“And Allah took a handful of southerly wind,
blew His breath over it, and created the horse.
He said to the magnificent creature,
“I have made thee as no other.
All the treasures of the earth lie between thy eyes.
Thou shall carry my friends upon thy back.
Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me.
Thou shall fly without wings,
and conquer without any sword. Oh, horse.”
~ Bedouin Legend ~
Well known for his beauty, his majesty and his endurance, this small desert-bred horse has inspired poets and painters for centuries. Few hear his name, that they cannot envision an unfettered horse racing across the dunes, tail bannered in the wind and proud head held high. The Arabian horse has long been the subject of legend and mystery, and yet those who have had the good fortune of knowing an Arabian horse, can attest that each of these legends ring true.
First domesticated in 1500 B.C. the Arabian horse quickly became essential to the survival of the desert nomad tribes, known as the Bedouin. Able to endure the harsh conditions of the desert, fleet of foot and courageous, it is said that the Arabian horses were raised within the same tents as their human owners, that they ate the same foods and, quite often, had greater family status than the children of the tribes. Bedouins could verbally recite the ancestry of every horse in his tribe’s herd, just as he could recite the ancestry of each of the human families, and the language of the region reflects this, with more than 1,000 words associated directly with horses and 60 of these used to describe equine speed alone.
The Arabian horse was used to carry her master across the dangerous desert, as well as participating in raiding parties and fantastic horse races, where the winner was granted the best horses from all the losing competitors’ herds. To be gifted with an Arabian horse was a great honor; even more so if that gift was a mare. While many other cultures preferred stallions for war, the Bedouin prized the mare above all else for, not only was she courageous, but she would not nicker to the enemy’s horses and spoil a well-planned raiding party. The legends of Arabian mares’ loyalty is often spoken of in the Bedouin legend, and it is said that the 5 favored strains of Arabian known in the desert were named after 5 loyal mares.
According to legend, a tribe of Bedouin, after a long journey in the desert, released their mares to run to a watering hole to quench their thirst. As a test of their loyalty, a horn was blown and the mares were called back to their masters before reaching the water. Of the many mares, only five answered the call faithfully and without drinking the water that they so hungered for. In honor of the loyalty that they showed towards their masters, each was given a strain name which would carry on with its descendants and these mares would be known as “Al Kahmsa,” an Arabic term that roughly translates to “the five.” As years passed, the term “Al Khamsa” would come to signify purity of bloodline to the Bedouin people.
To the Bedouin, purity of bloodline was everything. Keeping their breeding records in memory, the ancestry of their horses were passed down to later generations through verbal stories. To date, many Arabian pedigrees can be traced back to “desert breeding” which means that there is no written record but, because of the importance of purity to the Bedouins, a desert bred reference is accepted as an authentic verification of pure blood. The Bedouin tribes were so adamant that their strains be of the utmost purity that, should a mare be bred by an unworthy stallion, she would be considered forever contaminated, and it was believed that she would never again produce of foal of pure blood.
There are several characteristics that set the Arabian horse apart from other breeds, the most distinguishable being their face. Bearing a delicately dished profile and large, prominent eyes, the Arabian horse is often spoken as having a ‘teacup’ muzzle and wide, flaring nostrils. Each of the Arabian’s characteristics held special meaning to the Bedouin people; the large forehead was said to hold supreme intelligence and all the blessings of Allah. The banner-like way in which he held his tail was a symbol of pride, while the arched neck and high crest signified the horse’s great courage.
Another tale, telling of the loyalty and the courage of the Arabian horse, is the tale of the bloody-shouldered mare; a unique mark that is still seen occasionally in these modern days. According to legend, a great war-mare was carrying her Bedouin master across the desert when he was set upon by the enemy and mortally wounded. Falling forward across the mare’s shoulder, he lapsed into unconsciousness and trusted his steed to deliver him back to his family.
For many nights, the mare traveled through the desert, her body heavy with foal and ravaged by the harshest of conditions. Still, she did not give up and continued on until she had reached the camps of her home tribe, where she delivered her master’s body into the arms of his family. As they pulled the Bedouin down from his loyal steed, it was seen that the last of his life’s blood had spilled across the gray mare’s withers and down her shoulder; a stain that would prove never to wash off. Even more miraculous was that her foal would later be born, bearing the same red stain across his shoulders; surely a sign from Allah, blessing the mare and her descendants for their great loyalty.
While the Bedouin were loathe to part with their fine Arabian horses, the persistence of European nobles ensured that the Arabian horse’s influence would soon spread throughout the European world and, in time, would eventually find their way into America. Today, the Arabian horse is recognized throughout the world as the oldest living purebred horse and his blood has helped to shape and improve many new breeds, such as the Thoroughbred, the Percheron and the American Morgan horse. Still respected for their intelligence, their loyalty and their beauty, the Arabian horse continues to captivate and inspire, creating new legends to be passed down throughout the ages.