THE ARABIAN HORSE
“Drinkers of the Wind”
“To create the horse, God spoke to the south wind: ‘I will create from you a being which will be a happiness to the good and a misfortune to the bad. Happiness shall be on its forehead, bounty on its back and joy to its possessor.’”
— Early Arab Expression
From my earlier writings you know that in the 1970s, I spent several years living on the Arabian Peninsula, near Dubai. Once the fabled hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders, today it is the product of an electrifying rise from near-poverty to sophisticated urban giant.
On return visits, I’ve always come away full of wonder at the land’s mystery, ancient ways, and daring innovation. Occasionally, I’ve shared bits and pieces of my discoveries with you. On a limited basis, I’ll continue to do that, spotlighting aspects of this region’s rich, five-thousand-year heritage.
Recently, I was in Dubai again where my friends from the 1970s, Aziz and Yasmin, introduced me to the much-honored Arabian horse, said to be the oldest breed of horse in the world—revered for its beauty, speed and endurance. Archaeological evidence in that part of the world suggests that horses that resemble modern Arabians date back 4500 years.
Arab tradition goes so far as to say that the first person to actually train horses was Ishmael, the son of Abraham, progenitor of the Arab people. (Abraham is thought to have been born c.2166 BC and died c.1991 BC., so if the above tradition is true, the Arabian horse has enjoyed a long tenure on the Arabian Peninsula.)
Since I had last seen Aziz and Yasmin, they’d taken an interest in Arabian horses, especially the racing component, which includes the Dubai World Cup. Since 2010, this event has carried a purse of USD 10 million.
One evening en route to dinner in downtown Dubai, Aziz and Yasmin drove me past the city’s famous by-invitation-only Zabeel Racing Stables. The 200-acre urban compound houses about 120 horses in training, among them Dubai’s World Cup contenders.
Surrounded by gleaming urban skyscrapers, these state-of-the-art, horse-friendly stables consist of an 1800-meter dirt training track, a 100-meter straight pool, and over 90 fully air conditioned stables plus about 60 outside stables. Aziz said that around six in the morning, visitors could watch these magnificent creatures being exercised for about an hour each, depending on their particular personal training program. I learned that the facilities strive to provide a tranquil environment—even visual stimulation for horses that are likely to become champions. Aziz seemed pleased to say, “Here there is no gambling involved. Our sport is clean.”
Since we had time before our dinner reservation, Aziz and Yasmin stopped their car near the stables to let us watch an elegant, though distant, Arabian trotting.
Aziz offered some historical context, taking us back to the Bedouins (the nomadic wanderers whom I describe in 7 ½ Places of Wonder). In days gone by, they employed this breed of horse as a weapon of war.
At that time, Bedouins liked to patrol their territory on horseback; if they felt threatened, they attacked, exacting goods and money in exchange for safe passage through their land. The Bedouins’ strikes required stealth, but also quick getaways—something the nimble, fleet-of-foot Arabian horse could provide.
While highly effective in desert warfare, the Arabian horse was an animal of luxury; it suggested wealth. Its care and feeding was always a challenge. Were it not for the camel, which carried food and water, the finely bred, mostly coddled Arabian horse would not have survived the harsh desert conditions. (On the subject of water, Aziz said that horses tend to drink eight times the amount of water needed by a camel.)
So prized were Arabian horses that in traditional settings, Bedouins made an effort to feed them before themselves. If a desert camp was short of water and the owner’s children begged for a drink, the master was known to pour the last cupful into a bucket to place before the horse.
While the Arabian is highly versatile, the Bedouins preferred mares over stallions because they were smaller, requiring less food, which, when pasture and water were unavailable, often consisted of nothing more than dates and camel’s milk.
Mares were also gentler, more agile, and adapted more readily to the hardships and privations of desert life. And, they were quick to learn. For example, they could be taught not to whinny, thereby avoid compromising their owner’s location to potential foes.
To offer protection and shelter to their prized Arabians, Bedouins often allowed them to sleep in their master’s tent. This might explain the pleasure Arabians seem to derive from human companionship and their ability to remember horse friends after years of separation.
As an Arab poet observed:
“Good horses are few, like good friends,
Though they appear many to the inexperienced eye.”
“Arabians are generally small horses,” Aziz pointed out, “standing usually only 14.1 to 15.1 hands tall.” (A horse’s height is calculated in units called hands. A hand equals 4 inches.)
In color they’re mainly bay, gray, and chestnut, with the bays often having “stockings” on their legs. Aziz and Yasmin both commented on the Arabian’s handsome wedge-shaped head, with wide forehead and large, dark eyes.
The area just below its forehead is called the “dished face”—where the head curves inward. Its muzzle is small and ends in a pair of large nostrils. My human friends called my attention to the animal’s gracefully arched neck and its silky, high set tail.
When I asked about the Arabian’s acclaimed capacity for endurance, Aziz speculated that this had something to do with the animal’s large nostrils, which allow large quantities of air to spill into well-sized windpipes and lungs deep inside its chest. He also said that Arabians have lean muscles, not large, bulky ones, allowing them to run long distances without overheating.
As we eventually drove on to dinner at Le Royal Meridien on Al Sufouh Road, Aziz said that the Arabian’s renowned capacity for staying power has made it a natural for the newly rekindled sport: Endurance Racing, especially in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE. The UAE is now generally seen as the breeding ground of equestrians engaged in a rapidly expanding discipline: A top-notch endurance race is a two-day contest that can require that the competitor cover a grueling 200 kilometers (125 miles) over rugged desert terrain.
Yasmin, always with a feminist bent, was pleased to tell me that in the UAE a number of traditional cultural barriers are now breaking down. “These days more than 40% of registered endurance riders are women!” In the past it was unimaginable that a woman would ride a horse.
When I asked her if she might eventually become an equestrian herself, she said, “Yes. I’m taking riding lessons.”