1879 - Anne Blunt
Ibn Rashid's Horses
Hail, Saudi Arabia
A chapter on the horses we saw at Hail has been promised, and may as well be given here.
Ibn Rashid’s stud is the most celebrated in Arabia, and has taken the place in public estimation of that stud of Feysul ibn Saoud’s which Mr. Palgrave saw sixteen years ago at Riad, and which he described on the picturesque paragraphs which have since then been constantly quoted. The cause of this transference of supremacy from Aared to Jebel Shammar lies in the political changes which have occurred since 1865, and which have taken the leasdership of Central Arabia our of hands of the Ibn Saouds and put it into those of the Emirs of Hail.
Mohammed ibn Rashid is now not only the most powerful of Bedouin sheicks, but the richest prince in Arabia; and as such has better means than any other of aquiring the best horses of Nejd, nor have these been neglected by him.
The possession of thoroughbred mares is always among the Arabs a symbol of power; and with the loss of their supreme position in Nejd, the Ibn Saouds have lost their command of the market, and their stud has been allowed to dwindle. The quarrels of the two brothers, Abdallah and Saoud, sons of feysul, on their father's death, their alternate victories and flights from the capital, and the ruin wrought on them both by the Turks, broke up an establishment which depended on wealth and security for its maintenance; and at the present moment, if common report speaks true, hardly a twentieth part of the old stud remains at Riad. They have passed into other hands.
That Feysul's stud in its day was the best in Arabia is probable, and it may be that no collection now to be found there has an equal merit; but there seems little reason for supposing that it differed in anything but degree from what we ourselves saw, or that the animals composing it were distinct from those still owned by the various Bedouin tribes of the Nejd. All our inquiries, on the contrary (and we spared no occasion of asking questions), tend to show that it is a mistake to suppose that the horses kept by the Emirs of Riad were a special breed, preserved in the towns of Aared from time immemorial, or that they differed in any way from those bred elsewhere in Central Arabia. They were, we were repeatedly assured, a collection recruited from the various tribes of the Nefuds, a very fine collection, no doubt, but still a collection. Every Bedouin we have asked has laughed at the idea of there being a special Nejd breed, only found in Aared. In answer to our questions we were informed that in Feysoul's time emissaries from Riad were constantly on the look-out for mares wherever they could find them; and in that the Emir had often made ghazus against this and that tribe, with no other object than the possession of a particular animal, of a particular breed. The tribe from which he got the best blood, the Hamdani Simri and the Kehilan el-Krush, was the Muteyr (sometimes called the Dushan), while the Beni Khaled, Datir, Shammar, and even the Amazeh, supplied him with occasional specimens. Abdallah ibn Saoud, his successor, still retains a few of them, but the bulk of the collection was dispersed, many of the best passing into the hands of Metaaband Bender, Mohammed ibn Rashid's predecessors. Mohammed himself follows precisely the same system, except that he does not take by force, but on payment. He makes purchases from all the tribes around, and although he breeds in the town, his collection is constantly recruited from without. Were this not the case, no doubt, it would soon degenerate, as town-bred horses in Arabia, being stall-fed and getting no sort of exercise, are seldom fit for much. There is a false notion that the oases, such as those of Jebel Shammar and Aared, are spots especially adapted for the rearing of horses, and that the sandy wastes outside contain no pasture. But the very reverse of this is the case. The oases in which the towns stand, produce nothing but date palms and garden produce, nor is there a blade of grass, or even a tuft of camel pasture in their neighbourhood. The townspeople keep no animals except a few camels used for working the wells, and now and then a donkey. Even these must be fed either on corn or dates, which none but the rich can afford. Horses are a luxury reserved only for princes, and even the richest citizens do their travelling from village to village on foot. Longer journeys are performed on dromedaries brought in from the desert for the purpose, which are either the property of Bedouins or held with them by the citizens on shares.
