What's not to like about the Arabian horse? It's one of the oldest, most respected and loved breeds of horse in the world. The Koran says that Allah made the Arabian horse from the south wind saying, “I create thee Oh Arabian, I give thee flight without wings”. It certainly creates an image of speed and grace - two of the most recognisable attributes of the Arabian horse. But where did the Arabian horse originate, and how does it retain its prestige in countries such as Qatar?
The Arabian horse is beautiful and has such agreeable characteristics that it is used all around the world. It is said its blood can be found in most breeds of horses. It was certainly used in the breeding of the modern Thoroughbred horse. In fact, 93% of recorded Thoroughbreds have Arabian blood.
The origins of the Arabian horse have long been debated. Until recently, it was considered that the ancestor of the Arabian, the 'hot-blooded' horse, made its appearance some 5000 years ago and was domesticated 3500 years ago. However, rock art from around the Middle East and North Africa indicates a different story. The rock art suggests that over 10,000 years ago when the Middle East had a different climate to that of today, the wild 'hot-blooded' ancestors were already roaming the lands.
Early 'hot-blooded' horses were mainly used as warhorses. The Egyptians also used these light horses in their exploration and expansion throughout North Africa and the Middle East. They were instrumental in the development of the lands of the Indus Valley civilizations and Mesopotamian cultures. They were also used in the building of the empires of the Hurrians, Hittites, Kassites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans and others.
In the countries that are now known as Syria, Iraq and Iran, and in other parts of the Arabia peninsula, this horse developed and would soon become known as the Arabian horse.
Over those centuries, the Arabian horse evolved and became the horse of choice for many famous military forces and military men around the world. These fast, agile, light horses were prefered where rapid communications, long-distance expeditions, or short, fast forays were required. Genghis Khan and his mounted hoards conquered countries from China deep into Europe on Arabian horses. Napoleon, Alexander the Great and George Washington all rode Arabians. In the United States of America, the Arabian was chosen over the thoroughbred for cavalry forces. And, credited for the development of this most popular of horse species are the Bedouins.
A Bedouins Prized Possession
The Bedouins and the Arabian horse are undeniably interconnected. In the harsh deserts, the Bedouins needed the horse, and the horse needed the Bedouins. The Arabian’s speed and endurance made it ideal for the tribesman’s style of swift hit and run warfare. Horses could not survive in the desert without the Bedouin who fed them milk and dates.
Bedouin’s measured their wealth by their Arabian horses. Mares were the most valuable asset - mares were the warhorses, stallions were only kept for breeding. It is said that such was their value, a Bedouin would, if necessary, bring his horse into his tent for protection and would raise a foal in his tent with his family. For generations, Bedouins passed down stories of the lineage, bravery and the exploits of their favourite horses. There was great affection between Bedouins and their horses, and the Arabian still retains that quality of loyalty and affection with humans.
The Bedouins have generally been credited with the beginning of selective pure-breeding of Arabian horses. The harsh desert environment meant that only the strongest and keenest horses survived, and that was responsible for many of the physical characteristics distinguishing the breed. In addition, the Bedouins jealously protected the breed, rejecting all other breeds of light horse by any association. These tribes, whose breeding records were kept by memory and passed down verbally through the ages, are also credited as the first to keep such records. Their selective breeding and breeding records are acknowledged with maintaining the purity of the Arabian breed. To date, many Arabian pedigrees can be traced to desert breeding. There is no written record, but because of the importance of purity to the Bedouins, "desert bred" is accepted as an authentic verification of pure blood.
The Arabian horse is readily recognised by several characteristics - which are not all physical:
- Arabians with their high tail carriage and floating trot have an energetic, noble and graceful attitude.
- It performs with speed, sure-footed agility, intelligence, and courage, and is known for its unbeatable endurance.
- Evolving so closely with its Bedouin owners, the Arabian now has a close affinity with man making it loyal, willing and affectionate.
- Physically, there are bay, chestnut, grey and black coloured horses. They have triangle-shaped heads, with large eyes and wide nostrils (that can flair to the size of saucers to take in the maximum amount of oxygen). They have small muzzles with a concave or dished profile, a slim arched neck, a deep chest, a short back (that has one vertebra less than other horses), smooth, strong hindquarters, strong bones and good feet.
The Arabian horse now exists in far greater numbers outside of the desert lands of its origin.
Over the centuries, during conflicts, Arabian horses were captured and sent back to other countries as prizes of war. As the world became smaller and communication between people became commonplace, Arabian horses were gifted to other countries and their leaders. Horses were also bought and sold with increasing regularity. In this way, the Arabian and its bloodline began to spread around the World.
With the invention of modern transport and communications, and the dramatic decrease in nomadic lifestyles, horses necessity diminished. However, the Arabian horse, such is its worldwide popularity as a pure-breed has survived.
In the early part of the last century, greed, ambition, desire for prestige, as well as saving the breed from extinction, was the driving force behind efforts to increase and protect the species. The earliest stud farms were established in Europe and the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries. These included the Crabbet Arabian Stud in England, which provided foundation horses for many countries; and, the American Horse Association, whose foundation saw large numbers of stud farms springing up in response. Studbooks and registers recording the pedigree of purebred horses were also established.
And so, a new era of Arabian horse breeding dawned. Today, Qataris, descendants of the Bedouins, are heavily involved in breeding the horses that evolved alongside their people.
Qatar, Arabian Horses and The Future
Some three centuries ago, the Al Thani ancestors led their people into Qatar and with them came their Arabian horses. Nearly two hundred years later, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani fought a decisive battle against the Ottomans. The Arabian horse played a part in that battle, which eventually led to Qatar's independence.
Qatar, with its Bedouin history, remains fully committed in its efforts to maintain the finest Arabian horses. In 1992 Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, founded Al Shaqab which was the first stud farm in Qatar. It is situated at the site of the decisive battle fought by his ancestors. Since 2004, when the farm became a member of the Qatar Foundation, it has developed into a world-class equestrian centre. It aims to preserve the Arabian breed; to produce horses that are beautiful, athletic, and have character and kindness; and, to provide innovative, educational and competitive opportunities in all of the equestrian arts.
In addition to Al Shaqab Equestrian Centre, there are now others including the Al Jood Stud, the Al Rayyan Farm, the Al Shahania Stud, the Al Thumama Stud and Qatar Racing Ltd.
Today Qatar is said to have the best Arabian horses in the world, and it aims to keep it that way. They have a keen sense of their heritage and their duty to pass their traditions of horsemanship and breeding on to generations to come. They are also eager to compete at an international level - showing and racing. To fulfil its ambitions for the Arabian horse, Qatar has already, in a very short timescale, taken huge steps:
- Governance for racing, breeding and training is in place with rules and regulations, registration and studbook requirements.
- Annual race events are held that are recognised internationally and attended by countries from around the world.
- The country is developing and supporting ownership and sales both at home and abroad.
- The country supports ambitious breeding, training and health care programmes.
- Programmes are in place to increase people's knowledge and appreciation of their equine heritage through education.
- Investment is being made in breeding and training throughout the world.
- The country provides sponsorship of major events around the globe.
Qatari bred, owned and sponsored horses, are already winning at major events and providing stud services worldwide. Plans are in place to grow the industry, at home and abroad. Modern Qataris share an inherited passion for their ancestral companion. The future of the Arabian horse, there through such a large part of history, is safe in Qatar.
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