RECLAIMING MEMORY: An Oral History of the Desert Arabian Horse
Perpetuating an Oral Tradition
The past has the power to inform, instruct, and inspire present and future generations.
The Desert Arabian horse is inextricably bound to the Bedouin peoples who developed, nurtured, and valued its unique characteristics over several millennia and archived its history in their oral traditions. The horse was a core element of traditional Bedouin culture. The Bedouin way of life depended on camels and horses: Arabian horses were bred to be war horses with speed, endurance, soundness, and intelligence. Because many raids required stealth, mares were preferred over stallions because they were quieter and would not give away the position of the fighters. A good disposition was critical; prized war mares were often brought inside family tents to prevent theft and for protection from weather and predators. Although appearance was not necessarily a survival factor, the Bedouin bred for refinement and beauty in their horses as well as for more practical features. In story and song and poem, accounts of famous horses, their feats and the breeding practices of their masters were passed from generation to generation.
From its original desert home, the Arabian horse has traveled to the studs of kings and commoners around the world, no longer the central focus of a living semi-nomadic culture but an adjunct element in post-industrial societies. The lineage of these horses—maintained for generations in memory and transmitted orally throughout the Middle East—has been reduced to written form for Western eyes. The Bedouin-bred Arabian horse was used to create and improve breeds in the West. Only since the late 1800s, however, has the Arabian horse been bred for its own intrinsic value outside of the breed’s “cradle” countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Arabian was a rare breed in the West. The nascent Arabian Horse Club in the U.S. recorded fewer than 250 imports and 7,000 foals born by 1950. The Arabian horse was used mainly as a saddle mount or working ranch horse. By the mid-point of the century, the world was still recovering from the disruption of two world wars. The Bedouin culture was forever changed: Less nomadic, increasingly sedentary. Traditional horse-breeding retreated to the back country and deep desert areas of the Middle East. Colonialism teetered on the brink of dissolution. Political independence came to characterize much of the Middle East, and the economies of many developed nations exploded. Saudi Arabia’s oil riches attracted American investors, and some who went to the Arabian Peninsula returned with magnificent horses. A few of these horses found their way into isolated breeding programs intent on the preservation of a tradition of desert breeding. In 1952, Egypt underwent a political revolution and established a populist government. The Royal Agricultural Society of Cairo (RAS) was reorganized into the Egyptian Agricultural Organization (EAO). The Arabian horse-breeding program at the EAO changed direction. Horses formerly unobtainable were available for export, creating a bold scenario for Arabian horse breeding in the U.S. The 1950s-1980s were the heyday of the Arabian horse industry. More than 2,700 horses were imported, and registrations reached almost 30,000 annually.
Concurrently, a resurgence of interest emerged in the original Desert Arabian horse (the asil or “pure” horse of the Bedouin) and the physiologic, temperamental, and genetic qualities developed by its original custodians. This increased interest led to formal and informal efforts to perpetuate what remained of the asil Arabian horse in the West. The United States became the world’s largest repository of the asil Arabian horse, and concerted, coordinated preservation efforts on behalf of the Desert Arabian horse were initiated. Many of the breeders involved were drawn by the allure of Bedouin culture and the characteristics that had been bred into the horse over millennia. Given its people-oriented disposition and its athletic prowess, the Arabian horse was well-positioned to make a transition from Bedouin war-horse to sporting animal. It quickly took its place as a versatile competitor against new breeds developed for specialized disciplines in the emerging, highly organized, and compartmental world of equine competition.
However, times have changed. The contemporary period from the 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century has seen a substantial decline in general Arabian breeding, with annual registrations in the U.S. averaging fewer than 8,000 since 2000. Although there has been a concurrent overall increase of interest in the Arabian horse elsewhere, especially in the area of its origin, in the West the population of horses of uniquely “desert” origin has shown a sharply downward trend.
Furthermore, our collective, public memory is limited.
There was a time when breeders of Arabian horses scoured the country for people of common interest and experience, but those days are gone. To be sure, some written records from the first half of the 20th century are available, but the breeders who established the Arabian horse in the U.S. are no longer among us. Such written materials as do exist for the period 1950–1990 are largely un-cataloged and un-indexed. Despite some limited efforts to chronicle the experience of those who played key roles in perpetuating the Desert Arabian and popularizing its use in the West, much factual and contextual information has been lost. Many of the men and women who were involved with the breed during this period have critical knowledge that has never been recorded. Neither the character of significant horses nor the passion of their breeders is well-captured in print or other durable media.
