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Geauga County, Northeast Ohio
since 1995

Articles of History A Hundred Years Ago

We thought you might find it interesting to see an example of what Americans had available to read about Arabian horses a hundred years ago in 1892. What follows is excerpted from ATLANTIC MONTHLY, July 1892. While space did not permit us to run the entire feature the vast majority of it appears here. The author presents some interesting conjecture and observations from various writers and travelers of the time as well as opinions of his own.

From the Khamsat Vol. 9 num. 2 May '92


from ATLANTIC MONTHLY, July 1892
by H.C.Merwin
Part I
Part II
             There is no other race in the world by whom good birth is valued so highly as it is by the Bedouins of Arabia. and yet these nomadic clans are, in their form of government, the most democratic of people. Every Arab finds himself the member of a tribe, but if he chooses to leave it, he can do so without let or hindrance. He may take refuge with strangers, or pitch his tent in solitude and isolation. Even when the majority determine upon war or upon some warlike expedition, the minority are not obliged, either by law or by public opinion, to join with their fellows. They stay at home, if they prefer, without discredit. Each tribe has a leader, a sheikh, elected by universal suffrage; but his authority is very limited, and his commands are enforceable only so far as they commend themselves to the popular judgment. The sheikh is an agent rather than a ruler. All matters of real importance are decided by vote. The sheikh leads the tribe to new camping-grounds, settles small disputes, transacts political business, entertains strangers, and keeps open house at all hours of the day and night. This last is perhaps his chief function. The humblest shepherd addresses the sheikh by his Christian name, and neither in dress nor conduct does he affect any superiority. Moreover, the possession of wealth will not procure a man distinction or respect among the Bedouins any more than the possession of office; and this is remarkable, because the Bedouins love money to the point of avarice.
            But to high birth the Arab, democrat though he is, renders homage most sincere. There are, among the Bedouins, certain families of traditional good breeding. For such families a respect almost fanatical is shown; and it is from their members that the sheikhs are usually chosen. Nor is this high value erroneously attached to noble blood. Good breeding and good birth are nearly always found together in the desert, and the sheikhs are commonly distinguished by the quiet elegance and dignity of their manners. If a sheikh be deficient in this regard, he is almost invariably a man of inferior origin, raised to command by force of his own talents and energy.
            The respect which the Bedouins have for high birth in their horses is, if possible, even greater, becoming absolutely fanatical. Lady Anne Blunt speaks of the reports which reached her party in the desert as to the extraordinarily fine pedigree of a particular horse owned by a certain old man.

                " 'Maneghi ibn Sbeyel' [the title of the horse's family], they kept on repeating in a tone of tenderness, and as if tasting the flavor of each syllable.' "

The travelers made a considerable detour in order to see this famous animal. When they arrived at the tent of his owner, they found that he had gone to borrow a donkey for the purpose of moving the family furniture to a new encampment; for

                "a horse of the Maneghi's nobility could not, of course, be used for baggage purposes."

Presently, however, the old man appeared, riding his high-born steed, which proved to be

                " a meek-looking little black pony, all mane and tail."

           Mr. Wilfrid Blunt expresses the opinion that the Arabian horse is degenerating through excessive inbreeding, and because animals of the best families, though individually inferior, are preferred to superior individuals, but members of families belonging to an inferior rank. However this maybe, it is certain that the extraordinary excellence of the Arabian horse in his present form could never have been developed or maintained, had it not been for the almost reverential care which the Bedouins bestow upon equine descent. (1)
            The Arabs have no written pedigrees; it is all an affair of memory and of notoriety in the tribe. Certain alleged pedigrees of Arabian horses, couched in romantic language, and represented as carried in a small bag hung by a cord around the animal's neck, have been published; but these are forgeries, gotten up probably by horse dealers, Egyptian, Syrian, or Persian. The breeding of every horse is a matter of common knowledge, and it would be impossible for his owner to fabricate a pedigree so as to deceive the natives, even if he were so inclined. The Bedouins, it seems necessary to admit, are in general great liars; and they will lie (to a stranger) about the age, the qualities, or the ownership of a horse, but they will not lie about his pedigree, even when they can do so with impunity. To be truthful on this subject is almost a matter of religion, certainly a point of honor, in the desert.
            How far back do these pedigrees run, and what was the origin of the Arabian horse? These questions it is impossible to answer definitely. The Bedouins themselves believe that Allah created the equine genus on their soil.

                "The root or spring of the horse is," they say, "in the land of the Arab."

