Photography courtesy of Glenn Jacobs glenn-jacobs.com
As the first fingers of the sun creep up over the desert, a mare and foal stop to drink at a waterhole. Elsewhere, the final stars in the ink-blue sky fade as the muezzin recites the adhān, which rings out from the minaret over the rooftops. There is only one place in the world you can be right now and that is the Middle East, the birthplace of the Arabian horse and an area filled with much allure and mystique for all those that visit.
What is it about this part of the world that transfixes people so much? Saying you are off to the Middle East has an interesting reaction in people and, invariably, they are picturing a scene reminiscent of the one described above, their own version of Arabia and their own vision of a herd of Arabian mares, galloping through the desert of their forefathers.
The history of the Arabian horse is full of mythology and mystery, not least as the origins of this beautiful creature are unclear. For many centuries, the Arabian horse has been the subject of dreams and the focus of literature; when added to the Middle Eastern backdrop, the combination has made for a potent mix.
The fact that the origins of the Arabian horse are unclear has meant that, over the centuries, a multitude of myths have formed. With the origins of the Arabian firmly fixed in the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula in particular, the mythology features visions of deserts and mountains, Prophets and Kings, Bedouins and their faithful steeds. And many of these stories and names continue down to the modern Arabian horse world. Al Khamsa, for instance, means “the five” and the origins of this name comes from a myth about the Prophet Mohammed and how he chose his foundation mares, testing their loyalty as well as their courage. As with all myths, there are a number of versions, the most popular states that, after a long journey through the desert, Mohammed let his herd free so that they could race together to an oasis so that they could drink. But before the herd reached the water, Mohammad called for the horses to return to him and just five mares responded, faithfully returning to their master in spite of their desperate thirst. And so these five mares became his favourites, known as Al Khamsa, and they became the founders of the five main strains of the Arabian horse: Keheilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. Of course, being full of mythology, different versions of this story have the mares named as Keheilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Managhieh and Shuweymah. There are many breeders today that claim that the modern Bedouin Arabian descended from these mares and certainly, regardless of truth or not, this is story invokes the true sense of the Arabian personality, that of the loyal horse and companion that would put their master’s needs before their own.
Another myth concerns the King Solomon, ruler of ancient Israel. One version recounts how the Queen of Sheba gave the King Safanad, an Arabian mare whereas another says that King Solomon himself gave his own stallion, Zad El-Rakeb, to the Banu Azd people when they came to pay tribute. Said to be faster than zebras and gazelles, Zad El-Rakeb was put to stud, where he became the founding sire of the Arabian breed.
At the 2009 WAHO Conference in Oman, Hamad Salim Rashid Al Belushi, a guest speaker, gave this version of the story: “Now I will talk a little about the origin of Arabian horses, starting with the stallion ‘Zaad Ar-Rakib’, whose name literally translates as ‘the rider’s supply’. This was the first horse known in the Arab world and to which all Arabian horses are attributed. He was the best of its type. He was owned by the Azd, an Omani tribe, and was gifted to them – according to the best narrations – by Prophet Sulaiman bin Dawood (Solomon son of David). They had a story in this regard as related by biography and horse books. It said, as they relate to each other, that Mohammed bin as-Saeb (known as Ibn al-Kalbi) said: ‘Zaad Ar-Rakib was one of the best horses offered to Prophet Sulaiman (PBUH). He also said there were 1,000 mares inherited by Prophet Sulaiman from his father. When they were shown to Sulaiman, they busied him off Asr prayer till sunset. Thus, he tied their knees except 100 mares that were not included in the show. Then the prophet said that those 100 mares are better than the 900 ones that caused him to forget to say his prayer’. Ibn al-Kalbi continues: ‘A group of Omanis from Azd tribe came to congratulate Prophet Sulaiman for his marriage to Queen Balqees and to ask him about some of their religious and secular life issues. As the group was getting ready to go back, they requested him for some supplies to help them on their journey home. There, he offered them one of the previously-mentioned horses saying: This is your supply for the journey. Whenever you stop for rest, give one of your group a short spear and let him ride the horse. Then, before you finish collecting your firewood, you will find the rider coming back with a good hunt. The group did as the Prophet instructed and they were blessed with more than enough deer hunt supply and the like all through the journey home. For this reason, the Azidis found no better name for that horse other than Zaad Ar-Rakib – the rider’s supply. Since then, the horse won the fame of being the first known Arabian horse.’