Therefore, to supplement the written history of the Desert Arabian horse in the West, to record the passions and recollections of its breeders and other custodians, and to capture the now fast-fading memories of days gone by, the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse has initiated an oral history program. In undertaking a scholarly and adventuresome reclamation of memory, the Institute seeks to preserve the stories of individuals who helped create the fabric of our shared experience with the Desert Arabian Horse and whose lives, in turn, were shaped by the people, places, events, and ideas of their day.
Reclaiming Memory aims to extend the oral tradition of the Bedouin by making recollections of Western breeders, trainers, and other individuals associated with the Desert Arabian horse available to the public, researchers, historians, and future custodians of the breed. These recollections will be collected through sound-recorded interviews and archived as part of the Institute’s permanent collection. On completion of significant interviews, the Institute will create both text and video products to be delivered to the Arabian breeding community and the public in multiple modes (periodicals, monographs, stand-alone video, and text+video via the World Wide Web.)
Reclaiming Memory will focus initially on the crucial period of the 1950’s-1980’s and on those individuals whose length, breadth, and depth of knowledge of the Desert Arabian horse can best inform future breeders, custodians, and others captured by the magic of the Desert Arabian horse. Early interviews will capture recollections of this dynamic period, documenting breeding practices and decision processes of master breeders who produced significant Desert Arabian horses and recording first-hand memories about key horses–characteristics not apparent from written records of awards, competitions, and the success of progeny–and events. Subordinate projects will develop that may cover various bloodline traditions, subsequent historical periods, innovative breeding and conservation practices, and other related themes.
M. Kent Mayfield, MA, M.Div, Ph.D, L.H.D., will serve the project as Principal Investigator. The founding Chair of the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse, Dr. Mayfield was long the president of Al Khamsa, Inc., an organization of breeders of Desert Arabian horses in North America, and serves on the Board of Directors of The Pyramid Society, an international organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Egyptian Arabian horses. Widely respected for his educational programming in the Arabian breeding community, Dr. Mayfield has been an advocate for historical and scientific research.
Consistent with the Institute’s reputation for high scholarly standards, a panel of advisors has been identified for Reclaiming Memory, including both those with knowledge of the horses and people that are the focus of the effort and those with expertise in the professional practices of oral history. The role of the Advisory Committee is to hear high-level project reports and offer advice and feedback on areas of principle interest to the project.
The Advisory Committee will also be asked to:
- Identify individuals and organizations that could assist in acquiring needed information
- Provide technical advice and assistance to interviewers and project administration
- Support liaison with and networking among organizations of shared interest in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East to facilitate cooperative efforts
- Recommend specific strategies and products of importance to a variety of audiences, as well as activities that could raise public awareness about the project and its findings
- Help identify and make contact with sources of financial support for the project;
- Focus attention on under-documented topics and issues related to the project; and
- Assure the cultural and scholarly appropriateness of project efforts.
The Advisory Committee includes:
Robert Arndt – Editor, “Saudi Aramco World,” Mr. Arndt has used his position to broaden knowledge of the cultures, history, and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections with the West.
Joe Ferriss – Equine historian and author, Mr. Ferriss is widely acknowledged as an authoritative source of information on the asil Desert Arabian horse.
Peter Harrigan – Historian and author, Mr. Harrigan has chronicled the miovement of the Arabian horse from its Arabian “cradle” into Europe and North America.
Lisa Lacy – Scholar and researcher with degrees from the University of Texas and Baylor University, Ms. Lacy is the daughter of Jarrell McCracken, pioneer breeder of Egyptian Arabian horses.
Nasr Marei – Marei is the son of Dr. Sayed Marei who held together the EAO horses in the early 1960s after the abdication of the King. The Marei family (led by Mr. Marei’s grandfather) founded El Badeia stud in 1935.
Mohammed Jassim Al-Marzouk – Passionate breeder of Arabian horses from Kuwait, Marzouk has written widely about Bedouin horse-breeding traditions.
Hans Joachim Nagel – President of the World Arabian Horse Organization, Dr. Nagel is a preeminent breeder of Egyptian Arabian horses and owner of the world-famous Katharinenhof Stud in Germany.
Geo. Walter Olms – President of the Asil Club, a major international conservation effort based in Europe, Dr. Olms has been an advocate for the asil Arabian horse for more than thirty-five years.
