The Arabian horse: famed for its endurance, strength and loyalty

Celebrated in poetry, immortalised in myth and referenced in religious texts, Arabian horses have played a key part in the spread of Islam.

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They have been celebrated in poetry, immortalised in myth and referenced in religious texts; battles have been fought on them, and over them, and, for some of their owners, they have been a prize valued more highly than a wife. This is the Arabian horse, famed for its endurance, strength and loyalty, a sought-after animal and source of prestige to its owners, whose influence in the Arabian Peninsula reaches back to pre-Islamic times. "Horses know their horsemen the best," says Lt Col Khaled Hamad al Merri, repeating an old Arabic proverb that speaks of the deep bond that can grow between animal and owner. Lt Col al Merri, 42, is responsible for at least 100 horses in the police and Royal stables in Ras al Khaimah. After more than 20 years' experience working with the animals, he has reached a firm conclusion about them. "An Arabian horse is just perfect, in its figure, in its proportions, in its endurance, its loyalty."
There is, he says, much to admire about the Arabian, with its wide, flat forehead, broad nose, long, erect ears and a neck "straight and slender, with tender skin with visible vessels". But for him, the creature's most beautiful feature is its mane, "long, black and shiny like a woman's hair. Just so beautiful." There are, he says, several misconceptions about the horse, such as the idea it has incredible vision. "Their eyesight isn't as sharp as people think," he says, "and so they get uncomfortable if a stranger approaches them fast and tries to touch them. They identify their riders and caretakers by the sound of their walk." Breaking in and training an Arabian demands an appreciation of the animal's psychology: "Their personality is as varied as humans and they are among the most intelligent, proud animals that I have come across."
Today, while their use is much reduced, the horses are still used by the police to patrol villages at night. One of the oldest stables is only 45 years old. "Prior to that, horses would roam freely with their nomadic owners." An equestrian expert who has dealt with all types of horses, Lt Col al Merri is adamant there is none more beautiful than an Arabian. "It is a magnificent animal and unless you had an Arabian horse, you wouldn't understand how different it is than the rest," he says. Centuries of isolation have helped produce the animal's distinctive nature and form, in particular, its head and tail. It is thought to be one of the world's oldest surviving breeds, though its origins are uncertain. According to the Arabian Horse Association, the breed possibly came from northern Syria or southern Turkey, or even the south-west of the Arabian Peninsula. But by 2,500BC, when the Bedouin first ventured into the harsh interior of central Arabia, "they took with them the prototype of the modern Arabian horse".
The demands of desert life, and the eye of the Bedouin for the horses that best met their needs, shaped the breed we know today. "The Bedouin horse breeders were fanatical about keeping the blood of their desert steeds absolutely pure, and through line-breeding and inbreeding, celebrated strains evolved which were particularly prized for distinguishing characteristics and qualities," says the Arabian Horse Association. "The mare evolved as the Bedouin's most treasured possession. The harsh desert environment ensured that only the strongest and keenest horse survived, and it was responsible for many of the physical characteristics distinguishing the breed to this day." There are considered to be five main ancestors: Kaheela, named for its black eyes; Ebia, named because the horse protects its rider's cloak; Dahma, which is black; Showeimah, whose bodies bear moles; and Saqlaweya.
The breed's history is so long it is no surprise "there are so many myths and legends about the horse", says Lt Col al Merri, "from how angels got jealous when Adam favoured a horse, to how the Arabian horse's courage and loyalty helped win many of the battles during the spread of Islam." One of the myths dates from the time of Solomon. It is said that after his marriage to Belqees of Sheba, he gave his stallion to a group of Azd tribesmen, who lived in the area known today as Yemen, to help them on their travels. This act gave the horse its name, Zad al Rakeb - helper of travellers - and this, according to the myth, was the first horse used by Arabs. When the Banu Taghleb, a northern Arabian tribe, heard about the horse, they came seeking a hybrid that was later named al Hajees and which, being even better than Zad al Rakeb, became one of the best-known original Arabians. The breed is mentioned in the Quran and praised for its beauty and strength in several chapters; in one, Al Adiyat, God swears by them, vowing: "By the [steeds] that run, with panting [breath], striking fire [by their hooves]." And if the breed was spread on the back of the expansion of Islam, so Islam spread on the back of the breed, the animal carrying many of the warriors as they conquered new territories. "Often, the Bedouin man would cherish and spoil his horse more than his wife," says Lt Col al Merri. The Prophet Mohammed was fond of horses and called on Muslims to acquire and tend them. He owned several himself, most of them gifts, and their names passed down through history. Al-Sakb was the first horse owned by the Prophet and it is said he bought it from a Bedouin and named it because it evoked the abundance of spilt water. The purest of Arabian horses could be found in this region even before the unification of the emirates, though they belonged mainly to the royal families. Unlike camels, horses were owned by only the most influential of Emiratis.
