A Horse of Legend and Lore

By Debra Kay Schrishuhn

Copyright 2009, the Institute for the Desert Arabian Horse. All rights reserved.

The Desert Arabian horse was developed and bred over millennia by nomadic Bedouin peoples of the greater Arabia Deserta, an area roughly encompassing today’s countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Oman. These Arabic-speaking peoples were camel and sheep herders who developed the original Arabian horse for transportation and military use. It was also a source of great social prestige, and families took great care to breed the horse only within their concept of asil (pure, authentic). The Bedouin usually rode mares, and kept only a few stallions for breeding, usually the sons of famous mares.

Horses were bred according to strict tradition passed orally from generation to generation. Horses that met a tribe’s conditions as pure (asil) had a rasan – a strain name that functioned like a family name. This family name was carried along the female line, passing from mother to daughter. Each horse was also identified by the marbat – the individual, family, or clan who bred the horse. The Arabian Desert is a huge place, and tribes did not always know the rasan and marbat of others. Therefore, what some considered to be asil for their own clan might not be recognized as such by others.

(more about the Bedouin concept of asil explained by Edouard Al-Dahdah at  http://daughterofthewind.org/the-bedouin-notion-of-asil/what-is-asil/ )

For hundreds of years, Westerners made expeditions to the desert, usually bringing back stallions to improve local stock and create light breeds of horse. The Desert Arabian was valued for its hardiness, thriftiness, intelligence, and stamina – all-important characteristics for cavalry horses. Among both Bedouin and Westerners, this exceptionally hardy and intelligent horse became the stuff of great legend and poetry.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw a marked decline in breeding by the Bedouin, as nomadic lifestyles clashed with settled populations, and most Bedouin themselves became settled. A few efforts to conserve the original Arabian horse were undertaken outside of the Bedouin nomadic areas. The pashas who ruled Egypt for the Ottoman Empire acquired large numbers of horses and bred them on vast stud farms. Lady Ann and Wilfred Blunt of England acquired stock during three trips to the Desert in the late 19th century and founded studs in England (Crabbet) and Egypt (Sheykh Obeyd). Studs established in Europe from desert stock were later decimated by war. While registries of “Arabian” horses developed in the West, registration practices varied widely, and such records as existed were sometimes lost during war.

By the middle of the 20th century, efforts were made in America and Europe to identify living horses that would have honored the legacy and cultural strictures of Bedouin breeding. Forward-thinking breeders identified the precious stock that had descended entirely from the original Desert Arabian, with only a few percent of registered Arabians meeting that criteria. Mrs. John Ott and her daughter Jane Ott published their research on the remaining horses in the US that were of Bedouin origin (the Blue Catalog). Their work became the core of Al Khamsa, Inc. In Europe, the Asil Club took up the effort to identify and perpetuate the asil horse. Various organizations and informal groups of breeders focused on perpetuating certain sub-groups (heritage groups), such as Blue Star, Davenport, Heirloom, Sheykh Obeyd, and Straight Egyptian.

Although these efforts resulted in an increase in breeding during the latter part of the 20th century, the genetic diversity represented in Desert Arabian horses is declining. As we enter the 21st century, urgent action is needed to conserve this precious genetic resource.

Statistics and trends in breeding Desert Arabians in North America

Bloodlines and heritage groups explained