Mary Jane Parkinson – Long an editor with Arabian Horse World magazine, Ms. Parkinson has an enviable acquaintance with the history of the Arabian horse and its stewards in the U.S. and Europe.
To assure access for Reclaiming Memory to the highest levels of technical expertise and understanding of the cultural significance of historical research, the Institute has entered into a working agreement with the Institute for Oral History. Located in Central Texas, U.S., the Institute for Oral History is a freestanding research department within Baylor University’s Division of Academic Affairs. Its oral history memoirs assist scholars whose research covers such specialized areas as religion and culture, rural life, music and theater, historic preservation, civil rights, and women’s studies, as well as selected topics in economics, law, education, and politics.
The Institute may enter into cooperative agreements with other organizations that have an interest in Reclaiming Memory and can help further its realization and completion.
Reclaiming Memory will be based on approximately two hundred (200) hours of interviews (80–100 interviews of one to five hours each, conducted over a four– to five-year period commencing in later 2010. A sound recording will be made of the interviews, followed by transcription, web mounting, and archiving. In some cases, a video record may be made.
Foundational interviews will be held with those whose efforts during the period 1950–1990 advanced the goal of perpetuating the original horse of the Bedouin in the West. From such interviews, the Institute will establish sub-projects, each with its own roster of interviewees to ensure that the broadest range of memory will be captured. Additionally, nominations of individuals to be included on interview rosters will be solicited from breeders and others currently involved with the Desert Arabian horse.
Categories of Inquiry, as well as an Interview Guide, have been established for Reclaiming Memory. Interviewers will be expected to conduct preparatory research and to adapt a general list of possible questions for specific use in each interview based on that research. Such research will become an integral part of the program archives.
Interviews will generally be conducted by volunteer-interviewers with some subject-matter knowledge. All will have received training in an interview protocol established for this program in cooperation with the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University.
Interviews will be conducted according to professional standards. They will be as complete, verifiable, and usable as possible, with due regard for the ethical protection of the subjects and respect for the proper uses of history.
Some relevant informal interviews are known to exist. Interview subjects or their families may offer such materials (audio tape or video recordings) for inclusion in the archives of the Institute. Acceptance for use in this program will be in accordance with the standards established by the Institute for inclusion in its archives.
Ancillary Material Collection:
Through oral history interviews, researchers often identify useful background materials. The interview subjects may also offer printed materials, photographs, video, videos of horses, and other ephemera that supplement the material covered in the interview. The Institute welcomes the contribution of such material to its archive, subject to the standards and protocols for accepting material for that archive.
All materials, including copyright releases, donation forms, contributed print materials, interviewer notes, the audio/video recordings, and any transcriptions related to the Program will be maintained in the Institute archives in accordance with best professional practices.
Public Access, Use, and Dissemination:
All materials will be for the non-profit purposes described in the Institute’s mission statement. The Institute will retain all rights, while making the materials available to researchers and other interested parties.
A robust program of public information is planned. The Institute maintains a high profile in the Arabian horse community. It sponsors annual symposia that target issues of scientific and historic significance to breeders and enthusiasts of the breed and regularly participates in a anumber of events at which Reclaiming Memory will be widely publicized.
On completion of significant interviews, the Institute anticipates creating both text and video products to be delivered to the Arabian breeding community and the public in multiple modes (periodicals, monographs, stand-alone video, and text+video via the Web). The Advisory Committee will provide recommendations on specific strategies and products of importance to a variety of public audiences.
The Institute will maintain a page within its Web site (www.desertarabian.org) describing Reclaiming Memory, its rationale, objectives, and approach, as well as the names and roles of individuals serving the project. Materials obtained through this program, including a list of the interviews that have been completed and transcribed and descriptions of ancillary materials, if any, will be regularly updated. Program policies, agreement guidelines and forms, and sample release and deed of gift forms will also be posted.
Cost for the five-year program is expected not to exceed $250,000.
|Interviews (16–20 per year for the program duration)||$120,000|
| Interview processing and production
(including transfer and transcription, editing and final production file)
|Program management||$ 17,500|
|Public Dissemination||$ 25,000|
|Archiving – contracted services||$ 7,000|
Initial funding for equipment will be through designated donations to the Institute. Travel expenses for the Foundational interviews will be paid by contribution of the interviewer or by funds donated to the Institute. Additional funding for sub-projects and for the development of text and video products will be sought through grants, donations, or support from cooperating organizations.
For further information, contact principal investigator M. Kent Mayfield