"The camels had their role and the horses had theirs," says Lt Col al Merri. "Where everyone depended on the camel for everyday use, for transportation and milk, the horse remained a symbol of status and an object of prestige and admiration."
Slowly and thanks largely to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and an avid horse-lover and owner of some of the world's greatest Arabian horses, the breed became more popular and attainable for a broader section of society.
"He popularised chivalry, horse breeding and the racing industry when in the 1980s he opened Nad al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai, opening horse racing to the public," Lt Col al Merri says. With their time as warhorses far behind them, other roles were found for the Arabians. Besides being glorified pets, the horses began to compete in flat and endurance races, as well as in beauty competitions, on the local and international stage.
The history of the horse, ancient and modern, is celebrated at the House of the Horse museum in Dubai, with rooms devoted to bloodlines, physiology and the role of the Arabian in Islam and Arabic literature. The museum also features photographs and artefacts from sites that have revealed chapters in the history of man and horse in the area. One site that has yielded many finds over the years is at Meleiha, a small village south of al Dhaid, about 50km from the coast in Sharjah.
Investigations begun in the 1970s revealed a pre-Islamic settlement that included a large tomb with the remains of horses and camels buried alongside their owners. A horse's bridle, decorated with metal rings and 10 gold plates, was dated to 300BC. Arabians are classified by their place of origin and the physical traits associated to these areas. Hejazis have beautiful black eyes, strong hooves and ankles; the Najdi have long necks, lean faces, small ears, broad buttocks and thighs.
Yemeni horses have coarse, thick bodies, short necks, thin buttocks and thighs, and Syrian Arabians boast beautiful colours, wide eyes, bald foreheads, soft hooves and big jawbones. In the 1990s the UAE began to take its equine heritage seriously, becoming more organised in preserving local breeds and issuing internationally recognised birth certificates. Many of the Royal stables registered with international horse clubs. "Sheikh Zayed [the founding President of the UAE] wanted to preserve the Asil [pure blood] Arabian horse to preserve an old Arabian heritage," says Dr W Georg Olms, chairman of the Germany-based Asil Club, whose membership includes the stables of the late Sheikh Zayed, and those of a number of other UAE royals.
"Only two per cent of the world's horses are Asil horses and so in the past two decades there has been a movement to preserve the original breeds as they are considered the noblest of horses," says Dr Olms, who regularly visits the UAE to advise on and monitor the breeding of Arabian horses in the Royal stables.
"As the UAE was moving forward and developing, there was concern that some of the traditions might get lost along the way, so we were called in to make sure the Asil horses were preserved."
He estimates that only 100 of the horses in the UAE are Asils, all of them owned by senior royals. Worldwide, says the Asil Club, the purebred Arabian is "an endangered Arabian cultural heritage". Owing to interbreeding with horses of non-Asil blood "there is a risk that the authentic Asil Arabian will be lost for posterity".
Dr Olms started the society after his first encounter with an Arabian when riding a horse called Yanik in 1939; confiscated from the Polish Army, it had once belonged to Count Waclaw Rzewuski, famed for his Arabian horses: "It was so magnificent, that I felt something had to be done to preserve such a breed." The legend of the Arabian was born in war and adversity, and enhanced by history. "When Napoleon went to Russia in 1812, he lost most of his army and horses," says Dr Olms. "Out of 180,000 horses, only 2,000 survived and they were the Arabian horses." The Arabian, he says, can "withstand the harshest of climates and circumstances, as it was born in the harshest place - the desert."