s strain. The animal himself was a mere pony, without a single good point to recommend him, but his blood was unexceptionable, and he was looked upon with awe by the tribe.

These two points then, the insufficiency of stud horses and in-and-in breeding, may be looked upon as exceptional, yet adequate causes of degeneracy among the rank and file of the Bedouin horses north of Jebel Shammar.

It is difficult to understand how it happens that the pure Arabian race should have in fact retained as much of its good quality as it has. In all ages and in all parts of Arabia, to say nothing of the points I have already mentioned, an unpractical system of breeding has prevailed, due in part to prejudice, and in part to peculiarities of climate and soil. To begin with, there has been the extraordinary prejudice of blood I have spoken of, and which, though doubtless an excellent one as between pure Arabians and “kadishes,” is hardly valid as between the different strains of pure blood. An inferior specimen of a favourite strain is probably preferred all over Arabia to a fine specimen of a lower strain, or rather of a less fashionable one. Thus the Bedouin’s judgment of the individual horse itself, when he does judge it, is rather a guess at this pedigree than a consideration of his qualities. In examining a horse, the bedouin looks first at his head. There, if anywhere, the signs of his parentage will be visible. Then, maybe, he looks at his colour to see if he have any special marks for recognition, and last of all at his shape.

Of the speed of the animal, though much is talked of it, it is seldom that anything accurate is known. The Bedouins have no set races by which they can judge of this, and the relative merits of their mares can hardly be guessed at in the fantasias where they figure. Even in war it is rather a question of endurance, than of speed, which is the better animal; and, where a real flight and a real pursuit takes place, the course is so seldom a straight one, that it is as often that the best trained or the best ridden mare gets the advantage, as the one which really has the speed. A mare, celebrated for speed in the desert, is as often as not merely a very well-broken charger. The Bedouins have, moreover, no idea, even if they had the intention, of riding their horses so as to give them full advantage of their stride. They must be very hard pressed indeed, if they keep on at a steady gallop for more than a mile or two together. Their parties and expeditions, even where haste is necessary, are constantly interrupted by halts and dismountings; and a steady pace all day long is a thing not to be thought of. They go, however, immense distances in this way, cantering and stopping and cantering again, and are out sometimes for a whole month together, during which time their mares are very insufficiently fed, and often kept for days at a time without water. They are also exposed to every hardship in the way of climate, heat, and cold, and pitilesss wind. The mares then, depend rather on stoutness and long endurance of privations, than on speed, for finding favour with their masters.

The education they receive, no doubt, prepares them for this, but at the same time it interferes with their growth, and prevents them from developing the full posers of strength and speed they might otherwise acquire. The colt, as soon as it is born, and this may be at any time of the year (for the Bedouins have no prejudice in favour of early foaling), is fastened, by a cord tied either round the neck or round the hind leg above the hock, to a tent-rope, and kept thus close to the tent all day, its dam going out the while to pasture. The little creature by this early treatment becomes extraordinarily tame, suffering itself to be handled at once and played with by the children. It is fed, as soon as it can be made to drink, on camel’s milk, which the bedouins pretend will give it the endurance of that beast; and, at any rate by the end of the month, it is weaned altogether from the mare. The real reason of this can hardly be the good of the foal, but the necessity of making use of the mare for riding. The Bedouins allow at most a month before and a month after foaling for rest. The colt then has not the advantage we think so essential to proper growth, of running with its mother during its first season. It continues, however, quite tame, and, as soon as it is a year old, is mounted a little by the children, and later on by any boy who is a light weight. The Bedouins declare that, unless a colt has done really hard work before he is three years old, he will never be fit to do it afterwards; so in the course of his third year he is taken on expeditions, not perhaps serious ghazus, where he would run some risk of breaking down or being captured, but on minor journeys; and he is taught to gallop in the figure of eight, and change his legs so as to grow supple. This treatment is indeed a kill or cure one; and, if the colt gets through it, there is little fear of his breaking down afterwards. It is seldom that one sees a three-year old without splints, though curbs and spavins are not common. I have seen several animals with the shank bone permanently bent, through hard work when very young. I agree, however, with the Bedouins, in believing that to their general health and powers of endurance this early training is necessary. The fillies go through the same course of treatment, and themselves become mothers before they are four years old. The colts are sold off when opportunity offers to the townsmen of Deyr, Aleppo or Mosul, as the case may be, or to dealers who come round to the tents of the tribes, during their summer stay in the extreme north. The best are usually taken by the townsmen, as the dealers, especially those who supply the Indian market, seldom or never purchase hadud colts. These cost about three times as much as the others, and it is easy to forge a pedigree. The townsmen, particularly those of Deyr, who are almost Bedouins themselves, know the difference well, and care for nothing but the best. Others are sold to the low tribes, who take them in to the towns for further sale, as soon as they have broken them. The fillies are generally kept in the tribe.


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