Equestrian tradition: Arabia to Ascot

Since the domestication of the horse around 3,500 BC, the evolution of the species can be mapped out against the history of the human race. Vision.ae takes a look at some key moments depicted through ancient artefacts at an exhibition at the British Museum in London

The Arabian horse was introduced to Britain, a country with proud equestrian traditions, in the 18th century, but long before that – some 5,000 years ago – the domestication of horses had a revolutionary impact on ancient civilisations throughout the world.

The British Museum exhibition focuses on two breeds – Arabians, which were prized in the desert for their spirit and stamina, and the Thoroughbred which was selectively bred from Arabians for speed and is now raced at world-famous courses such as Royal Ascot.

Ancient times

To study the history of the horse, one must travel back to ancient times; the steppes of South Russia in 3,500BC, where domestication is widely believed to have occurred and which led to the introduction of horses into the Middle East around 2,300BC.

At that time, donkeys and asses were used to pull vehicles, but the horse hailed an era of faster transportation and the exhibition includes one of the earliest known depictions of a horse and rider: a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia (Iraq) dating to around 2,000 – 1,800 BC.

During the Parthian Empire (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD) horsemen were renowned and celebrated for their skill on horseback, and in particular for the ‘Parthian shot’ whereby a retreating rider would shoot arrows backwards whilst on horseback, shown in their representation on terracotta plaques and bronze belt buckles on display at the exhibition.

Rising stature

Also on display are Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Mughal miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts from the 7th century AD, all testament to the stature of the horse in early civilisations throughout the Islamic world.

Across the centuries on the Arabian peninsular, the horse became a vital component of the traditional Bedouin way of life. It was here that, through selective breeding, the ‘Arabian’ horse breed was developed. The exhibition includes various artefacts and manuscripts depicting the evolution of the horse’s role in the Middle East in the 19th century, but interestingly, this is also explored alongside the influence of Britons Wilfrid Scawan Blunt (1840-1922), poet and agitator, and Lady Anne Blunt (1837-1917), the granddaughter of Lord Byron.

The Blunts are recognised as a key factor in the survival of the Arabian breed during the 19th century, as their extensive travels in the Middle East led them to establish a stud for purebred Arabians both at Crabbet Park in Sussex, and another outside Cairo in Egypt.

While horses had long been imported from the Middle East, it was in the 17th century that three Arabian stallions in particular were introduced, which, bred with native mares, produced the Thoroughbred breed.

These Arabian stallions are now the foundation of modern racing; some 95 per cent of all modern Thoroughbreds are descended from these three horses, which are now the cornerstone of global events such as the Olympics, Royal Ascot and race meetings all over the world.

'The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot' runs until 30 September at the British Museum, London