This pious belief is shared by a few generous souls in England and America, a small but devoted band, who gallantly defend the cause of the Arabian horse against his only rival, the modern English thoroughbred. Chief among these faithful was the late Major R. D. Upton, who visited the desert himself, and who has recorded his experiences and his view.(2) Major Upton concluded that the horse was found in Arabia

                "not later than about one hundred years after the deluge, ... if indeed he did not find his way there immediately after the exodus from the ark, which is by no means improbable,"

and this probability the author then proceeds seriously to consider. According to Major Upton and a few kindred spirits, all other breeds are mongrels, and the only way to obtain horseflesh in its best and purest form is to go back to the fountain head, to the horse of the desert.
            Now, Major Upton reports an observation made by him upon horses in the desert as follows:

                "A line somewhat darker than the general color of the animal is to be seen in colt foals, running in continuation of the mane along the spine, and to be traced for some way even among the long hair of the tail. I never saw it in a filly ... It can be traced in old horses and in those of a very dark color...It appears as the first or primitive color of the animal, which tones away by almost imperceptible degrees from the back to the belly; it may be seen in lines on the males of other wild animals. At certain seasons, and as the horse ages, and dependent also in some degree on his condition, the dark color spreads over the shoulders and upper parts of the body, ... as if shaded with black."

            To be sure, Major Upton states that this phenomenon is

                "totally different from the markings of the zebra, quagga, or any of the hybrids;"

but nevertheless it seems to be essentially the same. Zebras and quaggas are of the equine family; and this peculiar marking of the Arabian horse would, on Darwin's hypotensis, indicate that if not himself the primitive horse, he at least stands nearer to that animal than any other existing equus.
           However, this discussion has no practical value, nor is it essential even for the Arab-maniacs to prove their case historically. This fact is sufficient and cannot be controverter, namely, that the Arabian horse is the only one now extant of a fixed type. His antiquity is such that, in comparison with him, all other breeds are mongrels of yesterday. It is conjectured that he dates back to the time of Ishmael; and it is reasonably certain that the present breed existed in the days of Mahomet.
            This is antiquity enough. The English thoroughbred is a modern product derived from native English stock, from Arab and Barb importations, possibly from some mixture also of European horses; and the first volume of the studbook, in which every thoroughbred horse is registered, was not issued until the year 1808. According to the standard of the desert, therefore, the English horse is a parvenu; and although he is bigger, stronger, and faster than the Arab, he is less sound, beautiful, intelligent, and gentle. Moreover, as must be the case with a new breed, the English thoroughbred varies greatly in size, in shape, and in all other characteristics; whereas the Arabian, though each family has its peculiarities, is much more nearly of one type, and almost of one size. A pure Arabian ranges from 14 to 15 hands, being commonly about 14.2. Very rarely one stands as low as 13.3, or as high as 15.1. An English officer, speaking of Arabian horses as racers, observes, "They can all gallop about equally fast."
            In estimating the Arabian horse, or in comparing him with his English contemporary, it must be borne in mind that an Arabian of absolutely pure breed is an animal which few European eyes have ever looked upon. Of all the Oriental horses imported to England in the eighteenth century, and upon which, in great part, the English thoroughbred is founded, only one, the famous Darley Arabian, imported by Mr. Darley in the latter part of Queen Anne's reign, is known to have been of pure lineage. It is probable that no Arabian stallion that was asil, that is thoroughbred, has yet reached our shores,(3) and perhaps the only eastern mare of that degree ever in the United States is Naomi, a late importation from England.
            There are no wild horses in Arabia, although there is a wide-spread belief to the contrary. This animal, as an old writer explains, "can live only of man's hand in the droughty khala. "The purebred Arabian horses are the possession, almost exclusively, of a single great Bedouin clan known as the Anazeh, and of this clan a tribe called the Gomussa have the best. Even among the Bedouins, apart from the Gomusa, there are not many animals of the highest stamp.

                " I doubt," says Mr. Blunt, "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 point of blood, for animals of the purest strains are still fairly numerous, but first-class in quality and appearance as well as blood."

            Across central Arabia extends a vast territory called the Nejd, composed of sandy deserts and rich pastures. This whole region is a plateau, and the atmosphere is dry and bracing. It is under such conditions that horses thrive, and here was the original home of the Arabian horse. In Flanders, where the air is humid, and the pastures are moist and rank, horses grow large, but they have flat feet, inferior sinews, lymphatic temperaments, and soft hearts. Flemish nags have been imported largely to England for many hundred years, being cheap, big, and showy; but they have always been noted for their lack of endurance. Some years ago, the Job masters of London recruited their immense stables of carriage horses from Flanders, where handsome pairs could be obtained at a low price; but the experiment failed. The Flemish coaches were found so deficient in toughness and grit that it was cheaper to employ English-bred horses at double the price. Even among thoroughbreds unsoundness is frequent, in the British Isles, due in great part to the moist climate. The English horse, when transplanted to India and Australia, becomes much improved in respect to the soundness of his feet and legs, and this improvement is doubtless the effect of a drier climate.
            In the centre of Arabia, in the district of Nejd, and on the edge of the desert, is the city of Hail, where for many years has existed the famous stud of the Emir of Hail. Emissaries of this dignitary are constantly on the lookout for mares, wherever they can find them, and not infrequently ghazus, or marauding expeditions, have been sent out by the Emir against this or that tribe, for the express purpose of capturing some particular mare whose fame had spread over the desert. It was of the animals in this stud that Mr. W. G. Palgrave's oft-quoted description was written. Out of his two interesting volumes (4) this passage alone has survived:

                "Remarkably full in the haunches, with a shoulder of a slope so elegant as to make one, in the words of an Arab poet, 'go raving mad with it;' a little, a very little saddle-backed, just the curve which indicates springiness without any weakness; a head broad above, and tapering down to a nose fine enough to verify the phrase of 'drinking from a pint pot;' ... a most intelligent and yet a singularly gentle look; full eye; sharp, thorn like little ear; legs, fore and hind, that seemed as if made of hammered iron, so clean and yet so well twisted with sinew; a neat, round hoof, just the requisite for hard ground; the tail set on, or rather thrown out, in a perfect arch; coat smooth, shining, and light; the mane long, but not overgrown nor heavy; and an air and step that seemed to say, "Look at me; am I not pretty? ' - their appearance justified all reputation, all value, all poetry. The prevailing color was chestnut or gray. A light bay, an iron-color, white or black, were less common...But if asked what are, after all, the specially distinctive points of the Nejdee horses, I should reply, the slope of the shoulder, the extreme cleanness of the shank, ,and the full rounded haunch, though every other part, too, has a perfection and a harmony unwitnessed (at least by my eyes) any where else."

            And yet Mr. Blunt says of this same stud:

                "Of all the mares in the prince's stable, I do not think more than three or four could show with advantage among the Gomussa."

            He admits, however, that their heads were handsomer than those of the Anazeh mares. The latter are built more nearly on a racehorse model, having greater length of body and of limb. The Nejd horses are perhaps prettier, though not so blood-like. Unlike the Anazeh mares, they stand higher at the withers than at the rump; and they are distinguished by their splendid carriage of head and tail.

                "Every horse at Hail," writes Mr. Blunt, "had its tail set on in the same fashion; in repose something like the tail of a rocking-horse, and yet not, as has been described [by Mr. Palgrave] 'thrown out in a perfect arch.' In motion the tail was held high in the air, and looked as if it could not under any circumstance be carried low."

            It has been suggested that this phenomenon is partly, at least, the effect of art; that before the foal is an hour old its tail is bent back over a stick, the twist producing a permanent result. but this is probably a slander.
            There is one family of American trotters, that off the Mambrino Patchens, which alone among American-bred nags is distinguished for the beautiful carriage of the tail, and jealous persons have made the same insinuation in reference to these horses that was directed against the stud of the Emir of Hail.
            All Arabian horses carry their tails well, and next to the head and its setting on, the tail is the feature which the Arab looks to in judging a horse.

                "I have seen mares gallop with their tails out straight as colts, and fit, as the Arabs say, to hang your cloak on,"

            Major Upton remarks. A family of horses renowned in the desert is descended from a mare of which the following tradition exists. Her owner was once flying from the enemy, and, being hard pressed, he cast off his cloak in order to relieve the mare of that unnecessary weight. But when, having distanced his pursuers, he halted, what was his surprise to find that his cloak had lodged on the mare's outstretched tail and still hung there! From this incident, the heroine of the tale has figured ever since in the unwritten pedigrees of the desert as "the Arab of the Cloak."
            Occasionally, though not often, one sees an American-bred horse, especially if it be a colt, galloping in the pasture with its tail carried so high that the hair divides and falls forward like a streamer. This is a very common sight in the desert.

                "I have seen a mare, an Abayan Sherakh," writes Major Upton, "galloping loose, with both head and tail high to an extent such as I could hardly have believed, had I not seen it. Her tail was not only high, but seemed to be right over her back, and, besides streaming out behind like a flag, covered her loins and quarters. It was a splendid sight to one who can appreciate a horse."

            A single horseman mounted on a mare that carried her tail in this superb manner, and galloping in the distance, away from the spectator, has often been mistaken in the desert for three horsemen riding abreast.



(1) Mr. Wilfrid Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne Blunt, made two journeys to the desert, and their observations are recorded in two interesting books, written chiefly by Lady Anne. These are, the Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates and Our Pilgrimage to Nejd. They lived among the Bedouins for some time, and what they report about the Arabian horse, his qualities, his descent, and the families in which he is grouped, agrees in all substantial respects with the account given by Major Upton.

(2) In Newmarket and Arabia, a small book published in 1873; Gleanings from the Desert, a later work, only a part of which is devoted to horseflesh; and a paper concerning Arabian Horses in Fraser's Magazine for Sept. 1876

(3) Except perhaps Kismet, a stallion recently imported, who died soon after landing.

(4) Central and Eastern Arabia


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