A breed apart: the history of the Arabian horse

Renowned and revered for bravery, endurance, speed and agility, the Arabian horse takes pride of place at the heart of Arab heritage. Vision traces the bloodlines of this beautiful and remarkable creature

Admired and desired, immortalised by pen and brush, the Arabian horse has, arguably, had more influence on civilisation than any other equine breed.

The nomadic Bedouin were the first to ‘tame’ the wild Arabian but treated it as a friend and ally rather than a beast of burden. Fleet of foot, courageous and determined, it was also beautiful and loyal. A lasting relationship formed between man and horse. “An Arabian will take care of its owner as no other horse will, for it has not only been raised to physical perfection but has been instilled with a spirit of loyalty unparalleled by that of any other breed.” (anon)

The camel was a means of survival, providing meat, milk, leather and transportation on the long treks across the desert sands. However, the horse’s bravery, endurance, speed and agility were vital for inter-tribal raids and skirmishes. But it would also provide the bridge for momentary truces. The rules of hospitality dictated that even in times of war, the unexpected guest should be welcomed and given nourishment. In token, the warrior’s mare’s bridle would be hung from the pole of the host’s tent where the men would eat together.

Key attributes

With the rise of Islam, horses became regarded as a gift from Allah. One Bedouin story tells of how the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) turned his horses loose to drink at a desert oasis, recalling them a mere moment later. Only five faithful mares returned before reaching the precious water. The Al Khamsa, as they are known, are still believed by some to be the genesis of the five strains of the Arabian – Kehilan, Seglawi, Abeyan, Hamdani and Hadban. The Bedouin set a high value on the purity of each strain, breeding horses that maintained all the desired attributes. The antecedents of each horse were tracked through the dam and genealogies passed down orally through the generations. On average the Arabian stood between 14 and 15 hands and was generally grey, bay, chestnut or black. Their key attributes: strong lungs and large nostrils, dense bone, a bold arching neck and a high tail carriage were necessary for speed and endurance.

As Islam reached out, the Arabian carried warriors westwards to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and as far east as China. Many of their enemies quickly began to appreciate the qualities of this quicksilver horse. Although they left many dead comrades behind them, the crusaders did take back many Arabians to cross breed with their own horses. Meanwhile in Spain, the Moors crossed their horses with indigenous species to produce the jennet or genet. And it was this new breed that Columbus took to the Americas. The Arabian bloodlines were crossing the oceans.

By the 17th century, the Ottomans had acquired a vast array of Arabians which their armies rode to battle as far away as Eastern Europe. In their defeat, some of the captured horses were to found new bloodlines that would provide the building blocks for some of the greatest studs of the region. The Turkish rulers of the time also gifted horses to heads of state and European royalty.

Revolutionary stallions

The real breeding revolution came with the import of three stallions to England between 1686 and 1730: the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. Together they laid the foundation for the modern thoroughbred and all of today’s thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to one of those Arabian sires.

The Byerley is thought to have been captured by one Captain Robert Byerley during the Battle of Buda and subsequently served as his warhorse before being brought back to stud in England. The Darley was bought in Aleppo by Thomas Darley, the English Consul in Syria, who put him to stud on his return. But the tale of the Godolphin Arabian is slightly more curious.

The stallion was a gift from the Bey of Tunis to Louis XV of France who reportedly put him to work, drawing a cart through the streets of Paris. An Englishman named Edward Coke then bought and shipped him back to England. After Coke’s death the horse was bequeathed to Roger Williams, who in turn sold him on to the second Earl of Godolphin. The Earl put him to stud at Babraham in Cambridgeshire where he became the most prized stallion, siring around 80 foals. Although the Godolphin Arabian never raced himself, there was no shortage of winners among his children. His first son, Lath, won the Queen’s Plate at Newmarket in nine out of nine races. The next two, Cade and Regulus, had an equal turn of speed, taking the exceptional bloodline onwards.

Gulf link

The Crabbet Park Stud, founded by Wilfred and Lady Anne Blunt, is perhaps one of the most famous breeding operations based on Arabian horses bought from the Bedouin of the Nejd and Ali Pasha Sherif’s stud in Egypt. But the link back to the Gulf States was forged by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, when he bought Dalham Hall Stud near Newmarket from the Phillips family in 1981, renaming it Darley stud in memory of the great Arabian.

In 1992, Darley Stud was followed by Godolphin Racing, named after the Earl’s great stallion. Together, Darley and Godolphin have made a significant impact on the Sport of Kings, enjoying unprecedented success, and since 2015 the two companies have merged and are now known as Godolphin. 

While the blood of the Arabian horse may flow in the veins of thoroughbreds, Percherons, Orlov Trotters, American Quarter horses and more, its spirit lies with the Bedouin.

This article was updated in March 2017