The Nefuds, on the other hand, contain pasture in abundance, not only for camels, but for sheep and horses, and it is in the Nefuds that all these are bred. Ibn Rashid goes every spring with the bulk of his live stock to the desert, and leaves them during part of the summer with the tribes, only a few animals being reserved for use in the town.It cannot be too strongly insisted upon, that the upper plateaux of Nejd, where the towns and villages are found, are a stony wilderness almost entirely devoid of vegetation, while the Nedufs afford an inexhaustible supply of pasture. The want of water alone limits the pastoral value of these, for the inhabited area is necessarily confined to a radius of twenty or thirty miles round each wells,- and wells are rare. These facts have not, I think, been hitherto sufficiently known to be appreciated.
With regard to Ibn Rashid's collection at Hail we looked it over three or four times in the stables, and saw it out once on a gala day, when each animal was made to look its best. The stables consist of four open yards communicating with each other, in which the animals stand tethered each to a square manger of sun-dried brick. They are not sheltered in any way, but wear long heavy rugs fastened across the chest. They are chained by one or more feet to the ground, and wear no headstalls. It being wintertime and they ungroomed, they were all in the roughest possible condition, and our first impression was one of disappointment. When at Hail they are given no regular exercise, remaining it would seem for weeks together tied up thus, except for a few minutes in the evening, when they are led to drink. They are fed almost entirely on dry barley. In the spring only, for a few weeks, they eat green corn grown on purpose, and then are taken to the Nefuds or on ghazus. It is surprising that they should be able to do their work under such conditions.
The first yard one enters in going through the stables, contained, when we saw them, from twenty-five to thirty mares. In the second were twenty more, kept in certain kind of condition for service in case of necessity; but even these get very little exercise. As they stand in the yard, slovenly and unkempt, they have very little of that air of high breeding one would expect; and it requires considerable imagination to look upon them as indeed the non plus ultra of breeding in Arabia. We made the mistake, too common, of judging horses by condition, for mounted and in motion, these at once became transfigured.
As I may fairly assume that few persons out of Arabia have an idea what are there considered the proper points of a horse's head, I will give here a description of them:
First of all, the head should be large, not small. A little head the Arabs particularly dislike, but the size should be all in the upper regions of the skull. There should be a great distance from one eye to the other, though not far form ear to ear. The forehead, moreover, and the whole region between and just below the eyes, should be convex, the eyes themselves standing rather à fleur de tête. But there should be nothing fleshy about their prominence, and each bone should be sharply edged; a flat forehead is disliked. The space round the eyes should be free of all hair, so as to show the black skin underneath, and this just round the eyes should be especially black and lustrous. The cheek-bone should be deep and lean, and the jaw-bone clearly marked. Then the face should narrow suddenly and run down almost to a point, not however to such a point as one sees in the English racehorse, whose profile seems to terminate with the nostril, but to the tip of the lip. The nostril when in repose should lie flat with the face, appearing in it little more than a slit, and pinched and puckered up, as also should the mouth, which should have the under-lip longer than the upper, "like the camel's", the Bedouin say. The ears, especially in the mare, should be long, but fine and delicately cut, like the ears of a gazelle.
It must be remarked that the head and the tail are the two points especially regarded by Arabs in judging of a horse, as in them they think they can discover the surest signs of his breeding. The tails of the Nejd horses are as particular as their heads, and are as essential to their beauty. However other points might differ, every horse at Hail had its tail set on in the same fashion, in repose something like the tail of a rocking horse, and not, as has been described, "thrown out in a perfect arch". In motion the tail was held high in the air, and looked as if it could not under any circumstances be carried low. Mohammed ibn Aruk declared roundly that the phenomenon was an effect, partly at least, of art. He assured us that before a foal is an hour old, its tail is bent back over a stick and the twist produces a permanent result. But this sounds unlikely, and in any case it could hardly affect the carriage of the tail in galloping.
With regard to colour, of the hundred animals in the Hail stables, there were about forty greys or rather whites, thirty bays, twenty chestnuts, and the rest brown. We did not see a real black, and of course there are no roans, or piebalds, or duns, for these are not Arab colours. The emir one day asked us what colours we preferred in England, and when we told him bay or chestnut he quite agreed with us. Nearly all Arabs prefer bay with black points, though pure white with a very black skin and hoofs is also liked. In a bay or chestnut, three white feet, the off fore-foot being dark, are not objected to. But, as a rule, colour is not much regarded at Hail, for there as elsewhere in Arabia a fashionable strain is all in all.