“As the rest of the Arabian tribes heard of the merits of Zaad Ar-Rakib, they were keen to breed their mares to that horse. Consequently, the Taghlub tribe gained the stallion Al-Hajees, which was even better than Zaad Ar-Rakib. So other tribes bred their mares to Al-Hajees. Thus, the Bakr bin Wael tribe gained Ad-Dinaari, which was even better than Al-Hajees, then the Bani Amir tribe gained Aawaj, which means ‘crooked’, from Ad-Dinaari. It is worth saying that the dam of Aawaj was called Subul. The reason behind calling it Al-Aawaj was that it was born when the tribe was moving away in search of water and grazing. So, the foal was left to walk with its mother for two days before it became tired and was carried and tied up astride. So it got frightened and unstable, the fact that caused some crookedness in its backbone. Since then it was called Al-Aawaj, from which most of the Arabian horses descended. The most famous of those was the well-known horse named Thul-iqaal. Later, the rest of pure-bred horses spread. Ibn al-Kalbi mentioned more than 160 names and pedigrees for well-known horses in pre-Islamic and Islamic ages in his book, all of which originate to Thul-Iqaal, Al-Aawaj, Ad-Dinaari and Zaad Ar-Rakib. This shows that the Arabs knew the pedigrees of their horses and knew how to record their horses.”
The world over, Arabians are known as “drinkers of the wind” and mythology suggests that it was the Bedouin that named the horse this through a story involving the Angel Gabriel. The legend has it that the angel descended from heaven, waking Ishmael, son of Abraham, with a wind spout that swirled towards him. The angel commanded the thundercloud to stop scattering dust and rain – which it did by gathering itself into a beautiful, prancing horse that seemed to swallow up the ground; hence the name drinker of the wind. This was deemed to be the first Arabian horse.
The favourite myth though, for myself and for many, comes from another traditional Bedouin story whereby Allah created the Arabian horse from the four winds: spirit from the north, strength from the south, speed from the east, and intelligence from the west. While doing so, he said: “I create thee, oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind victory in battle. On thy back, I set a rich spoil and a treasure in thy loins. I establish thee as one of the glories of the earth… I give thee flight without wings.” Different versions have Allah saying to the south wind: “I want to make a creature out of you. Condense”, and from the material condensed from the wind, he made a bay/burnt chestnut animal. This version of the legend continues with Allah saying: “I call you horse. I make you Arabian and I give you the chestnut colour of the ant. I have hung happiness from the forelock which hangs between your eyes and you shall be the Lord of the other animals. Men shall follow you wherever you go; you shall be as good for flight as for pursuit; you shall fly without wings; riches shall be on your back and fortune shall come through your meditation.”
While stories of winds being blown to shape a horse defy the realms of reality, surely there is a little part of all of us that would rather believe such a tale than have hard, archaeological facts that pin-point the Arabian to a fixed place in time. Because all this mythology and romance is part of the reason that we all fell in love with the breed in the first place and helps to explain why, for many, there is no horse other than the Arabian breed.
Following centuries living with the nomadic Bedouin, the Arabian horse made its way further and further into Europe through years of war and conflict. There, people fell in love with the breed for its many attributes and qualities and began to undertake expeditions to Arabia to purchase these wonderful creatures. Stud farms across Europe crept overseas to the USA and Australasia and soon, the Arabian horse could be found in all four corners of the world.
But for many, the deep-rooted love and fascination with the Arabian lies with it being seen in its homeland. With desert underfoot and blue skies above, the Arabian horse seems to sparkle even brighter under the Middle Eastern sun. The allure of the Arabian horse has always been strong; view it in these surroundings and it is positively potent.
First printed in The Arabian Magazine February 2010 – all rights reserved