Besides the full grown animals, Ibn Rashid's yards contain thirty of forty foals and yearlings, beautiful little creatures but terribly starved and miserable. Foals bred in the desert are poor enough, but these in town have a positively sickly appearance. Tied all day long by the foot they seem to have quite lost heart, and show none of the playfulness of their age. Their tameness, like that of the "fowl and the brute", is shocking to see. The Emir tells us that every spring he sends a hundred yearlings down to Queyt on the Persian Gulf under charge of one of his slaves, who sells them at Bombay for Pounds 100 apiece. They are of course now at their worst age, but they have the prospect of a few months grazing in the Nefud before appearing in the market.
On the whole, both of us are rather disappointed with what we see here. Of all the mares in the prince's I do not think more than three or four could show with advantage among the Gomussa, and, in fact, we are somewhat alarmed lest the Emir should propose an exchange with us for our chestnut Ras el-Fedawi which is greatly admired by every one. If he did, we could not well refuse.
With regard to Nejd horses in general, the following remarks are based on what we saw and heard at Hail, and elsewhere in Arabia.
First, whatever may have been the formerly, horses of any kind are now exceedingly rare in Nejd. One may travel vast distances in the Peninsula without meeting a single horse or even crossing a horse track. Both in the Nefud and on our return journey to the Euphrates, we carefully examined every track of man and beast we met; but from the time of our leaving the Roala till close to Meshed Ali, not twenty of these proved to be tracks of horses. The wind no doubt obliterate footsteps quickly, but it could not wholly do so, of there were a great number of the animals near. The Ketherin, a true Nejd tribe and a branch of the Bani Khaled, told us with some pride that they could mount a hundred horsemen, an even in Muteyr, reputed to be the greatest breeders of thoroughbred stock in Nejd, are said to possess only 400 mares. The horse is a luxury with the Bedouins of the Peninsula, and not, as with those of the North, a necessity of their daily life. Their journeys and raids and wars are all made on camels, not on horse-back; and at most the Sheykh mounts his mare at the moment of battle. The want of water in Nejd is a sufficient reason for this. Horses there are kept for show rather than actual use, and are looked upon as far too precious to run unnecessary risks.
Secondly, what horses there are in Nejd, are bred in the Nefuds. The stony plateaux of the interior contain no suitabIe pasture except in a very few places, while the Nefuds afford grass, green or dry, the whole year round. The Muteyr, the Beni Khaled, the Dafir, and the Shammar, are now the principal breeders of horses in Nejd, but the Anazeh are regarded as possessing the best strains, and the, Anazeh have disappeared from Nejd. They began to migrate northwards about two hundred years ago, and have ever since continued moving by successive migrations till all have abandoned their original homes. It may be that the great name which Nejd horses undoubtedly have in the East, was due mainly to these very Anazeh, with whose horses they are now contrasted. The Bisshr Anazeh were settled in the neighbourhood of Kheybar, on the western edge of the Nefud, the Roala south of Jof, and the Amarat in the extreme east. These probably among them supplied Nejd horses in former times to Syria, Bagdad, and Persia, and some sections of the tribe may even have found their way further south; for the Ibn Saouds themselves are an Anazeh family. So that then, probably, as now, the best strains of blood were in their hands. To the present day in the north the Amazeh distinguish the descendants of the mares brought with them from Nejd as "Nejdi", while they call the descendants of the mares captured from the tribes of the north "shimali" or northerners.
The management and education of horses seems to differ little in Nejd from what it is elsewhere among the Arabs. But we were surprised to find that, in place of the Bedouin halter, the bit is used at Hail. At first we fancied that this was in initiation of Turkish manners; but it is more likely to be an old custom with town Arabs. Indeed the Bedouins of the Sahara, no less than the Turks, use the ring bit, which may after all have been an invention of Arabia. Bad as it is for the mouth, it is certainly of use in the fancy riding indulged in at Hail, the jerid play and sham fighting. Among the Bedouins of Nejd the halter alone is used.
Of anything like racing we could learn nothing. Trials of speed are no longer in fashion, as they must have been once, and skill in turning and doubling is alone of any value.
A Pilgrimage to Nejd
Vol. I, London 1881